Westerkade - voyage #419 - passenger #1
I have been asked to write a day to day account of the ocean voyage onboard the 'Westerkade' which over 12 days took me from Iceland to Canada. This is what I wrote.
"This cannot be true" the Captain said as we stood there together on the bridge overlooking the horizon. "I don't believe it" he said. I wasn't sure what he meant?
I'm just a simple traveler. I was born in Denmark in 1978 and only 7 months ago I started a trip which was to lead me through every single country in a single journey, without flying. That is: every single country in the world! I had arrived in Iceland and then continued up north to Greenland on a fishing boat making Greenland country number 40 since I left home. But now I was back in Iceland, after returning on a shrimp trawler, and I was looking for a way to cross the final leg of the North Atlantic.
In Reykjavik there is only 1 connection to Canada if you are not flying and it doesn't take passengers. The cargo ships are operated by Eimskip but in this case the 'Westerkade' is actually owned by Buss Reederei - and I happened to be on the bridge with the Captain.
The 'Westerkade' is a 127m long multi purpose cargo vessel which had just finished loading with containers in Reykjavik. She is from 2000 making her 14 years old - and it shows. But there is a certain charm about the 'Westerkade'. Almost as if you can hear her tell stories if you just listen.
Now we were almost ready to go. The sun was setting and the sea looked quiet and calm with the sun glittering across the ocean. A few birds flew around us for a final hunt for food just before it got dark. The Captain was adjusting different panels, pressing buttons and getting us ready for our departure. The massive engine contributed with a light shaking of the entire ship. And the Captain said: "this cannot be true". He continued: "we are heading out into optimal conditions. It's never this good. People think that life onboard is a fairy tale. But we often encounter rough weather, we all have work to do and it's certainly no cruise - you are lucky."
I am happy to hear that. I'm no man of the sea and bad weather conditions are likely to make me sick. I quickly shoot a few pictures before the sun sets and we emerge into darkness. Our first destination will be Argentia, Canada, in about 6 days. 2 days after that we should reach Halifax. We are on our way.
While I was minding my own business in my cabin I noticed the cabin telephone ringing and wondered why? This is the 7th vessel I have been onboard since I started crossing the North Atlantic. I've been on all different sorts of vessels; reefer cargo ships, passenger vessels, container carriers, shrimp trawlers...but never before had the cabin phone been ringing.
I answered the phone and found the 2nd Officer to be on the other end. He wanted to meet me at the galley at 4:12pm in order to show me around. 4:12pm - what kind of awkward time is that? As I later met with the 2nd Officer he explained that an hour of 60 minutes is divided by 10 which adds to 6's. In other words: 6, 12, 18, 24 etc. I understand that. But I still don't understand the practical reason to do that. I had the 2nd Officer explain it to me again and I still didn't understand and left it at that. I mean...you could also break it down into 3's: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15 etc. And then we could have met at 4:15pm.
I was shown around the boat, inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs and everywhere we went the 2nd Officer would point out where the nearest safety equipment was and how to use it in case of emergency. By the end of the round he asked if I would join the crew for karaoke later that night? You see, most of the crew members are from the Philippines and in that part of our world karaoke is a big thing. So I accepted his invitation.
A few hours after dinner the karaoke machine had been fired up and someone was giving it his best. I sat down with the others and was immediately handed something to drink. The table was full of different snack varieties and it was explained to me that this is how they let their steam out after a long day. Some had been working 11 hours and some had been away from home for as much as 8 months. "Tomorrow it all starts again. We work, we eat, we sleep. And sometimes we sit and talk and sing" he said.
The crane operator, who is Icelandic, joined us and and was handed the holy book of karaoke. In a very Nordic way he absolutely refused and proclaimed that it would never happen. However, a few hours later the crane operator was standing in the middle of the room with everyone applauding and laughing. He was hitting it off like a rockstar with the microphone in one hand while the other hand was raised to the sky singing: "I WAN'T ROCK'N'ROLL. PUT ANOTHER DIME IN THE JUKEBOX BABY!!"
I haven't seen the sun since we left Reykjavik. The weather is kind of good I would say. I mean; we haven't encountered huge waves, storm, high winds, hard rain or any other harsh conditions. We just have this grey sky above us which reaches all the way down to the horizon in every direction. Everywhere you look it is either grey skies or dark ocean. We haven't encountered any other vessels, seen any airplanes or spotted any whales. It's just us, the engine and the sound of small waves being broken against the ship.
The cook arranges for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Within an hour of each meal everyone finishes and returns to their duty onboard. This is no scene for deep conversations. Most dine within 10 minutes and leave.
On the bridge someone is always on guard. The Captain and the 1st and 2nd Officers take turns of 4 hour shifts.
I feel welcome onboard. But I am pretty much left to take care of myself as everyone onboard has a job to do and a function to fill. There is no internet and no television. So I lie in bed reading, I sleep more than usual, I prepare emails so that they are ready to be sent when do get online again, and I play Solitary on my smartphone.
The abandon ship alarm sounded and the loudspeaker instructed everyone to assemble at the muster area. I grabbed my life west and my jacket and headed down as instructed. Within minutes I stood along side the others at the muster area and we did a quick head count: 1, 2, 3, 4...14!! The 1st Officer radioed the Captain who was still on the bridge and informed him that we were all there. It was an exercise of course. We then proceeded to check all the available safety equipment needed in case of a live "abandon ship" situation.
It was a beautiful day. Most of the sky was blue and I got to see the sun for the first time since we left Iceland. Some seagulls were hovering above the 'Westerkade' and the weather was fine. The seagulls have been our only companionship since we left port. Sometimes they hover, sometimes they sit in the water and at other times they will catch a ride while resting on the ship cranes.
Early afternoon the sky once again turned grey. The swell started to pick up and the 'Westerkade' increasingly began to roll more and more. Once in a while I would loose my footing and need to support myself against the walls in order not to fall. But I've stopped taking my travel sickness pills. I figure that the first couple of days are the worst. I hope I'm not wrong.
Today started out with pleasant weather. But that changed. During the afternoon everything around us turned grey again and it started to rain. The wind picked up and once in a while the increasingly larger waves would test the ships hull as the bow would crash down resulting in a spectacular spray of water. At that point the 1st Officer estimated the waves around us to be about 3 meters high.
Later on it got more rough and the waves had risen to about 6 meters in hight. It's dark now and who knows how large the waves are. But I'm holding on to the table in my cabin as I write this in order to stay on my chair. Once in a while I need to grab on to the table with both hands. I imagine it feels similar to driving a car on a bumpy dirt road while being in an earthquake.
This is definitely an experience.
The propeller is likely being lifted out of the water when the ship is heading front down. At times it is quite violent as the ocean hammers into the ship like an iron fist. At other times it merely feels like the ship is sliding on the ocean. It is hard to predict when you will be knocked out of balance. But you know that it could happen any time.
I've spent a great deal of time on the bridge today. It's fascinating to observe as well as tiresome for the body. The engine has been overheating for some time now so we are going about half speed which is increasing our time at sea. I don't believe I've ever gone this long before without seeing land.
I opened my cabin door and observed a doormat along with 3 pairs of shoes slide past me on the hallway. Without raising an eyebrow I simply continued to make my way up to the bridge. Only looking at the sky I would have said that it's a beautiful day. Some grey and white clouds mixed with a little sunshine and a dash of blue sky. Not bad. But the wind and the waves continue to test my sea legs. The ship rolls from side to side at a 20-30 degree angle which is enough for me to loose my footing once in a while.
I spoke to the ships cadet who is 20 years old and from the Philippines. I asked him what made him want to be a seaman? He didn't have a say in that matter. He's parents made that decision for him in order to provide for the family. It makes me rethink my obscene luxury of traveling to every country in the world.
The chair in my room eventually won over me. Every time I would place it back under the table it would slide out and fall on its side. I haven't received much sleep during the night. Apart from the battle with the chair I had to struggle to stay in bed and not fall out. Also the closet sounded quite threatening all night. I had no trouble imagining the closet doors bursting open and the shelves flying out across the room. But luckily that never happened.
I got to a point were I started wondering how much this ship would be able to handle and mentioned that to the crane operator during lunch. He simply smiled and replied: "a lot more than this". Everyone onboard has experienced much worse than this. But for someone as new to this as I am this seems like a lot already.
There are things you simply can't do without two hands. Not easily anyway. I've started to notice that; like closing your belt buckle...or putting toothpaste on your toothbrush. Now why would I suddenly observe something like that? Well, it seems like it's always in those moment I get thrown across the room and into the wall.
The waves and the wind settled last night and I slept like a baby. We are now back to the same conditions I remember from the first few days with grey sky and dark water. Well, actually the conditions have changed in a different way. It was much warmer before. But now we have left the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and I can now see my breath when I stand outside. Also we are in the middle of an area where multiple ice sightings have been reported. This ship is not graded for sailing in ice - but so far we have seen no ice at all.
While I was sitting on the bridge speaking with the Captain I noticed that the radio signal from 4 other vessels had appeared on the scanner. Soon after I could see 2 of the vessels on the radar. We are no longer alone! 7 days of solitude and now we have proof of life...kind of. Even though one of the vessels, most likely a fishing boat, was at relatively close range we never saw it due to fog.
Fishing boats! That must mean that we are approaching Canada!
With a little imagination the weather conditions today offered me some idea of what it would be like to be on a cruise. It has been spectacular. More or less a blue sky above and a beautiful relatively calm sea below. I went for a walk on the deck and noticed some birds I haven't seen earlier. They must have flown out here from land? Which in turn must mean we are getting closer to Canada?
Still on deck, as far towards the front as I could get, I stood and enjoyed the beautiful view of blue. And for a second I realized that I'm much closer to Canada now than I've been since I left home. And I remembered that I am traveling to every single country in a single journey, without flight. This lead to me thinking that I will meet thousands of people, see unbelievable things and encounter cultures and history that I've never before come across. And THAT fills me with a feeling I simply can't explain. But it's an absolute joy...and it all lies at my feet...in front of the 'Westerkade' which is plowing its way through the last nautical miles to North America.
From the deck I climbed the many steps up to the bridge and from there we were able to spot some enormous icebergs in the distance. Then suddenly a few whales surfaced on the port side and were visible for a few minutes before they once again headed down towards the deep.
And then finally in the horizon Canada appeared as a long flat line which could easily be mistaken for low lying clouds.
Later, after dark, we had come closer to the coast and the lights of some seaside villages could be observed with the naked eye. We should reach Argentia tomorrow morning and Halifax on Sunday.
I have had no television, telephone or internet for 10 days now. Kind of crazy in today's modern world. But I have been able to do a lot of reading; about 700 pages in my book. Today however I never had the chance to turn a page.
Contrary to most mornings my alarm clock woke me up early because I wanted to be on the bridge for our arrival in Argentia. As I stepped outside I was met by the pleasant smell of trees! I don't normally notice the scent of trees but having spent so many days at sea it was quite vivid.
Argentia is a very small port off the east of Canada. We arrived early and started unloading immediately. However I was less interested in the unloading and much more interested in the crew. Lately I've been trying to make a video with the crew and some have been more or less cooperative while most have been shy. But today something was definitely different. Because I had everyone dancing and acting crazy. It was amazingly fun.
Over the recent days the crew and I have gotten to know each other much better and the regular evening karaoke has also been helpful. Besides; we are all on the same boat. The video so far has everyone looking like a lunatic and if you were to judge by the video alone you would probably think that the 'Westerkade' is a "fun house" running wild. Let's hope I won't get anyone fired.
In reality the crew worked hard under the sun today and we departed Argentia 2 hours prior to our anticipated departure time.
Two more nights and we will arrive in Halifax if all goes well. It should have been an 8 day voyage but the rough sea conditions along with a troubled engine has set us back 4 days. However I trust that this 14 year old lady will get us there on Sunday.
Onboard the 'Westerkade' there are 3 Ukrainians. Imagine that. Imagine being offshore far from home without having the latest news about how family and friends are holding up under these confusing and troublesome times. But they seem to be holding it together very well and the Chief Engineer told me with a light smile as if it was a joke that he used to be Ukrainian but due to recent events he is now suddenly Russian. On second thoughts I guess you can't imagine something like that. How could anyone?
On a much lighter note I should mention that today was spectacular! The weather was on its best behavior and everything around the vessel was a beautiful shade of blue. The sea looked like as if it was made of blue oil and had a fine slick surface with very little disturbance. Perfect conditions for observing dolphins and whales. And I saw plenty of both. In fact two times I saw whales come up to the surface and arch their huge backs followed by the enormous tails being lifted up into the air counter weighing a push down into the deep. It almost looked like slow motion. I probably saw 10 whales today and twice as many dolphins. Later when I enthusiastically told the crane operator he simply replied: "it has become so trivial to us that we hardly notice anymore". It's a sad thing - but I figure that it might not be that uncommon for us to lose sight of the wonders around us, both large and small.
Being my last night onboard I sat with the Captain on the bridge until midnight. A few times I walked outside as we were moving under a cloudless sky and with no noteworthy interference from light almost every star was visible. Apart from the constant rumble from the ships engine and the sound breaking the water as we move forward it did remind me of being in the desert. Absolutely majestic.
I was looking forward to the view from the bridge as we approached Halifax. However this morning it was so foggy that the front of the ship almost wasn't visible. Instead I spent time on finishing the video we had all participated in and I took my time to enjoy the fine company of the many men that I eventually had come to know very well.
As we neared the port the pilot ship came alongside and the pilot boarded the 'Westerkade' in order to safely navigate us into Halifax. My bags were packed and I had said my goodbyes to almost everyone when I received information that customs and immigration was running a little late. Eventually they showed up and cleared me only 10 minutes before the 'Westerkade' departed for Portland in the USA. Had they not done so then I would have been forced to stay onboard.
The ships agent offered me a ride to the nearby train station and together we left the isolated oceanic world which had been my home over the past 12 days. As I disembarked I did so with a slightly heavy heart.
As Shakespeare has said: "parting is such sweet sorrow".
Torbjørn C. Pedersen - 1000 years too late for being a Viking.