Swire Shipping’s good ship “Highland Chief” – passenger no. 1
Day 3,320 since October 10th 2013: 200 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).
Back onboard Highland Chief
Apart from several hundreds of busses and trains, we have now joined thirty-four container ships. Or technically thirty-three as this is the second time, we have joined the good ship Highland Chief
Last week’s entry: Leaving Ultra-wifey in Vanuatu
Earth is 1 planet, around 1 star, among 400 billion stars, in 1 galaxy, among 2 trillion (2,000 billion) galaxies, in a small patch of the universe… Yeah, so what does anything matter? We live for a fraction of time with billions living before us and billions living after us. We live and we die. It can truly make you ponder about what is significant and what is not. Is anything significant? I recently watched a 24-minute interview with Professor Brian Cox who is very talented in explaining the very complex, in a very simple way. He went on to say: “What does it mean to live a finite fragile life in an infinite eternal universe?” His one-line-question really just eloquently describes this entire paragraph. And he poses a good question.
Dark chocolate from four different aelans (islands) in Vanuatu: Malo, Epi, Santo, Malekula. The beautiful hand-model is ultra-wifey.
The above question is not one I will be answering anytime soon though. This entry will be about what takes place before joining a container ship and a bit about what has gone on while onboard. Sort of a guide to the passenger experience. I was last onboard Highland Chief in late September as I joined in Nukualofa, Tonga, and disembarked in Noumea, New Caledonia, for purposes of transit. Back then Highland Chief was under the command of Captain Zheng from China. After I left the good ship went on to make several port calls including one in Busan, South Korea. But I will return to that later. A week ago, I was still in Port Vila, Vanuatu, together with ultra-wifey and had just received confirmation from Mr. Ajay Singh, Global Operations Manager – Marine Operations, that I was good to join Swire's vessel. My collaboration with Swire Shipping goes back to June 2019 when Maersk introduced me to both Pacific International Lines (PIL) and Swire Shipping. I have since gratefully joined six of Swire’s ships: Shengking (now Kiribati Chief), Suva Chief, Vanuatu Chief, Papuan Chief, Highland Chief, New Guinea Chief, and Highland Chief again. All but Shengking have been within 2022. So, as you must easily realize, the support of Swire Shipping has been paramount in securing the Saga’s progress this year.
Tested negative (again) on yet another COVID-19 PCR test. This one "only" cost USD200. Thanks to Tony from Tropical Agency Ltd for dropping me off at Vila Central Hospital and to Avock at the Biochemistry Department for making it easy.
Yes, so to join a container ship it starts with management. You cannot “just walk up to the ship” and you cannot “just get a job onboard”. International ports are usually secured to a degree in which you cannot enter them. And working onboard a container ship requires a contract which can only be obtained after completing training and attending specialized school. To join a container ship is either a special privilege or a paid for service (read more in the FAQ section). There are some shipping lines which sell tickets for people to join on select routes at specific times during the year. I have no experience with that as the container ships I have joined have all been through collaboration (special privilege). Since the pandemic broke out I have always had to test negative on a PCR test before joining. And the test result must be less than 24 hours old when I join the ship. That is increasingly becoming a bit of a hassle now that PCR tests are becoming less common and more expensive as they are now considered specialized.
Thanks to Mali (middle) and Roy from Tropical Agency Ltd for seeing me off in Port Vila. If you recognize this photo then it was up on social media a week ago with a different background. But because of the background I was kindly requested to take it down, which I did. Fortunately it has become easy to change the background in photos these days. Problem solved :)
The specific time I can join a ship is decided by the captain onboard. The ships are usually not alongside for more than 24 hours and life onboard is busy. Sometimes the agent picks me up and delivers me to the ship. Other times I need to make my own way to the port. It depends on culture, country, agent, company, distance to port and many other things. Swire’s agents have always been kind to help. Mali and Roy gave me a proper send-off from Vanuatu. I find that the ships agent is often overlooked but they are in fact the glue that keeps it all together. As agents they make sure everything between ship and shore runs smoothly. In Vanuatu it was Tropical Limited Agency (TAL). The ship might need fresh water, bunker (fuel), provisions (food) etc. The port needs to be ready for the ship and have space for it to come alongside. Stevedores need to be ready to receive the mooring lines in order to fasten the ship to the wharf or to release the mooring lines when the ship leaves. The stevedores need to be ready to begin cargo operations as soon as the ship is moored (operate cranes, load/unload containers). Port authorities, immigration, customs, the maritime pilot…the agent is the ships representative on the ground. A good agent can make a world of difference.
In my experience there's always good food onboard Swire's vessels. My three meals a day were thanks to Cook Pickering and Messman Sotia - both from Fiji.
A maritime pilot from Port Vila came onboard Highland Chief shortly before we departed. The ships engine is typically turned on 30-45 minutes before departure. The crew removes the gangway before the stevedores release the mooring lines. The pilot stays onboard until the ship is clear of any dangerous or congested waters. The captain is always in command, while the pilot advises. A small pilot boat often follows the ship until the pilot leaves and transfers off the ship, into the pilot boat, which then takes off, and the ship is then on its own. In the past I might have spent much of my time on the bridge during departure but now I often stay in my cabin following COVID-19 procedures and self-isolating. Following Swire Shipping COVID protocols for new joiners I either have my meals delivered to my cabin or am allotted time in the officer’s mess room outside of “rush-hour”. It depends on the captain. Remember that I wrote Highland Chief headed up to Busan in South Korea? Well, there was a change of crew and six of the crew members, including Captain Zheng, rotated off. That’s around 25% of the crew. Among the new joiners was Captain Kannangara from Sri Lanka. Good guy! I must say it was really nice to see so many familiar faces onboard Highland Chief as 75% of the crew were seafarers I had already sailed with before - all good people. Uniquely Highland Chief was now manned with two masters! Captain Kannangara was in charge of the ship and Additional Master Karawita, also Sri Lankan, was onboard as a part of maintaining safety on Swire’s fleet. Both really easy-going kind people as Sri Lankans always seem to be.
Sometimes the rain comes down hard. I believe typhoon season is about to start in the region.
The bridge during a safety drill. Fire in the galley followed by abandon ship.
Safety is important in many aspects but particularly at sea. If something is to go wrong then the ship will in most cases be alone surrounded by ocean. As such one of the first things a new joiner must do is participate in a familiarization of the ship. In my case it involves a guided tour of the accommodation from the bridge down to the lower deck. Safety features such as life jackets, immersion suits, fire extinguishers, alarms free fall boat, muster area etc are pointed out and explained. Afterwards I sign a form confirming that I have understood and leave practical details such as my blood type.
Abandon ship drill at the free fall boat.
Our first port of call was Noumea (New Caledonia) before we continued to Fiji. Before the ship can approach the port the bridge is informed what time to be at the pilot station and given specific coordinates. At the pilot station the pilot boat (if not a helicopter) comes alongside of the ship, the pilot climbs up a ladder and then it is announced that the pilot is onboard (POB). Once the ship comes alongside at the port, and the gangway is safely installed, the pilot simply walks off again.
Noumea Port with a view to my former Airbnb accommodation in the far back.
During the voyage to Fiji I mostly kept to myself. I pretty much had to because of COVID-19 procedures – but it works in my favor as I also just need some alone time now and again. After about a day I fell tired. One day during the crossing to Fiji I pretty much slept all day. The ship is connected to internet through a satellite connection and I have never been on a Swire vessel where the crew does not have access. In order to connect you need an app on your phone called CrewConnection (dualog). You also need a profile. I’ve had a profile since early this year and then once I’m onboard all I need to do is attempt to log in. That sends a notification which the captain responds to by approving access. Everyone onboard is allotted 1gb for 7 days with automatic renewals on Monday’s. The internet speed can be fair at times but often it’s a bit of a struggle to get most things done. On occasion I’ve spent over an hour trying to upload just one photo to social media. It’s pretty good for text messages though.
Heading forward under the moonlight.
The day after I felt tired, I felt cold and shut the aircon off. I had a sore throat the night before. I texted ultra-wifey and she asked if I was running a temperature? I didn’t suspect so as everyone onboard takes their temperature twice daily (morning and evening) and logs it for everyone to see. My temperature had been normal at every measurement. That evening I walked down to the electronic thermometer which read normal just a few hours earlier. But this time the display flashed red instead of green. I redid it a few times with the same result. Captain Kannangara happened to walk by and I showed him. He personally took my temperature: 38.9 Celcius (102F). Okay, so I was running a fever. I consulted with Captain Kannangara and returned to my cabin where I took a RAT test which came back negative. I then called Captain Kannangara and informed him of the test result - he was as relieved as me.
Viti Levu in sight - Fiji's largest island out of more than 300.
Tested negative for Covid-19 twice - evening and morning. Good to know you can still get sick and it isn't covid.
Lautoka's pilot boat bringing the maritime pilot onboard.
I had a pretty long and sweaty night but woke up feeling reasonably okay although with a sore throat. I took another RAT test which also came back negative. I called the captain and informed him. Captain Kannangara showed up at my cabin and took my temperature: back to normal. “What are you? A magician??” he said with a smile in his voice behind his mask. And then my life was back to normal again. I washed my linens so I would have a fresh set for the night. I’m sure the steward onboard would have given me a fresh set. No need to cause any extra work for anyone onboard. They all work long hours as it is. Because of the self-distancing I haven’t had any long heartfelt conversations with anyone. It has mostly been brief interactions in passing. But I did speak a bit with a crewmember from Ukraine. It breaks my heart. I feel a personal connection to every country I’ve been to and don’t like to see any of them in trouble or pain. This crewmember was tired as he had been up for two hours during the night speaking with his parents who are in Ukraine. We all have our problems. But common…few of us feel the pain Ukrainians do right now. This crewmember however still smiles to me, is polite to me, and shows me kindness in spite of his situation. Seafarers are such special people.
Self distancing within the officers mess.
We reached Lautoka as our first port in Fiji. It is the second largest city and pretty much on the opposite side of Suva on Viti Levu, which is Fiji’s largest island. I had a chance to walk around in Lautoka back in late 2019. A city (town) which rose to prominence during the sugarcane days of colonialism. Pretty lively place as I remember it. Swire Shipping’s Operational Manager in Lautoka, the wonderful Taina Cokilawa, came onboard and I had a chance to meet her. Such a spirited woman. Taina and the Captain arranged for the ships agent to bring me a new simcard. 50gb 4g internet for USD10. Good stuff Fiji!
We were supposed to finish cargo operations and depart Lautoka during the night (Thursday November 10th). But apparently we received five hours of really heavy rain which brought everything to a standstill! I slept right through it having popped two painkillers before going to bed. And as the day progressed, we remained in Lautoka.
In passing time I've listened to podcasts, read a bit, replied to emails, and watched a few movies. It turns out that 35 years ago, when Fatal Attraction came out, Michael Douglas was my age and Glenn Close was the age of ultra-wifey. Just some strange curiosity. Anyway, the movie still holds up - amazingly well in fact.
The voyage from Lautoka to Suva takes about eight hours. It is only a four hour drive along the ring road. In hindsight I should probably have disembarked Highland Chief in Lautoka and made my way to Suva by road. For some reason cargo operations in Lautoka took more time than estimated and we departed around 05:00am on Friday November 11th. As such we reached Suva in the early afternoon and came alongside around 2pm. I asked Captain Kannangara if I could stay onboard another night and he replied "no problem". He's such a nice and easygoing man. It had been raining hard all day and I figured I wouldn't get much out of the day anyway being that most offices close early on Friday's and I wouldn't be off the ship until 3pm at the earliest. So here I am - I can see good old Suva out my porthole. Customs and Immigration authorities take place when boarding a ship and when departing. The agent is usually helpful and local authorities can be anything from kind and professional to bloodthirsty devils depending on where you are in the world. Make sure you have all your documents in order if you ever get to join a container ship. You do not want to be the cause of any delay. I’m as always grateful to the crew and wish them fair winds and following seas. And equally grateful to everyone at Swire who has helped make this roundtrip possible: Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji! This is a momentous accomplishment!! You’re along for the ride – I’m nine years out and three countries from home! Our emotions are hardly the same but know that I truly appreciate your support dear reader! Thank you.
On the bridge with the pilot boat approaching and Suva straight ahead.
Looking forward then here’s what’s going to happen. My friend Joji, whom I met the last time we visited Fiji, has invited me to stay at his place while in Suva. So that’s great and more proof that at stranger is a friend you’ve never met before. If I "get stuck" in Fiji for some time then Joji and I will definitely head out on an adventure or two. But first priority is securing passage to Tuvalu. Tuvalu’s government ferry ("Nivaga 3") recently left Fiji and arrived in Funafuti, Tuvalu, a few days ago. I’ll need to pay the Tuvalu High Commission a visit to learn if they have an update on the next departure. There should be two ferries. I’ll also be visiting Williams & Goslings (because they are not answering their phone). Williams & Goslings are the Suva agents of "Nei Matagare" which makes trips to Tuvalu monthly…or so it’s said. I also plan to revisit the Fiji Red Cross and talk to Mrs. Luta who’s Tuvaluan. And then I’m definitely looking forward to touching base with the Swire team in Suva once more! :)
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Fiji round three of four.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga