MV “Toronto Trader” – passenger no. 1 (crossing the Tasman Sea)
Day 3,176 since October 10th 2013: 197 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic!
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).
How I ended up stuck at sea for over two weeks
In this highly unique entry, a by now routine voyage as a passenger onboard a container ship took an unexpected turn. “It is hard to predict, especially the future”
Last week’s entry: Leaving Australia alive – is it a miracle?!?
I am writing this entry with plenty of hindsight. I have been offline for more than three weeks and have a yet untold story to share with you. As I boarded this, the 29th container ship within the Saga, there was nothing which indicated anything other than routine. However, the routine was indeed broken. Among the many things I have come to learn from venturing across most countries in the world, this much is true: while most people are kind, helpful, and harmless to a stranger – most people in the world are also blind to opportunity and will often shy away from responsibility.
Toronto Trader: free fall boat with Melbourne in the back.
I joined the good ship Toronto Trader in Melbourne on the evening of May 24th. But before that, in the 11th hour, I was notified that I needed a negative PCR-test result before boarding the ship. Not just a simple rapid test. I will not go into detail as I already shared this story, and how my friend Cam helped me solve the situation, within the previous Friday Blog. Suffice to say it was evening when I received this information and I was also told that I needn’t worry about time as the good ship was not due to depart until the next day late at night. Yet, wise from prior experience, Cam and I did not delay and I found myself onboard Toronto Trader before midnight. The good ship departed Melbourne the following day at 2pm (not late at night). That is the world of container ships for you. You never quite know what to expect. Before we reached New Zealand, that would become truer than what I could have imagined!
There is always to be done on a ship. And always a smile to be found from a Filipino :)
Chief Cook Desiderio Darwin Ondo (Philippines) was great! Not only a good and experienced cook, but also the only person onboard I spoke to three times a day. At times joking about Jolly Bee or Balut.
It is always a privilege to join these working ships. It is not comparable to joining a cruise ship and it is not easily done. It is especially not easily done now during the global pandemic. Some people might think the pandemic has ended and many have resumed to lives which resemble pre-pandemical conditions. For the shipping industry the pandemic still lives on with strict COVID-19 restrictions relating to embarking, disembarking, calling ports, crew change and more. Joining a ship as a passenger requires a lot of effort and many people are involved in making it possible. In this particular case it had to be accepted by the ship’s owners, charterers, operators, management, as well as authorities such as Australian and New Zealand customs and immigration. It is not a simple matter of entering a port and asking the captain. And it is certainly not a question of applying for a job onboard the ship. As such I am grateful to shipping legends Poul Kristensen at ZIM in Hong Kong and Steve Felder at ZIM in Canada. And certainly, to the entire ZIM team in Hong Kong along with everyone at Gold Star Line. How amazing that it would become Hong Kong which came to the rescue and got me onboard the Saga’s 29th container ship sending us towards country no. 197 in an unbroken journey completely without flying. Hong Kong is after all my second home.
It was a smooth two-day voyage from Melbourne to Sydney. The good ship Toronto Trader moves in “circles” between Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, and Tauranga. As such she is currently assigned to moving cargo between Australia and New Zealand. Her maiden voyage was back in 2016 after being delivered from Jiangsu Yiangzijiang Shipyard and her home port is in Singapore. The overall length is 147.9m (486ft), so close to 1.5 football fields. She’s 23.25m (76ft) wide and has room for 1,103 twenty-foot containers (TEU). As such she can carry 13,064 metric ton corresponding to 2,177 African elephants! In comparison, the worlds largest container ship can carry roughly twenty times more! But the point of Toronto Trader isn’t about volume. She is a feeder vessel and can fit inside smaller ports. That is also why she is fitted with two cranes. The main engine produces 6,900kW. That is about 9,381 horsepower. A Toyota Corolla has 169. The brave crew onboard consisted of eighteen men: 8 from Ukraine, 1 from Russia, 8 from the Philippines, and 1 from Myanmar. With me we were nineteen souls and five nationalities hoping for fair winds and following seas.
John Willy with his office in the back ground.
A highlight of this voyage was meeting John Willy, Chief Executive Officer at Hutchison Ports Australia. As the good ship slowly entered Sydney port, I noticed it was operated by Hutchison. Back in 2020 I did a talk at Hutchison International Terminals (HIT) in Hong Kong and made friends with Ken Choi. So, on arrival to Sydney, I sent him a quick greeting connecting the dots. It took less than a moment for Ken to send John across the harbor terminal to come and meet me! What a surprise and what a pleasure. John showed up with a big smile and some company merchandise. John also pointed out that we had arrived to Botany Bay where Capt James Cook fist landed in Australia in 1770. I’m sure Capt Cook would have been blown over today seeing how the bay has developed into a major logistical hub with Hutchison Ports on one side and Sydney International Airport on the other. We were close enough to the runway to see the dust cloud of burnt rubber bursting from touchdown during landings, and furthermore to hear the unique sound the engine makes before take-off just before passengers are pushed backwards into their seats. A sound I haven’t heard for nearly eight years. John kindly offered to help me in any way he could – and that same night I couldn’t help myself and took advantage. The next morning before we departed Sydney, John stopped by once again with a bag full of salty beer nuts, two large bottles with Tabasco hot sauce, and a bunch of Tim Tams.
The food onboard was good but a little Tabasco is always good to have. Toronto Trader was the first ship on which did not have its own Tabasco stock. I learned to use Tabasco on container ships!
Situated between Australia and New Zealand we have the Tasman Sea named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. The Tasman Sea can be extremely rough and unpredictable, and the seafarers onboard warned me of 7m (23ft) tall swell along with the good ship rolling 25 degrees from one side to the other. It had me a bit worried as I hadn’t quite regained my sea legs yet and the previous voyage from Hong Kong to Australia had been ridiculously smooth against all odds. As such I was worried, I would get seasick and once you have been severely seasick you will do whatever is in your power to avoid that feeling again. 2nd Officer Dmytro (Ukraine) had recently been promoted from 3rd officer and provided me with 30 Metoklopramid HCI tablets, which I fortunately never needed as the sea never got as rough as I feared. There was however a good amount of rolling (left to right, port to starboard) and pitching (front to back, bow to stern). Sometimes it would rain and some times the sun would be out. It took about four days to cross. There was very little I could do onboard which did not involve sitting or lying down. The good ship wasn’t equipped with a gym and I soon developed intense pain from deep inside my hip which provided me with a few miserable sleepless nights. But it went away again as quick as it had come to me after I took some painkillers. At night during the crossing, it would often be quite soothing lying in bed following the ship moving to the rhythm of the ocean. And then once in a while it would feel like a giant iron fist would crab the entire ship, hold it still for a split second, and then slam it hard down towards the ocean surface! I was later explained that this sensation occurs when the ship pitches forward and swell moves underneath the stern at the moment the ship pitches back down. It can really have the entire ship shake surprisingly hard. Across the Tasman I also had to secure anything lose (e.g. chair and luggage) within my cabin so that it wouldn’t wander around.
I should have mentioned that before we left Melbourne, Capt Semenluk (Ukraine) informed me he had been notified that the ship’s hull required its annual cleaning (according to NZ biohazard regulations) before we could approach NZ. As such the ship was still awaiting orders from Hong Kong as to where and when this cleaning was to take place. The order came through as we crossed the Tasman: we were to meet with divers off the east coast of NZ’s northern island in the Bay of Plenty. We passed north of the island and arrived east of Tauranga on June 3rd awaiting further instructions. Until the hull had been cleaned the good ship was not to enter NZ maritime territory and we had to remain a minimum of 12 nautical miles from the shore which corresponds to 22.23km or 13.34mi. At that distance the ocean was too deep for anchorage which meant we shut the main engine off and drifted. We were eventually given coordinates to a location within the Bay of Plenty where we would meet with the divers on June 5th so they could attempt to clean the hull. If the divers were successful then we were to enter Auckland on June 7th. So far so good.
The engine room onboard Toronto Trader.
Unfortunately, the divers gave up on cleaning the hull after only two hours. We had seemingly good conditions with little wind and swell. But it was too rough for the divers who left. Now what? It seemed very much like a catch 22 kind of situation: the divers could not clean the hull as we were moving too much, we were moving too much because we were not anchored, we could not anchor because it was too deep, we could not move to shallower water near the coast until the hull had been cleaned. What was going to happen? It appeared highly unlikely that we would have better conditions than what we already had (a near flat sea). One day began to take the next. The main engine would typically start up in the afternoon, we would move away from the 12nm barrier, the main engine would be shut off, and we would drift throughout the night until we needed moving again. After a few days a typhoon was in force west of NZ and we got to feel some of that while the pages blew off the calendar. On quiet days we would drift about 1 knot per hour and with more wind and current we would move twice as fast. On some days we would move 20nm and on others 35-40nm. In total over seventeen days, we moved more than 500nm (926km/556mi) relocating within the Bay of Plenty under engine - and possibly just as much drifting. The Bay of Plenty…plenty of drifting…
In case of emergency I had been assigned to the muster station on B-deck, port side.
I hate delays with a passion!!! I am not blaming anyone for anything here. I am in fact very grateful to everyone who got me onboard this ship and whichever part they played. I’m simply stating a fact: I HATE DELAYS WITHIN THIS PROJECT!! I curse every single minute I’m delayed in reaching home. But as a wise woman recently told me: “you cannot not quit now”. Sure enough, I could never live with myself if I quit after nearly nine years and only seven countries from the goal. I have felt this anger towards delay for many years. I started disliking weekends because government offices would close. Public holidays, key personnel out of office for whatever reason…a global pandemic!! Drifting in the Bay of Plenty for weeks while being able to see New Zealand in the distance has been a nightmare!!! Far worse than a 14-day hotel quarantine. Mostly because my time has been wasted. My life is being wasted. The uncertainty of how long it would take? If I could have done research, if I could have planned for the next countries and coordinated progress, then it would have been much different. If I had had a gym to work out in it would have helped to let out steam. I had limited access to internet through the ships Wi-Fi. It was a satellite connection which costs a fortune so while the quality was actually reasonable, I was simply limited in quantity. And I was unable to send emails which probably related to the outgoing server. Receiving emails cost far too much data so I eventually had to shut it off. A little bit of WhatsApp texting was possible (no photos). And for a while I could download news but eventually, I was left in the dark. Social media was out of the question.
And then one evening the sky did this!
As soon as we reached the Bay of Plenty, I realised it had to be possible for someone to come and get me from Toronto Trader and ferry me ashore. We had already done the hard part and NZ was visible. “All” we had to do was find someone willing to come and fetch me. I managed to reach the ships agent in Auckland on WhatsApp. He imposed three barriers: cost, customs, and the harbor master. I decided I was willing to pay USD 1,000. The agent wasn’t very engaged and one day took the next. I was eventually connected with the agent in Tauranga who proved even less engaged. Customs had cleared me to arrive in Auckland onboard the good ship Toronto Trader. End of story. Not end of story! It had to be possible. The agent told me it was dangerous. People do not know what I have been through already. Dangerous? Hah! Not to me. The agent in Tauranga coughed up a quotation to come and get me: NZD 8,600 (USD 5,500)!! How ridiculous? USD 5,500 for a boat to leave Tauranga, sail perhaps 30km (18mi) to get me, and return again?!? And furthermore, the harbor master in Tauranga opposed it deeming it dangerous, and customs had not yet approved that I could arrive in Tauranga instead of Auckland. What could possibly be the difference? Great seafaring people reached the shores of what we now know as New Zealand 800 years ago. Today it’s made impossible to fetch an accomplished adventurer from the outskirts of the countries maritime border. What has the world come to? To my frustration, days and highly limited internet data were spent getting nowhere.
Garbage segregation is important on container ships and taken very seriously.
I generally like seafarers. But at the end of the day, they come in all shapes and sizes. The officers onboard were largely from Ukraine and the ratings from the Philippines. For nearly a hundred days (before joining the ship) I had routinely been listening to international news which every day involved 10-20 minutes of updates on the war in Ukraine. This modern-day tragedy is of course also on the minds of Ukrainian seafarers. Most of the ones onboard had relocated their families safely outside of Ukraine. 2nd officer Dmytro told me: “I am lucky, all I have lost is my city”. What a sentence! He is from Mariupol where his parents still live. Dmytro added: “so far, our family house has not received any presents from the sky. Putin likes to send presents from the sky”. All eight Ukrainians onboard joined Toronto Trader before the war broke out. Imagine the psycology of that at sea! Capt Semeniuk is an experienced seafarer with twenty years at sea even though he is seven years younger than me. His personality is an acquired taste and very early on he made it clear to me that the ship is owned by Lomar Shipping Limited, where he seemed to place his allegiance. As such any communications with Gold Stars agents in relation to me as a passenger was to be carried out by me and he did not want to get involved. Interesting? We would sometimes talk and other times he would ignore me. His English was proficient but not perfect. A language barrier, culture, and Ukraine being systematically destroyed surely all played a part. I felt like an outsider to the Ukrainians onboard who would often speak Russian amongst themselves and leave me out of conversations. Late at night, on a few occasions, I could hear Russian/Ukrainian singing from behind closed doors. I’m happy they have each other in such tough times. Over the past months I have raised awareness and funds for the Ukraine Red Cross. It is sad beyond comprehension.
Ratings at work on the bow of Toronto Trader.
After several days of drifting, we could imagine a few scenarios forming ahead of us. What if the weather did not get better and the divers would not be able to carry out their work? How many days did we have provision for? How many more days would our fresh water supplies last? Would we need to return to Australia for the cleaning, for provisions, and for water? Would we get dispensation to call a port in NZ? Due to the typhoon west of NZ we were experiencing storm strength winds and 3-4m (10-13ft) swell. No good for getting the hull cleaned by divers. Would I be able to secure a boat and get customs blessing so I could leave Toronto Trader before we risked being ordered to proceed to Australia? Someone somewhere had to be working on a cost benefit analysis: how much was it costing having us drifting in the Bay of Plenty vs how much would a round trip to Australia costs? A friend of mine told me that chartering a ship our size would likely costs between USD 35,000 and USD 80,000 per day depending on the contract’s length. There are other costs to consider as well, but going by the 35k two weeks would amount to nearly half a million dollars. Not to mention the delay to the cargo and of course all the bunker fuel spent moving about in the Bay of Plenty (500nm under engine). Guess work. I foresaw a few outcomes:
- The weather would calm down, divers would return to clean, we would head to Auckland.
- We would get dispensation to head to Auckland without cleaning.
- I would secure clearance and transport to leave Toronto Trader and reach NZ.
- We would be ordered to head to Australia for cleaning and return to Auckland.
I re-watched Once Were Warriors from 1994 for the first time since the 90s. It's a New Zealand film and still holds up! In this photo: Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison.
We reached a point where the laundry room was shut down to conserve water. The ship had a fresh water generator but the engine needed to run for approximately 24 hours to produce water. The captain along with the chief cook mentioned we had few days left with provisions. What was going on? What was happening? Nobody knew. Throughout this entire voyage I resorted to escapism: sleeping, podcasts, reading, movies, series. Never in my entire life have I watched as many movies and series as I have onboard Toronto Trader! With no gym, limited Wi-Fi and weather making it unsafe to do rounds on deck I was left with little option. I had a few conversations up on the bridge with Chief Officer Sarmin (Ukraine) and 3rd officer Maung Maung Kyi (Myanmar) who are both really good guys. But for the most part I was left to myself. Twenty-two days without proper internet access makes this the longest time time not managing social media. No small thing with an audience superseding 100,000 accounts. My absence “from the world” did not go unnoticed to some who reached out and expressed concern. Thank you. It should have been less time onboard. It could have been less than half if a boat came to get me. I continue to be puzzled about why I was not given permission to join the divers boat to Tauranga on June 5th? The agent in Auckland was informed about my wish to do so on June 4th. What prohibited this and left me onboard for an additional two weeks?
The divers boat: Karen D, Dusky Sound, MNZ 135460. I could have reached NZ on June 5th.
On June 17th the divers boat returned to similar conditions as what they had on June 5th. Somehow this time they could work? I was kindly given permission to join the divers boat to Tauranga by the owners of the boat. But according to the ship’s agent, NZ customs had not approved yet so the divers left without me. Unique to all the container ships I have voyaged upon, this one did not adjust the ships clock to match the actual time zone. There is a two-hour time difference between Australia and NZ but we remained on Australian time regardless. As such the sun would set around 3pm every day. The divers arrived at 05:00 (ships time) on June 17th and again on the 18th, which marked 8 years, 8 months, and 8 days since I left home – an auspicious day for many in East Asia due to the many 8’s. On June 19th NZ authorities gave the good ship permission to enter Auckland. The pilot came onboard early on June 20th and soon after that Toronto Trader was safely moored and I could finally set foot on dry land.
In conclusion I am highly grateful to everyone involved in furthering Once Upon A Saga to country no. 197 in an unbroken journey without flying. TIME: After 28 days at sea and 17 days drifting in the Bay of Plenty, we have once again made progress within this historical journey. This became the longest I have ever remained onboard a container ship. The previous record was held by the good ship Capitaine Quiros within Neptune Pacific Lines fleet and counted 27 days. HEALTH: The sharp pain I had in my neck when I joined in Melbourne on May 24th lifted after a few days onboard. Unfortunately, a similar pain appeared four days before disembarking Toronto Trader, which caused me terrible sleep and at times nausea. It will be good for my body to get some proper movement in NZ, possibly some massage, and hopefully my tested corpus will soon be up for a run again. It seems like I’m always in some sort of pain these days. SEAFARERS: they remain uniquely special to Once Upon A Saga and while I do not adhere to the “seafarers are heroes” tagline (as they are just doing their job) I am in full support of “seafarers are essential workers”. Our world would not exist as we know it without shipping. I would have liked to have a group photo with the brave crew, but the captain opposed to it. Finally, while onboard, I treated myself to some Whittaker’s dark chocolate from the ships slop chest and on one special day, I spotted some fifty dolphins making their way into the sunset. What is life without the little things.
What can I say? - I'm very happy to be in New Zealand.
I would like to thank our esteemed partners for their invaluable contributions to Once Upon A Saga: DB Schenker Denmark, Kameli, Red Sand Solutions, Salomon, the Danish Red Cross and Ross DK / Geoop
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - yeah, and somehow I'm keep on keeping on?
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga