Ahoy me maties. Ever since I became interested in ships and shipping at my first professional job as an Export Logistics Planner, I had wanted to spend some time at sea aboard a merchant vessel. David, an English friend I had met while travelling, told me about how he had travelled from the United Kingdom to New Zealand by container ship a few years ago; this got me interested in experiencing a container ship journey of my own.
I decided if I was going to do it, to help justify the considerable expense, it would have to double as part of my transport back towards New Zealand. In addition the voyage would have to pass through the Suez Canal in Egypt; as this is something I had always wanted to do. Through an online agency, The Cruise People, I found such a vessel scheduled to do just those things at the right time. The booking process takes a considerable amount of time and effort as you have to provide a small pile of paper work (such as Police background check, insurance forms, copy of passport, vaccination certificate etc), but once that was processed & paid for I was ready to go. Once my father heard of my plans, he thought he’d like to tag along as well. If you’re a wondering, a containership voyage isn’t the cheapest experience at approximately €100/day, probably even more expensive than a regular cruise ship but infinitely more intrepid!
Our voyage would depart from Barcelona and terminate in Singapore transiting via the Suez Canal. The journey also included port calls in Valencia and Port Ka Lang in Malaysia. We were aboard for 19 days, steaming for about 15 of them covering 7,013 nautical miles (approx. 13,000km). My father and I would be the only passengers aboard for this voyage; however the vessel can take up to seven passengers in addition to the main crew.
Introducing our vessel: Hanjin Brussels
- Built May 2000 in Korea
- Length of 278.80m, width 40.30m
- Deadweight 68,790.90 tonnes
- Engine max power (all hail) = 74,700 horse power
- Economic speed of 21knots at 82 rpm, max of 26 knots (approx. 48km/hr)
- Container max of 5,618 TEU
- German flag, owned by NSB, Chartered by Hanjin Shipping
- Worth about USD $80million?
- 23 crew + 2 passengers
The Hanjin Brussels is a big container vessel, bigger than most, but some are much bigger. I’m told the biggest in the world are over 400m in length and can carry over two and half times as many containers; true monsters of world commerce.
I was very excited about the pending intrepid journey as it truly is a unique experience to steam across oceans; it would likely be one of the highlights of my travels. Once we had cleared security at the port entrance and made our way to the vessel, which was quayside being loaded with containers, we boarded and were briefly met by the Captain and shown our rooms and around the vessel by the ships steward. The superstructure where the accommodation, bridge etc. is located is bigger than you’d imagine as it has 10 levels, but thankfully it’s all serviced by lift.
Our rooms for the three week voyage were much nicer than expected, no different to what you might expect at a Holiday Inn as the room came complete with ensuite, Hi-Fi system, TV and forward facing windows. These ‘passenger’ rooms aren’t here primarily to transport paying passengers like ourselves, but to provide accommodation for the ship’s owner or ship’s charterer if they choose to come aboard. When they aren’t in use by these people, the company offers them up to the general public to hire so they can experience ocean going voyages aboard a working containership.
The ship came with a surprising array of entertainment and leisure opportunities such as a fully equipped gym, a small pool, sauna, entertainment lounge and outdoor BBQ area complete with deck chairs for when the crew decides to cook dinner outdoors.
Most of the non-officer crew aboard and came from the Philippines. They would work for 4 months straight while onboard before having 4 months off at home; that’s certainly a very long time to be away from home! Officers tended to be from Europe as the vessels owner was a German company and hence is staffed by their employees.
Once we were settled in, cameras in hand, we made our way to the Monkey Deck located on the roof of the ships superstructure(above the bridge) to watch Barcelona Ports enormous gantry cranes load us with containers. Except for the Engine room, for obvious reasons, you are allowed to venture aware on the vessel while onboard without any of the crew accompanying you. This gives you a real sense of freedom that you’re trusted to simply enjoy the experience.
One daily ritual for us was to spend time on the Bridge with the officers and spend time checking the navigation charts get an update on our position. The 3rd officer who was responsible for navigation was only too pleased to talk us through the charts; at no point did we have a shortage of questions for the crew.
The galley was under the control of our Chief cook ‘Sammy’ who would consistently produce delicious meals. The galley was always kept immaculate and gave you the impression that the crew is very professional in their work. At meal times I probably wasn't doing myself any favours, but I was helpless whenever asked if I wanted seconds as the food was just too good to refuse. We dined in the officers’ mess (the rest of the ships crew (mainly Pilipino workers) dined in their own mess room) and certainly felt like kings at meal time.
After setting sail from Barcelona and sailing down the coast of Spain we’d make a port call into Valencia and after a short time at anchor we came in to berth. However due to rain and ‘Spanish mentality’ we would stay for three days, a stop that should have only taken 12-18 hours if we were in the industrial Singapore or China. The upside of this though is that it gave us the opportunity to go ashore, so once we were alongside we did just that. We checked out the America’s Cup Village, downtown Valencia and some of the newer developments and architecture as shown above.
Once the loading and unloading of cargo in Valencia was complete, we set sail directly across the length of the Mediterranean to Egypt and the Suez canal. This would take several days, so there was plenty of time to further explore the ships equipment and participate in the weekly safety drill where a practice of the abandon ship or fire alerts are undertaken to ensure everyone is comfortable with the procedures if a real alert was to be sounded.
As we closed in on the Suez Canal we started to see a few of Egypt’s oil and gas platforms located near to the coast. We would be assigned an anchorage point where we would wait 6 hours until the midnight passage of the canal would begin.