24.10.11-29.10.11: And so I found myself becoming something of a fixture on board the good ship Papuan Chief. Breakfast (which I invariably missed) was served at 8am-9am, Lunch at noon and dinner at 6.30pm. If I wasn’t beavering away at the bar working on a video or a script or a rant, I’d be up on the bridge studying the shipping charts, learning how to use a sextant or just generally getting in the way of things.
This week has been all about the drill. We’ve had drills for fire, terrorism, oil spills… the ship’s six month inspection is due in Melbourne and Captain Santos wants all things to be ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. Literally. Seven short blasts followed by a long one means get your arse up to the bridge, Graham. A short, long, short, long, short and long means get to the Emergency Life Rafts and next time, do remember to pick up your immersion suit on the way, double-oh-Hughes.
The Coral Sea was rather mercurial. One day it was as flat as a supermodel, the next it was more choppy than Bruce Lee karate chopping a portion of pork chop chop suey. When the clouds came in on a quiet moonless night you could go out on the wing and look out towards nothing but inky blackness, squinting to make out where the sea ended and the sky began – not so impressive now with all our fancy GPS maguffins, but back in the day when there was nothing but a compass point and a flicking oil lamp to guide you, a buccaneers life was nothing if not perilous. For a speeded up version, close your eyes and go run through a forest.
To starboard lurked the Great Barrier Reef, for which we gave a wide berth, not just because of the obvious perils of scraping your way through the world’s largest living thing but also because the regulations on shipping anywhere near that area tighten up until you start singing soprano. But with the GBR out of the way, we were free to come in close to the coast: the hallowed mobile phone signal returning… one bar, two bars, three bars… it felt as if the world had returned. So dependent now, so linked in… a week without precious signal feels like punishment. By now it was Thursday.
The bad news is that I’d not heard anything back from the other shipping companies, so my proposed week-long stopover in Melbourne might again be indefinitely extended. For some reason, Customs and Excise are on my case, worried sick they are about the fact that back in February 2010 the camcorder I bought in the UK was fixed by Lonely Planet in Australia and sent back to me in the UK (during my 2010 visa run). It’s making somebody’s head melt, but to honest with you I’m not intending on returning to the UK for a good while yet, but if there’s a warrant out for my arrest, I’ll just keep travelling thank you very much. There’s some other odds and ends that need attending to, but lacking a full-time lackey to do my bidding, when Graham HQ is on radio-silence, not a lot can or will be done.
By Friday, the signal had gone as quickly as it came – all ties with the outside world severed once more. We passed the great city of Sydney, hovering like a magical kingdom a millimetre above the horizon… all grey and far away. Reminded me of my first glimpse of Kuwait City from the mighty Shat-al-Arab and made me stiffen my resolve to one day see Manhattan rise from the briny sea.
But we’re not stopping in Sydney, it holds no allure for us. In fact, unless you’re a yacht or a passenger ship, your chances of getting into Sydney harbour these days are remarkably slim: all the unsightly container vessels now come into Botany Bay or Newcastle. Someone should inform the architects of the Pompidou Centre: seal up your iPods, only mad enthusiasts want to see the inner workings.
And so on down the east coast of Australia, end to end. From 10 degrees south of the equator to 40 degrees. Each degree equals 60 nautical miles: that’s 1,800nm from tip to toe. Usually the Pap Chief trots along at a good 14.5 knots (nautical miles per hour), but heading south towards the Tasman Sea the current helps you along. At one point we were powering through the water at 17 knots. It seems slow to us with our Vauxhall Novas and our Castrol GTX, but without having to stop for rest stops, refuelling, traffic lights, roadworks, prostitutes and the like, we can cover some impressive distance and carry 981 lorries worth of stuff with just twenty crewmen and a skipful of diesel.
You know that all the diesel ships in the world could run off the disused chip fat from all the restaurants in the world?
I was talking to Jerry, the chief mate, about piracy (it’s a subject that comes up quite often on board cargo ships). Before the Somali pirates started making headlines in 2006, the bane of cargo crews everywhere were some other peace-loving ne’er-do-wells from Northern Sumatra in Indonesia who would routinely terrorise the Malacca Straits.
In 2004 Jerry was third mate on a tug boat, pulling a floating platform to Singapore from the Gulf of Aden. As it was a tug, it was going at about 5 knots making it an easy target for the pirates. With fishing ships all around them in what is also one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, there was nowhere to run to if things got messy. A fishing boat with an outboard motor sped past, then ran around the bow of the ship and headed back towards the bridge, this time brandishing AK-47s, M-16s and Rocket Propelled Grenades which they used to make Swiss cheese out of the wheelhouse.
The crew, completely outgunned, legged it to their cabins. After a tense half hour of gunshots, explosions and mayhem, the captain came over the intercom and told the entire crew to report to the bridge. Jerry and the other crewmembers did so. The pirates had taken the ship and proceeded to smash or shoot everything they could: the GPS, the radar, the radios, the windscreen. The captain was being held at gunpoint. The crew were instructed to go to their cabins and give the pirates all of their money, which of course they did. Eventually, once they had smashed everything worth smashing, the peaceful citizens of Aceh took the captain and the chief engineer hostage and departed the vessel, shooting up some more stuff on the way out just for good measure.
Suitably terrorised, the remaining officers managed to contact officials at Singapore and tell them what happened (note to would-be pirates: shooting the monitor does not generally kill the computer). They were asked if they could get any of their equipment up and running. Some of it, perhaps. Was the engine still going? Yes. Okay then: get to Singapore as quickly as you can. But Singapore was still two or three days away.
That night Jerry and the other crewmen couldn’t sleep. They all wanted to be on the bridge so they could keep a look out for any more pirates. But two different groups of pirates wouldn’t attack the same ship twice, would they?
Yes, yes they would.
The next day around noon another band of pirates took a swipe at the vessel. This time everybody ran to their hiding holes: supply cupboards, engine compartments, emergency storage units. There they waited for an hour until the sound of gunfire died down before they ventured out. The pirates must have taken the hint that the ship had already been attacked (the bullet holes in the windscreen possibly gave it away) and buggered off. But not before they smashed everything that the first lot missed.
Limping back to the nearest Malaysian port, the crew were relieved of duty and another tug was sourced to get the platform to Singapore. The captain and the chief engineer were released 22 days later, after a ransom of $100,000 had been paid.
The pirate operation in the Malacca Straits was all but wiped out by the Boxing Day Tsunami. Since then the good folk of Somalia have taken on the task of terrorising some of the most hard-working people in the world. Don’t forget, once you’re on a ship, you don’t get the weekend off. You don’t get Easter or Christmas or Melbourne Cup Day to go and see your family or get drunk with your mates. If you’re contracted for 6 months you work EVERY DAY for six months. Go interrupt the TGWU annual Foie Gras and Caviar Convention to tell them about that one.
And, to add insult to injury, thanks to those peace-loving terrorists (who may or may not hail from the same region of the planet as these piratey-types) all shore leave has been cancelled in many countries (including the USA) since 9/11.
Thanks a bunch, guys! Another home run for the forces of horribleness. Enjoy your time here on the good ship Planet Earth, feel free to ruin it for the rest of us.
But now it’s getting dark and the last light of the sun is dipping below the horizon. Beyond the Coral Sea lies the Tasman Sea which leads (if you’re following the Australian coastline) to the Bass Strait – the water which separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia. The Bass Strait has a reputation for tossing stuff around like they’ve made dwarf flinging an Olympic event. It’s not been too bad for us today, I only wish we had seen more whales. I saw one – a ruddy great big black one with a white stripe – jump out of the water and crash down on its back. SPLOSH! Apparently they do that to clean barnacles and parasites off their bodies. But it was far away and I didn’t have my camcorder going. Captain Santos says that last month was better – mating season. Whale porn.
It’s my last night on board the good ship Papuan Chief. I’ve enjoyed the company, the food, sitting with Chief Engineer Dave and putting the world to rights. Ronnie, the ship’s steward, has looked after me better than I could ever have imagined and everybody onboard has gone out of their way to make me feel welcome. I got to steer the ship, blow the airhorn and study the shipping charts. I wrote a lot, I edited a lot and I read a lot (the ship has its own library).
Earlier, I complained about not being connected with the outside world. It was more to do with the fact that I need to organise the next leg of my journey and that my envisioned time to do that in the Solomons was ripped from me. But I’ve got to say that if you’re thinking of writing the next Great American Novel but you get easily distracted by the internet, the news, crown green bowls and Countdown, then travel by cargo ship is definitely worth considering. It’s just you and 1,800 nautical miles of peace, quiet and pure imagination.