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On a Freighter Even the Routine is Extraordinary
And the Destinations are Some of the Most Exotic in the World
[Seaworthy News Nr 687, January 2018]

A Seven-week Journey Aboard the CMA CGM Nabucco
by Toshi Odashima

The Nabucco is one of a dozen French Line CMA CGM containerships
in the Columbus pendulum service, sailing back and forth between
the US East and West Coasts via the Suez Canal

On a sunny but chilly day in early May 2017, I headed to the Port Newark Container Terminal by taxi from New York City. The taxi driver got lost in the maze of highways and roads in the port area. He was forgiven for it, as I suspected that the container terminal was not one of the areas he was familiar with.

A few crew members were waiting for me at the gangway and helped me get onboard the ship. I was introduced to the ship’s captain and officers, and then escorted to my cabin. I found it two decks below the navigation bridge, clean and spacious with a bed, desk, coffee table, sofa, shower room, and two windows facing the bow. While unpacking my suitcase in the cabin, a loud beep sounded throughout the ship, and, to my relief, all crew members, some thirty, went down to an assembly point for a fire drill. I duly followed them and joined the drill. This was day one of my seven-week trip aboard a 60,000-ton container ship, that was flying the French flag. (I learned something new from an officer about the ship’s name: Nabucco is an Italian-language opera composed in the mid-1800s by Giuseppe Verdi.)

After two days of offloading and loading containers, the ship left Newark Port, slowly sailing south of Manhattan and leaving a picture-perfect silhouette of New York skyline behind. She made a one-day port visit to Norfolk, VA, and another to Savannah, GA, where a crew change (the captain and several other members) took place. The captain was looking forward to seeing his family after three months on the high seas.

The ship then sailed onto the mostly calm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps the size of the ship helped her experience a smooth sailing all the way. The Nabucco is 330 m in length, 42 m in width and 24 m in height, with a maximum carrying capacity of 8,500 containers.

Donning a yellow jacket and white helmet provided by the ship, I sometimes walked to the bow and spent quite some time sitting on a small wooden bench there, just enjoying the sight of the blue ocean and skies. Occasionally, I saw dolphins jumping out and into the waters as if they were enjoying the company of the ship. It was a time of ultimate tranquility, yet it was also a little frightening, as I felt I had been thrown into a huge universe alone. Sometimes nature reminds us -- it makes all of us human beings feel so small.

The captain and his officers invited me every Sunday for a drink and lunch at their dining table. Other crew members also found time, albeit briefly, to talk to me about their work and life. One of the crew members was a twenty-year-old cadet on his first training mission away from his studies at French Maritime Academy (Ecole Nationale Superieure Maritime) in Marseilles. One day, he asked me why I travel by slow moving ship and do not fly straight to Vietnam, my destination this time. I demurred for a moment. It is a question similar to why do you climb mountains or why do you run the marathon. Composing myself, I started answering his question. “As everything moves so quickly these days, ” I began, “I as a retiree can travel slowly and enjoy quality time with limited access to email and news. It is also getting harder to adjust my body to a jet lag these days, so traveling by ship makes sure I arrive at a destination in good shape. While I am still physically and mentally fit (there is an age limit to travel by freighter ship), I want to do what I dreamed about doing for a long time. Vietnam was one of a few countries in Southeast Asia I had never been to. So when I found a containership sailing from New York to Vung Tau, Vietnam, I thought I should not miss this chance. ” I was not sure if my answer was convincing enough for the cadet/future captain.

On a calm day of sailing, the chief engineer invited me for a guided tour of the ship’s engine room. It occupies a five-story space accommodating one huge main engine for the propeller shaft and five other engines generating electricity, boiling water, desalinating seawater, air conditioning, etc. All these were managed 24/7 by four engineers and six support crew members. I wrote in my diary: “This is a tough but crucial job that keeps the world economy and people’s lives all over the world going. Over eighty percent of goods in global trade are transported by ship, but most of us do not see it and are not even aware of it.”

The ship sailed to the Strait of Gibraltar just before noon, ten days after she left the U.S. Suddenly, quite a large number of ships, small and large, appeared on the waters all trying to pass through the narrow passages both ways. Coming from the ocean, the strait looked so narrow indeed (“only” 8 miles, or 13 km), I felt I could touch both sides, Gibraltar and Morocco, with my own hands stretched.

Five days after sailing through the Mediterranean Sea peacefully, the Nabucco entered Port Said, Egypt, and anchored there overnight to wait for her turn to pass through the Suez Canal the following morning. There, a signal came back to my Google phone (and iPad) for the first time since the ship left Savannah fifteen days ago, and I was able to send emails to my friends and loved ones (Otherwise it's possible to use the ship's email service at any time).

The next day early in the morning, with two Egyptian pilots onboard, the ship slowly, at about five knots, and carefully navigated the narrow and shallow Canal in a long convoy of ships. It took almost 12 hours to arrive at the southern end, where the Suez City is located, and continue sailing down the Red Sea. Suddenly, the outside air became very hot and humid.

As the ship was about to enter the piracy-risk area, a number of security measures were taken and security briefings were given to me by the crew for the few days of sailing through the Gulf of Aden, Yemen to the north and Somalia to the south. On entering the Indian Ocean, the seas got a little rough, for the first time, causing this huge container ship to roll with the waves.

I was eating the same amount of food as did the crew who, unlike me, were working full-time every day. I ran on a treadmill in the ship’s gym almost every day, still I noticed my belly popping up. I never felt hungry. I had three good meals a day prepared by a French chef with wine readily available for dinner. I read three books. But when I was halfway through my fourth book, I felt tired of reading and decided to spend my spare time (lots of it) for reflection and meditation. That is to say, in reality, doing nothing but watching the ocean and skies leisurely and then taking a nap.

On a calm day of sailing, the captain invited everyone for a party on deck with the Filipino crew roasting a whole pig. Another day, a baptism ceremony was held on crossing the equator. I naively thought there would be just some water sprinkling. However, it turned out to be a ritual long practiced by seamen to make them true “men of honor” on the high seas. Following other crew members, I went through the blessing by engine oil put on my face and body and sea water splashing by fire hose. After all, the captain solemnly declared that I crossed the equator as a man of honor. Thirty-seven days after the ship left New York, we arrived at the first port of call, Kelang, Malaysia. In the following 10 days we called at Singapore, Jakarta (Indonesia), Laem Chabang (Thailand) and Vung Tau (Vietnam), where I disembarked. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. A clean and comfortable cabin, good food, plenty of time for reading and reflection, smooth sailing, security assured, and, most importantly, limited access to email and news from the “outside world.” I felt so spoiled that I got a little scared to go back to the reality of life on land.

My gratitude goes to all crew members of the CMA CGM Nabucco, who, while working long hours in a tough environment, extended their support to make my journey truly enjoyable and memorable. The captain of this huge ship, M. J-M Le Henanff, has always been in command, in calm and confident manner, ably and safely, with true professionalism, civility, decency, and generosity. He won my deep respect.

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