Posted by: Craig | April 29, 2008

Captain’s life: a paper world

“All the paper work, at first I got angry, but now I just resign myself to it.
One of the worst things is the different port entry reporting forms; It would help if IMO could actually get something done about this. The forms are all different and you end up doing them when you are tired or need to concentrate on getting the ship into the port.”

Posted by: Craig | April 28, 2008


The Filipinos on board have a smile for everything, and they are the unbeaten karaoke kings of the sea. Ellinor and Pär have a good rapport with the crew during mooring stations, and they are keen to get the work done.

Even the bosun, who left the ship today to fly home after seven months, was still looking around and caring for the ship. After over half a year on the ship he will have five weeks off and then come back. When I go forward with Pär, I talk briefly with Dante. He’s 49. but has the energy of someone in their twenties. He chides Pär about not using the ship’s gym, which has everything one needs for a decent work out. Dante says he is in there six days a week. I have sailed with many Filipino crews, they are undoubtedly one of the largest seafaring nations today, and justifiably so, they have an ideal temperment for the work they do, and seem to be the biggest smilers on the planet

Posted by: Craig | April 28, 2008

Leaving Zeebrugge

After the engine room visit this morning I had lunch and a nap prior to heading forward for departure from Zeebrugge. I noticed that the Falstaf, another Wallenius vessel, had shifted berth, and was now sat on the quay behind us.

Fidelio had to do that last visit apparently, it took five hours for the whole operation, simply, I am told, because there are two stevedoring companies working either side of the basin.

Again letting go was easy, and Pär and the three crew members made light work of bringing in the mooring ropes, and then tying the vessel into the locks.  After an age waiting for the lock gates to open, we are heading out and towards the pilot station where the pilot, after grabbing a free dinner, is away.

Captain Falkenberg points out the ship’s wake as he maneuvers around the pilot boat, admiring the performance of his vessel’s rudder. Although there is it seems a ghost in the machine. When at sea one of the two steering motors is switched off, and it occasionally switches itself on for no apparent reason.

As we pass the vessels at the anchorage I notice that three of the twelve have AIS data showing that they are underway. A common problem, as is the other, that of vessels with information showing they are still at anchor.

An ageing ship passes down our portside, funnel billowing grey smoke. The only smoke I have seen coming out of the Fidelio’s funnel was during engine start up, a quick one second plume as the cylinders fired up.

As we head into the Dover straits there are thirty ships within ten miles of us, but the TSS keeps them separated. A motor tanker passing a mile ahead of us calls the Fidelio, asking which way we are likely to go. Ellinor tells it we are passing astern, a mile behind it.

If they were worried it’s a bit late to suddenly ask that now, she says as an aside. Once we have gone by the tanker we are on course again to enter the main routing channel through the Dover straits.

Ships time is brought back to UK summer time, meaning the three watches do twenty minutes extra on duty tonight. The same rule will follow as the vessel sails across the Atlantic to the US East coast. Although when coming back, there’s twenty minutes less to do as the clocks advance forward.

1930 (BST) rounding Foxtrot 3 buoy and heading south east through the straits and passing South Falls sand banks and on towards Southampton pilots for 0300.

Posted by: Craig | April 28, 2008

The engine room

Well, after a day and a half on board,  I venture down into the engine room. That’s over ten floors down from the accommodation level. The lift buttons are labelled U, 10, 5, ER. Floor five is the freeboard deck where the loading ramp is.

The engine control room is pretty big. The engine room is pretty small. And what surprised me about the main engine is its size. It’s quite small given the speed and size of the vessel. Most of the space seems to be taken up with the waste heat turbochargers, and even they are compact.

The first engineer showed me round, the chief engineer carried on doing his paperwork, screaming through my ear defenders as he told me what each piece of machinery did, offering witticisms as one would expect from engineer such as on the quality of the Korean workmanship as he pointed out vibration problems and the slightly tilted manufacturers plate on a boiler.

The engine room has three main levels surrounding the main engine sections. Beside the engine is one of the pistons, removed at a previous port and ready for testing. I was told how it takes seven hours of work if one piston ring goes, as the whole piston section has to be removed. When WWL initially switched to low sulphur fuel, the engineers on one ship found they had to change 5 piston rings in one round trip. The problem was due to the lube oil, I am told, but he also said that it is much better now, but there are still some problems.

In the only open space of the engine room sits two pipes, blanked off, obviously waiting. They are for the new ballast water system. The engineers would have liked to have had it fitted when the vessel was built last year, but now are unsure how it will fit in. On one deck level a filter system will be fitted, while on the other the ionization unit for the Alfa Laval system that Wallenius Line has a part stake in. The engineers do not know when they will get the system, but seem none too eager for the hassle of squeezing it into the space provided.

Posted by: Craig | April 28, 2008


AIS map from Lloyd's MIU

It’s Monday morning at eight o’clock. The vessel is now alongside the berth in Zeebrugge, beside us are an assortment of diggers, bulldozers, cherry pickers and various cranes. There are also yachts and cars of course.

When I head up to the bridge at four o’clock, the pilot was already onboard, hidden in the darkness at first, while Annie Lennox quietly told everyone that there were angels playing with her heart. I have time for a quick strong coffee watching other ships pass by in the early morning gloom and hearing the Adelphi report in to London VTS, across the English Channel, that she has 29 souls onboard and ETA will be at 0700 at the berth.

After twenty minutes I head off to don my work clothes and go to the mooring station. I feel very conspicuous in my fluorescent jacket. Ellinor and two of the Filipino crew are there making the tug fast as we approach the Zeebrugge locks.

The Rolls Royce winches are easy to operate, though there are a few issues with disengaging the clutch. I notice that while automated, there is no manual lever for disengaging the rope drum from the winch drive if the hydraulic system fails. When this happens, the crew needs to get an engineer up to fix it, which is not easy if it is 4am and those that are awake are in the engine room.

The Filipinos have an elaborate set up for the heaving lines to manoeuvre the mooring lines around the huge stern ramp, and once we have cleared the locks they set everything up for maneuvering starboard side alongside at the berth. The whole operation takes two hours to go through the locks, swing round (I saw how effective the rudder is at helping the vessel turn) and tie up alongside. Opposite us in the basin is another Wallenius Lines vessel, Falstaff, and I can see a parade of cars rolling off her ramp.

In all the mooring operation was a lot simpler than most I saw, the winches seem better designed and despite the apparent issues with the ropes. Fidelio is a wide vessel, so there is a lot of width on the covered poop to move. All finished at 0730 and breakfast.

Posted by: Craig | April 27, 2008

Salaries stay the same for 15 years

I talk to the deck officers about their careers, I get slightly different answers, one eyes a possible job with a Norwegian offshore company, better pay and conditions, another seems happy with the position but would like to see more money (don’t we all, but when I compared their salaries to mine 10-15 years ago I found no difference, and they pay more tax).

The Swedish unions have been in talks with the state controlled organisation which decides salaries, on behalf of the Swedish ship owners.  A fortnight ago, they threatened strike action, but dropped this after further negotiations. And here I have officers voicing these thoughts and doubts themselves.

But here’s a little thought. If Sweden has a rule that says non domiciled Swedes can pay only 50 percent tax (nice), then why not extend that concession to seafarers who spend a lot of their time abroad anyway? Well, I gather the Swedish industry needs to do something. Owners are threatening to flag their vessels elsewhere, officers are looking at other European employment and of course the crew shortage problem afflicts the Swedish companies as much as anywhere. So much so in fact that the unions have agreed with owners that up to 50% of a ships crew can be Filipino until a solution can be found.

Posted by: Craig | April 27, 2008

What’s that brown fog?

2000, Sunday evening (27th April)

52°  47’N 3º 45’E

48nm North(ish) of Hook of Holland

Heading 210º speed 14.5kts


As we are heading to get to the Zeebrugge pilot station in the early hours of Monday morning (0300), the engine revs are adjusted to maintain an arrival time. This creates a discussion on the bridge about what this should be. I am told that the best fuel consumption comes if the Man B&W engine turns at about 85 rpm, and I am told that this is better for the environment (less fuel burnt, less emissions of course). Additionally if the revs go below a certain level, the engineers need to go below to make adjustments.

However the optimum engine conditions, which are where the engine performs best, is at 105 rpm, according to the Korean shipyards manual, and from the engineer’s experience at about 96, so a compromise has been agreed on at 101.5 rpm.

Captain Falkenberg tells me that if the company’s fleet drops its speed by a couple of knots, then WWL would need to bring another vessel into service to counter for the drop in freight capacity.

As we are discussing the optimal environmental speed for the vessel, we are passing through the traffic separation scheme near Vlieland, on the Dutch coast, with spindly gas platforms passing down the port and starboard sides.

In the calm, dull slate-grey afternoon sky there is a distinct smudge of brown lying just above the skyline. A reminder of the pollution from the gas flares in the region, perhaps. I can’t actually see any flares lit, but it is a thought to check if the sulphur emissions rules brought into force for shipping, apply to gas and oil rigs with their flares in the North Sea.

I notice that both Ellinor and the Captain talk about the environment in a different way to how I heard it talked about in the early nineties on oil tankers ( we had jokes then about ships being able to follow a seabed trail of garbage on certain runs).

Both officers are aware of the slightly odd situation of carrying cars around the world because people do not want a home grown variety, while wanting to be environmental. Both Wallenius Marine and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics have shown me their environmental credentials, and it is impressive, they have won awards for their efforts, but I think the fact they are Scandinavian plays a strong role in this ethical belief.

A cynic could think that they have a guilty conscience for transporting polluting cars around the world, but Swedes and Norwegians do have a different mind set, and within their culture there is an inbuilt belief in the right to access a clean environment.

Posted by: Craig | April 27, 2008

First watch 4am

My first watch on bridge:


After a sound sleep, for four hours, my alarm woke me at 03.30 this morning. After the slow realisation of where I was, I shower and head up onto the bridge.


In the darkness of the bridge, the watch keeper says good morning. It takes a few minutes for me to register where people are as my eyes adjust.


As the watches are handed over there is the quiet chatter of Tagalog as the crew talk to each other, and Swedish as Pär hands over to Ellinor.


56˚ 42′ N, 007˚ 41’E, heading 205 degrees, speed 18 kts and occasional showers and reasonable visibility. A few ships around us, nothing threatening, and it was a quiet watch during the 12-4 apparently.


A vessel passing ahead of the Fidelio, heading south is, according to the AIS data, managing to be dredging while sailing at 12 kts.


As the morning wears on, I begin to realise where my coffee addiction may have originated from 20 years ago.

As darkness turns to dusk and gives way to day, I’m told by Ellinor that the integrated bridge system has a problem with all the alarms going off. Apparently as many as 90 alarms in 12 hours, not all of which are alarms, more like warnings.


So the system is kept on port mode, to stop them constantly ringing around the bridge. They hope for a more permanent solution before too long as the officers realise the risks of missing a real alarm.


However the integrated system, as I get the hang of it, begins to make sense, and I am soon able to use the in-built AIS data in the ARPA radar to get information on the ships in the vicinity.


The Northern Echo is heading up to Ensco 70 platform, ETA at 1330 today, speed13.7kts, course 305˚

and passing 1.3nm ahead of us.


Ellinor says this information helps with calling ships up if she gets worried about their intentions. All the information is of course stored, and she points out the microphones directly above where we are sat, recording our conversation.



We talk about how the Fidelio handles in weather. The huge side profile of the ship can act as a sail, so she heels over in strong winds, hence the ballast water heeling tanks.


I get to see how the vessel handles on manual steering. With a Becker rudder, the response is quite remarkable, with the rate of turn dropping off as soon as I decrease the rudder angle, although the vessel heels over quite quickly as we turn.


Apparently when put to the test, this huge box shaped ship can turn 90˚ in a little over a minute and with man-overboard exercises, the crew can quite easily keep visual sight of the target as the vessel spins round.


Four hours and three coffees later, I am ready for breakfast. But as this is Sunday, I will have to wait until 1000. Only two meals on a Sunday, this gives the galley staff at least half a day off once a week. I would snooze, if I wasn’t on such a caffeine rush. 


I should mention the food here. The company told me before I headed off to join the ship that the cooks on its ships have had special training on healthy eating. Well, yesterday I saw salads galore, and a pretty good bolognese for lunch, and last night’s beef would do well in many a restaurant.


Posted by: Craig | April 26, 2008

Technology and letters from home

So, I can write a blog while sailing across the North Sea, and a little while ago, as we went across the top of Denmark, I was able to call my partner and let her know when we are expected in Zeebrugge.  

OK, the web connection is quite slow, but then again it was not so long ago that I waited to get to port to receive letters. The more the better, and the longer the better, as I wanted to read and re-read them as I sailed to the next port.

Now I can write it all down and get a reply without having to wait three weeks.

Posted by: Craig | April 26, 2008


Once the bustle of the cargo operations is over, all the visitors and cargo operations people have left. When it’s just the ships crew left onboard and the safety doors battened down, after the pilot has departed (having to climb over cargo to do so) and after the passage has begun.

Then life assumes the routine. It’s not that being at sea is simple, but when the wind starts whistling past the ship and the engines are at that steady quiet vibration, and while the ships may occasionally gently roll, then things feel better. I asked Ellinor and the third officer, Pär, and they both agreed to having that fleeting sense of quiet and longing for the straight forward routine to turn to as the ship heads out of the port.


We are due into Zeebrugge in the early hours of Monday morning. This works well for Ellinor as it covers her watch and also means there is a whole Sunday at sea.

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