After months of talks things finally fell into place just 10 days before my departure and I have instantly added 9000 km to the next trip. Come the 6th March 2015, there will be a continuation of the last trip as I start cycling from Wellington to Auckland to arrive in time for the 20th March to get the container ship “Spirit of Shanghai” with Hamburg Sud, from Auckland to Philadelphia on the USA East Coast. A voyage that will take 25 days and goes via the Panama Canal; I will arrive in Philadelphia on the 14th April and shortly after that will start cycling across the USA before climbing up into Canada and continuing to head North West before reaching Alaska.
DAYS 10 – 15 – AUCKLAND (REST DAYS)
I have had this week to sort out and finalise a few last things before my departure and also to catch up with friends and family. Did some final shopping and I invested in a new inflatable roll mat and some mosquito repellent. I also paid New Zealand customs a visit a few days before departure to fill out paperwork to help speed up the departure process.
DAY 16 – COATESVILE TO SPIRIT OF SHANGHAI (21/03/15)
START: 07:45 – FINISH: 11:00
DISTANCE: 36 KM – RIDE TIME: 02H40
I was due to board the “Spirit of Shanghai” on Friday. But due to Cyclone Pam she has been delayed and the talk was it would now be Sunday night. Then it was expected to arrive Saturday night for a Sunday morning departure. Then on Friday evening the new scheduled boarding time was brought forward to 10 a.m. on Saturday. It meant I had to pack up in a bit of a hurry and was on the road at 7:45 a.m. on Saturday morning. I cycled to Davenport in good time before catching the ferry across to the city before a short cycle ride up to the port gate. I asked to cycle out to the boat but that idea was squashed as it is forbidden. So it was the shuttle bus. The “Spirit of Shanghai” has been dwarfed by the cruise ship Queen Mary that was berthed just in front. I was greeted at the bottom of the gang plank by the crew who helped me push my fully loaded bike up the gangway on to the main deck. I was given a cabin on the main deck to store my bike.
I had some lunch on the boat before going back into Auckland city. “Spirit of Shanghai” doesn’t leave till 3 a.m. so I had a few hours to kill. Might as well spend them on land because once I get back on the boat there will be no getting off for 25 days.
In the city there was a fan zone for the cricket world cup. So I watched a bit of the New Zealand West Indies game. Before going back on the boat I went to the supermarket and did a big shop to get a month’s worth of snacks and treats for the voyage.
DAY 17 TO DAY 32 – AUCKLAND TO PANAMA CANAL (SPIRIT OF SHANGHAI) 21/03/15 – 05/04/15
I set my alarm for 2:45 a.m. so I could get up and see our departure. They were still loading at 3 a.m. so I went back to sleep. When I woke the next time we were well out to sea and I could only see the New Zealand coast in the distance. My home for the next 25 days will be the container ship “Spirit of Shanghai”. Coincidentally it is the exact same ship I was on between Melboune and Auckland back in 2013. Since then it has had a name change from the Bahia Castilho.
It will take 15 days to cross the Pacific before passing the Panama Canal. We then stop at two Ports in Panama to load cargo before a final stop in Cartagena Columbia. It will then take another week to go up the coast passing close to Cuba on the way up to Philadelphia.
Hamburg Sud is German with a crew of 21. They are from all over. Captain Boris is from Croatia, Alex the Chief Mate is Russian and the rest of the crew are from Ukraine, Myanmar and Ethiopia.
Philipino crews used to be the norm and renowned as cheap labour. However, they are getting too expensive so are now slowly being replaced by crews from Myanmar who are a lot more competitive. They are treated well. Normal working day is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with 3 breaks. 20 minutes for morning tea, an hour for lunch and 20 minutes for afternoon tea. They eat pretty well too. Three hot meals a day. They also have good facilities such as a recreation room with TV, computers and Fuseball.
I have been given a nice cabin all to myself on E deck. One below the Captain on F deck and two below the Bridge. The gym and sauna are on C deck and below that on B deck is the Officer’s Mess. It is quite spacious with a large window with a good view, coffee table and couch, office desk with TV and DVD player, a fridge and ensuite bathroom.
I have developed a daily routine which helps to keep things busy. I try and get up at 7 a.m. and go up to the bridge for an hour. It’s a nice time of the day as the sun is coming up. I have a short-wave radio and the best reception is on the Upper Deck outside the Bridge I can pick up BBC World Service or Radio Australia to get my daily fix of world news. Whenever I am on the Bridge I always check the radar for any signs of land or other boats.
After one week the only thing we have seen in the lonely Pacific is the odd seagull and that is not even every day and some flying fish which at first I thought was a small bird.
The closest we have come to land was the other night when we passed Pitcain Island and that was still 100 km away.
For the first week since leaving Auckland we have had grey skies every day. The ship has been rocking constantly for over a week with a 3.5 metre swell. The key to avoiding sea sickness is to have a full stomach. A couple of times I have been feeling a bit off colour and sleeping is difficult.
All meals are in the Officer’s mess. Three hot meals a day.
Breakfast is at 8 a.m. and so far we have had Apple pie, pancakes, bacon and eggs, Club sandwich, Mexican omelette and ham steak. This morning I had the Myanmar breakfast of fried noodles and vegetables.
I figure I should take advantage of a Myanmar chef so for the next week I will be eating Myanmar. I have actually been quite envious of what I had seen going out. There are two menus one for the Myanmar crew which is Asian style and the other for the officers which is Western style. The chef is from Myanmar so this leads to interesting interpretations of the Western Menu.
After breakfast I go for a 250 metre walk up to the Bow (front of the ship) and back for a little exercise and fresh air. I go again after lunch and after dinner if the sun hasn’t set. The rest of the morning I spend a bit of time in my cabin on the computer or watching a DVD, or with maps planning my route through North America.
There is a gym on board for the officers so I go down and use the cycling machine for a quick work out. Then at 11:00 a.m. I take a sauna with the Chief Officer, followed by a swim followed by another sauna and another swim. The swimming pool is emptied daily and refilled by pumping the water straight out of the sea.
Then it’s lunch time. Always soup followed by a hot lunch and dessert. After lunch it is more cabin time and sometimes a bit of a nap. Late afternoon I go and spend some more time on the bridge and read the downloaded news feeds that arrive by satellite once a day.
There have been a few other things happening. Last Saturday night was BBQ party on the Lower Deck at the back of the boat for the whole crew. It happens once on every voyage and there are a few beers, wine and spirits to be had.
Saturday is also drill day. At 10:20 a.m. the general alarm went off. By the time I had put my life jacket on and got my Immersion suit (personal survival suit kept in the cabin). I was the last one to the Muster Station……….we then all got in the life boat. As part of the drill and as instructed I had to start the engine of the life boat.
The next drill was fire and the crew got some hoses out on deck and sprayed a bit of foam. Fire suits and breathing apparatus came out as well. The crew simulated going in to fight an engine room fire.
Ten days out of New Zealand we are now in the tropics and very much in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is very humid and sticky on deck. The water for the pool has gone from 17 degrees when we left Auckland to yesterday’s temperature of 27 degrees.
Within a day of sailing out of Auckland we had crossed over from West to East. I had no idea the international date line is only 130 km off the East Cape of New Zealand. It meant we had to change the clocks. It was a huge change. 1 whole day back and one hour forward. We had Sunday and then the following day we got up and had another Sunday. It was a strange feeling having a double Sunday. Since then we have been changing the clocks every 3 days, forward by 1 hour to get us in sync with South America time.
The “Spirit of Shanghai“ can carry 3600 containers (1480 below deck 6 high and 2150 above deck 7 high). Top 3 can only be empty containers. About 600 of the containers are refrigeration.
We are presently carrying a variety of cargo: NZ onions and potatoes going to Columbia to be transferred onto Europe. Also lots of meat and fresh vegetables going elsewhere.
After 14 days at sea I finally saw another ship. In the afternoon we passed a bulk carrier on its way back from China to Peru. This superceded the excitement at the time of seeing 3 seagulls flying above the mast. It was all happening today because after the bulk carrier some dolphins turned up.
After 15 days at sea, this morning at 10:15 a.m. we crossed the Equator. Moving from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere. During the night we had also sailed pass the Galapagos Islands which were about 130 km away.
After 16 whole days we finally got our first sunrise. It was a double whammy because that evening the double was completed with our first sunset. I have been really surprised with the lack of sun on this trip. I was imagining days after days of clear blue sky.
Less than a day out from the Panama Canal there is a bit more traffic about. In the morning we saw a tuna fishing boat.
Must be big money because they had a helicopter strapped to the deck, to use to help them find the fish.
In the afternoon the radar showed two tugs 4 km apart and traveling 3.1 knots, about 16 km from us. When I had a look with the binoculars, I got a surprise to see that they were towing an aircraft carrier -they were likely taking it somewhere to be scrapped.
I have been excited for weeks. For me the real highlight of this voyage is to get experience sailing through the Panama Canal. I know very little about the canal except it is a passage for ships between the Pacific and Atlantic. We are due to arrive at the anchor station at 3 a.m. and then wait our turn. Unfortunately, we are due to enter the first lock during darkness.
I went to bed with my blind up……….so I could see if anything was happening. At 1:30 a.m. I woke up and I could see miles and miles of lights as we approached Panama. I had another look at 2 a.m. and the lights were a lot closer.
After 17 days at sea this was the most exciting thing in a long time. I didn’t want to miss out. I jumped out of bed, had a quick shower and headed straight to the Bridge. It was a hype of activity. The lights I had seen wasn’t land but hundreds of vessels anchored and all lit up like Christmas trees. I looked at the Radar and it was just full of ships. We made our way through the many ships to the entrance to the channel. We stopped engines and waited here for the pilot to come on board. In the background I could see Panama city which looked like a fairly big city there were at least a 150 high-rise buildings dotting the skyline.
The Pilot came on board around 5 a.m. and he is now in charge of the vessel and will help guide us through the canal.
Luckily there are four pairs of binoculars on the Bridge as I had a pair in my hands the whole time. There was so much to look at as we approached the first lock. We lost sight of Panama City as we entered a neighbouring bay. There were the busy docks and industrial area, and some small islands. We passed under an old iron bridge and I could see the cars driving over. We entered a channel and we were a lot closer to land now. It was a mixture of bush and a bit of waste land.
Just before we reached the first lock the gang plank was lowered down the side of the ship so the local Panama crew could come on board. They look after attaching the rope to shore while we are in the locks. Must be a big job because there were 20 guys for 8 ropes.
Going through the locks is such an interesting process.
It is just like a normal lock system, but on a much larger scale. At 254 metres in length and 32 metres wide. We are one of the largest vessels able to use the Panama Canal. When we were in the lock there was less than half a metre to spare on either side. There are two lock systems side by side. So two ships are able to pass at the same time. When we entered the locks we had company in the way of an American refrigeration ship carrying Truck Trailers.
Construction has started on a new lock so that much larger ships will be able to use the canal in the future. We could see the massive earthworks nearby. The Panama Canal was constructed back in 1914. It runs about 130 km from the Pacific Ocean off West coast Central America through to the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean on the East Coast. The choice is either take the canal or add another 16000 km to your voyage and sail round the bottom of South America.
The process of passing the canal from West to East is as follows.
Enter canal by passing through 3 locks, then after following the canal for a few kilometres, you then have to pass through another set of locks. Each time rising higher and higher above sea level. Then the canal runs for 40 km before entering a lake. The remainder of the journey is crossing the lake before entering the final lock system and descending back to sea level and out into the Caribbean Sea.
Passing the locks is a very slow process.
First of all the tug boats come along side and guide us towards the lock.
Then two guys in a row boat bring a rope out to us. On each side of the lock there are a set of railway lines. Four locomotives. Two at the front and two at the back on either side.
Each locomotive has a cable attached from the ship and their job is to control us from not hitting the sides of the lock or smashing into the lock gates. After entering the lock, the locomotives hold us fast. The large lock gates close behind us. The lock is then flooded and we float up to the next level.
The gates of the lock in front are opened and we very slowly move into the next lock. Then again the gates are shut behind us, the lock flooded and we again rise higher and higher above sea level. Cleverly, there is a double gate at the top of the lock in case of failure.
We entered the first lock in darkness. But by the time we passed the 3rd lock the sun was up. At 7 a.m. it was too early for tourists but at the first lock system there is an observation building. If you want to pay you can be waited on and have your own private table at the top. Or jostle with the masses below. A couple of the original locomotives are on display here. There is a small iron single lane bridge to cross the lock. It is in two parts and swivels to meet in the middle to make one.
It is a very pretty crossing with lots of tropical jungle/bush. Plenty of birds to see as well and was told that there were crocodiles as well, but didn’t see any. There were a few boats to see. A couple of sailing boats came from the opposite direction with the Australian flag. We were passed by a couple of larger vessels too.
I skipped lunch as we passed through the last locks. Ahead of us in the locks were two large container ships. It was the biggest lock system with 4 locks to go through. There was another tourist centre. This time full of tourists. In one of the locks as we were leaving one of the locomotives let the line go loose and we scraped the concrete on the side of the lock.
We had a relatively fast crossing and we were over and out by 1:30 p.m. and then it was just a short distance to Cristobal. Our first Panamian port of call. We will visit 3 ports in two days before our final leg to Philadelphia. The other two are Manzanillo in Panama and Cartagena in Colombia. It was only a short stay in Cristobal. After unloading and loading, we are sailing again at 2 a.m. tomorrow morning. I am not going to try and go ashore. I might get as far as the bottom of the gang plank. I have been told it is not the nicest of towns to look at.
When I awoke this morning at about 5 a.m. we had sailed about 50 km and we were at the entrance to Manzanillo and awaiting the pilot to take us in. Couldn’t see too much because it was dark later when I went up on deck we were berthed at the container terminal and opposite us was the town, looking very rundown from its heyday as a bit of a tourist town.
I could see the Casino and Regis hotel, shopping centre. Some of the smaller older looking buildings were painted in bright colours to good effect. Scattered around were empty and abandoned buildings in ruins. The promenade was broken and overgrown. A little away were beached vessels rusting away and ready for the scrapyard.
We were due to sail at 6 p.m. and at 4 p.m. I thought I had better quickly make a trip down the gang plank so I could at least say I have stepped foot in Panama. When I got to the deck, the gang plank was up. I looked over the side of the ship to see the shoreline rope getting dragged along the wharf before disappearing back on to the ship. We were leaving………..due to the loading finishing ahead of schedule.
Just as well I hadn’t got off. I went to the Bridge to watch our departure. A British cruise ship the Coral Princess had come in during the afternoon.
It will now take just under a day to get to Cartagena. At 1 p.m. the next day we arrived about 20 km outside the Port. We have been told we cannot enter before 9 a.m. tomorrow morning. So we have now stopped engines and are drifting. The sea is flat which makes for good conditions for spotting dolphins. Sure enough we had a pod come past. During the day it was a bit hazy and I couldn’t see the shore. But in the evening it cleared and with the help of binoculars we could see the bright lights of Cartagena, the lighthouse at the entrance and smaller lights scattered up the coast.
In the morning our arrival time was again delayed and we got to drift a bit more. Around 1:30 p.m. and about 10 km out we finally got the pilot on board to take us in. The channel went between two islands. There was a large Spanish fort on one side and some gun emplacements on the other. The island looked pretty primitive……a scattering of very basic houses. Some concrete shells of half-finished hotels and a few grubby looking resorts.
On the mainland it was all heavy industry with towering chimney stacks.
Closer to the port there were rows and rows of very modern high-rise apartments taking up one side of the city. In the old town some very grand looking Spanish colonial buildings stood out. The Basilica was easy to spot as was the fort on the hill. First impressions of Cartagena is that it is a very touristic city with a bit of money about. I again stayed on board as it was too difficult to arrange a shore pass. But I did get to see a beautiful sunset from the top deck as it fell behind the Cartagena skyline.
After the loading was finished with and the taking on of some more fuel, we again departed in the early hours of the morning at 2:30 a.m. I was asleep until we got back out into the open sea and then the rolling woke me up.
We have a swell of between 4 and 5 metres. It has been the roughest day so far and not safe to go out on deck. We have had some big waves crashing over our Bow.
Today everyone is happy that the seas have returned to a more calmer state. We have been passing countries. First up was Jamaica during the night, which was about 140 km away. Next up was Haiti which could be seen with or without binoculars. After lunch we were only 20 km off the South East coast of Cuba. The only structure to be seen was a lighthouse in the middle of a long sandy beach.
We are now only a few days out from Philadelphia. The sticky and humid days have gone and it is now a bit chilly out on deck. I have been going to the gym every day. Only passing through on the way to the Sauna and pool – I used the cycling machine for about 4 days………..before that the novelty wore off.
I have been really lucky that the crew have been so good to me
It helped considerably to make for a great voyage. Really appreciate their time and effort in going out of their way to help me learn the ins and outs of the ship, particularly the running of the Bridge. Really enjoyed the hours I got to spend up there.
Alex the chief mate made two certificates for me: one for crossing the Equator and the other for passing through the Panama Canal. I was really chuffed he had gone out of his way to do this.
Last evening we sighted the USA coast as we approached the mouth of the Delaware river. We are due to take the Pilot at midnight and it is then 7 hours up the river. I stayed on the Bridge till 9 p.m. as more and more of the coast line was lighting up. I then pulled myself away for my final night’s sleep on board – shouldn’t have because in the end I could hardly sleep with the butterflies. I am starting to feel a bit nervous………but also I am excited……….so I was back on the Bridge at 6 a.m. for our last hour. In the distance I could see the skyscrapers filling the Philadelphia skyline. On either side of the river banks were heavy industries of today and the ruins left behind from the industry of the past. We passed an old 1700s or 1800s Fort on the river bank right next to the airport. So for a time we were directly under the flight path. Then we passed some shipyards.
There was an Aircraft Carrier named John F Kennedy tied up. It looked like it had seen better days and was now on the way out.
We are expected to dock at 7 a.m., Customs would be on by 8 a.m. and I would be good to go by 9 a.m……….not even close. We docked at 7:15 a.m………….looks like I am staying for lunch. There is no hurry because Customs have said they are not coming till 1 p.m.
Customs ended up coming at 11 a.m. They were pretty good as they had already stamped my agriculture form before they read it. When they then noticed I had ticked yes in a few boxes to food and meat – I told them it was all in sealed packages and they didn’t even bother to search my bags or even check my bike. I disembarked shortly after lunch and was met at the gate by Tim, a local contact through Warm Showers which is a website for the cycling fraternity.
He kindly came down and met me which made things easy. It was only a short 9 km ride to his ideally situated apartment located in the old part of downtown Philadelphia. I have arrived at the right time because the weather is so mild and the spring blossom is looking wonderful.
This morning as we were getting closer to Philadelphia I could see all the high risers and was imagining that America’s 5th largest city was going to be like New York. After Tim took me on a great walking tour I had a much different opinion. It is very laid back. I didn’t find it very crowded at all. Felt very safe with lots of character and nice old buildings. It had a very English or European feel. The buildings are all brick or stone dating back to 1800s. Lots of inner city parks with monuments and plaques. I discovered Benjamin Franklin had a lot to do with Philadelphia. He started the first Post Office.