En route – Transatlantische Überfahrt

Google Map mit dem ungefähren Kurs den wir auf der MV Rickmers Shanghai zurückgelegt haben. – The approximate route of the MV Rickmers Shanghai January 2013 transatlantic crossing.

Transatlantic Journey on MV Rickmers Shanghai – Google Maps

Hier ist eine Kopie meines Reisetagebuchs von der Überfahrt (in Englisch). I have attached a copy of my ship diary.

Ship Diary:

January 13, 2013

Late this afternoon, I called the agent for the shipping company to confirm the departure time for the vessel. He said he was very glad that I called: The ship is expected to leave very early in the morning. Originally, departure time was estimated to be between noon and 6 o’clock. He kindly asked me to make my way to the marine terminal and check-in tonight.

This is a little bit like history repeating itself. Twenty years ago, we travelled as a family on the train to Le Havre. We planned to arrive a day early, visit the city, and stay in an inn for a morning departure. It went all according to plan. I remember how we were in this big square with beautiful fountains.

My daughter was a young child and enjoyed the freedom of running around on this wide-open public space after a long train ride. All in a sudden a taxicab rushed towards us, came to a screeching halt, opened the door and asked to get in.

“The ship is leaving!” the cab driver yelled. He took us to the inn. We packed up all our stuff again and went straight to the boat. Once on board, the ship’s horn sounded and we were off.

This time, I made it to the ship in time. The departure is not imminent yet; but I expect them to embark at any time the cargo is loaded. Instead of spending one more night at the hospitality house, I’ll be staying aboard on the sixth floor. Below me a foggy scene of working dock operations at night: The yellowish glow of streetlights illuminating the scene that would be suitable for a thriller movie.

For now there are a few pick-up trucks and cars moving back and forth dockside. It does not look very active out there, but the cargo holds were still open when I walked up the gangplank for my completely unceremonial check-in. I was glad when I arrived at the bottom of the stairs. The local agent was not forth coming with any descriptive information on how to get to the ship. This is a widespread industrial area wit warehouses, old railway tracks, and many security fences. Google Maps directed me along a long fence line. There were two locked gates. But further up the road, I saw a truck with lights and running engine parked on the side. Behind those still loaded semi-trailers, I found an open and attended gate.

The security guard was very friendly and completely unpretentious. He took my name, pointed me in the general direction of the ship that was not yet visible due to the fog. More fence lines, more railway tracks, and finally I was able to see the suspended gangplank.

The contrast between the boarding of the Amtrak trains in Chicago and Washington and boarding this ship could not be any more pronounced. The two mates waiting at the top of the stairs were very friendly and helpful. Within a few minutes, I was checked in with the ship’s office and escorted upstairs to my cabin for the ten-day voyage.

Good night – and was on my own. I unpacked the few things I carry for this trip, sat in silence for a while, then read the welcome package and safety instruction. I was curious to find a plan for the ship. There is one posted in the hallway. That’s how I first met one of the fellow passengers, Elan, and the captain. We got quickly introduced because we were right in front of the captain’s quarters.

Elan is on his way to do volunteer work in Israel. He has never been on a big vessel before. He seemed glad to hear that I have previous experience from a freighter voyage. We had a brief chat in the library and afterwards retired to our cabins for the first night on board.

Here you can read his side of the story: http://myeyezrgreen.wordpress.com/travels/the-freight-boat/

January 14, 2013

Goodbye America!

We finally left the dock in Philadelphia conveniently after breakfast. That way, I was able to record some of the operations for a little movie project. I spent many of the daylight hours on the sun deck, a slight misnomer on this overcast and partially foggy day.

I was fascinated by the way the big ship did a 180-degree turn and then proceeded downriver past numerous piers. The majority of them are inactive, many abandoned and derelict, some of them converted into residential projects or even a sports stadium. But who would expect otherwise: The industrial decline witnessed in Kensington is appropriately reflected on the waterfront.

In addition, newer technologies, like containers, and the trend to bigger vessels also require different handling equipment. The tonnage discharged and loaded for a ship like MV Rickmers Shanghai in less than two days in port would have occupied several piers by different vessels decades ago. And there are no more day labourers carrying hundreds of bags or boxes from deck down the gangway into a warehouse anymore.

By late afternoon, a speedboat picked up the pilot. That was an indication that the ship has successfully navigated the river part and was entering ocean water. It was a gentle transition from a steady passage to a slight swaying and heaving. The Chief Mate does not expect extremely rough seas on the way to Europe, but he also cautioned us passengers that this can change without much forewarning.

As I write these paragraphs, it is well past nightfall. I did a brief round in the dark. There were still a few lights from other vessels visible around us. Otherwise, it seems like complete darkness: No moonshine, no stars, no atmospheric reflection or reflection from the snow. Even the glow of the megalopolis around Philadelphia has faded away.

I have yet get used to the relative disconnect from the world. I would have preferred to say my good-byes to the people at the Simple Way, instead of leaving a phone message and a note about my sudden departure. I am glad I have sent brief email messages to Celia and to Muck and the kids. Beyond that, I don’t miss the lack of Internet connectivity.

Impressions of the heights of this vessel.
Impressions of the heights of this vessel.
The tunnels on either side of the cargo holds.
The tunnels on either side of the cargo holds.

Instead, I am about to discover a new community for ten to twelve days. The crew does its best to welcome us passengers. It is not easy to strike up a conversation; so far I have only connected with the Chief Mate. He is from Transylvania in Romania and very knowledgeable. He likes mountains and mountaineering, but finds himself at sea for economic reasons. He gave us the safety briefing, including instructions of what to do if we were to be last survivors on the sinking ship!

Well, it is good to know, but hard to imagine. In such a case, it would be best to have confidence in divine providence and to practice acceptance thereof. After all, I have some lived experience with the ocean. When I was in my early twenties, I went to the beach in the Cinqueterre in Italy.

One afternoon, we were riding the waves. It was fun up to the point where I started to realize that the waves are getting bigger and stronger. The current was slowly pulling me away from shore. As the wave became fiercer, I wasn’t able to stay atop: They pulled me down to the gravel bottom, then heaved me up to the crest where I was able to get air instead of water.

At first I tried with all my strength to swim towards shore to get out. But I soon realized that I would exhaust myself in no time. My strength and stamina were nothing compared to the forces of the wave action. When I was under water, I tried to anchor myself in the gravel so that the current would not pull me out any further.

I accepted the fact, without fear or panic, that I had no significant influence on my destiny at that time. I was at peace and I was one with the elements.

At some point my friends on the beach started to realize that I was no longer having fun. They scrambled to find someone with a boat or at least some rescue equipment. But, we have chosen one of the wildest beaches for a reason! Eventually, there were a few smaller waves and I was gaining some ground towards shore. I have no clear recollection of the events up to the point where I tried to stand up on the beach.

I was so disoriented and my equilibrium so out of order from the washing-machine-like movements in the ocean that I had to crawl from the water to the sand, puking out all the salt water I had ingested. My arms and legs hurt and were scraped and bruised from all the tumbling, twisting and grinding that was going on while I was in the power of the waves.

My friends were sure glad for my return. The pulled me up to a dry and sunny spot where I needed time to recover. Much later, it became clear to me that the ocean did not want me at this time. I was grateful, but I was also fully accepting the fact that some higher power must have intervened in the situation and provided some loving care for the little fool.

January 15, 2013

The second day at sea: I spent much of my time cutting and editing the footage of the departure from Philadelphia yesterday. Before breakfast, I paid a short visit to the bridge. This big boat runs on autopilot; the captain or one of his officers is merely needed to keep watch

The day is largely structured around meal times. Followed by a long evening. An evacuation drill interrupted today’s routine. We got to put a lifesaver on and had a chance to sit for a minute in the very crammed rescue craft. The crew does not seem to be very disciplined. The newly hired Chief Mate had a hard time conducting an orderly exercise. Some of the crew with longer seniority kept distracting and putting on a sideshow. I definitely did not get the impression that I should trust this crew in an emergency situation from the drill I witnessed.

Getting ready to abandon ship! A weekly drill exercise.
Getting ready to abandon ship! A weekly drill exercise.

Random Act of Kindness

Elan came over to my cabin with his guitar and we recorded one of his recent compositions on my laptop. He is an aspiring singer-songwriter. This is his spontaneous contribution to the short film a cut and edited today.

I am not sure if I can fit the two works to make one, but I will give it some thought. Elan’s song is inspired by the 1983 VW pick-up truck that took him on a recent road trip from Connecticut to Georgia and back: “Ain’t got no radio”. (Klick here to listen to the live recording)

The commonality of the two works is the travel theme. I am saying goodbye to America. A desolate place shrouded in fog. It takes a complete 180-degree turn and assistance from a tugboat to make the turn.

Once the vessel sheds a few more expert advisers, it seems to be heading for an open sea and a silver thread along the horizon.

Tomorrow, I will listen more intently to Elan’s gift and see how I will be able to thread it with my visuals. It sound much more poetic than the ambient sound I recorded from the port and the strong ship engines.

January 16, 2013

At sea, at peace. It is another quiet day with a few conversations with my fellow traveler and the Chief Mate. Nothing is exciting; nothing is boring. I spent some time on deck this afternoon, enjoying the sunshine and the warmth. The Chief Mate told us that the water temperature is 23 degrees Celsius. We could ask for the swimming pool to be filled for our soaking pleasure. I would have never expected such for a mid-winter transatlantic crossing. But we are apparently travelling along the Gulf Stream, which explains the favourable conditions

As I was basking in the gentle sun and its reflection off the waters, I heard a splash. As I looked around, I saw two bodies above the water and then diving in with another splash. There was one more jump and splash. I didn’t get a good enough look at what frolicked or explored alongside the vessel to identify the animal by a particular name. A dolphin came to my mind, but the silhouette looked more seal like.

Eventually, I went back inside to my reading of Anarchism lecture. The book “Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six easy pieces on autonomy, dignity, and meaningful work and play” by James C. Scott is a book recommended to me by a reader of my blog. After reading the first of the six pieces, I find many of my ideas mirrored and well presented in this work.

The reading made me reflect on my journey in life that could not be described as the life of a social activist, despite my extensive skepticism of the hegemony.

January 17, 2013

It was a birthday. One of the crewmember’s birthdays was celebrated last night in the crew mess, with a lot of karaoke, drinking, and smoking. It was the first time that I witnessed officers and crew mingle freely, breaking through the otherwise strictly observed hierarchies that determine everything on this ship, from the room assignments to the seating arrangements at the dinner table.

I joined the party for a little while. I did not feel at home in this environment. The noise, I believe, is the most difficult to handle. It impairs my participation in conversations. I couldn’t even recognize the earworms from the karaoke machine: The music and the amplified singing blended in with the general noise level of the laughing and lively conversation in the room, all mixed with the low rumbling of the ship in passage.

After the singing in the smoky atmosphere, I went to my room to watch a movie and eventually to settle into bed. As I lay down, I noticed that there must have been a different pattern of waves, as the ship was gently rolling from side to side. I imagined how that would feel for the guys who imbibed heavily last night! I’ll hear the story of Elan a little later…

But I did not get to write about the anarchism thoughts. I tried to highlight one particular section in Scott’s book. But I soon realized that certain functionalities of the Kindle reader on the compute only seem to work online. But I found the passage again through a bookmark:

“I will become apparent that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism or anarchist principles. One thing that heaves into mind… namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule.” (Loc 91/2726)

January 19, 2013

I am practicing clearing the mind. It is slowly working. I use some distraction from the DVD library. It was quite a task to find some discs that I would consider watchable and worthwhile. I don’t thrive on warmed-up soccer games or movies where guys beat up guys for whatever reason. There are a few comedies, but some of the plots are so senseless, that they have no entertainment value for me either.

Why is it so difficult to make a drama, or a movie about life? Something uplifting, constructive? Or is that yet another indication that I can’t let go and just have some fun? How do other people negotiate honestly the quirks of life and relationships? Not the scheming kind, but the one where one’s own limitations are explored, become exposed, and are being transformed.

I eventually found a decent character drama: No reservations. It is the story of a career chef, single and fully immersed in her professional life, with no other discernible interests in life. She defines herself by what she does. She is excellent and gets the recognition she deserves for her work. Until her single-mom sister plans to visit in NYC. The sister is being killed in an accident shortly before arrival, the niece survives and is now in New York and needs to be cared for.

The chef had a struggle to make space in her full career life for the hospital visits and then the young girl living with her. She had to learn everything, from how to drop her off at school, to arrange for after school care. Ad she thought that this was all manageable as an add-on to her career. Eventually, she sees how others around her take time to interact with the girls and how the girl positively responds.

One day the chef skips work because the girl did not feel like going to school. It was the first time that we see the two being close. The wake up sharing a bed – the chef finally allowed herself to replace the missing mother without reservations.

January 21, 2013

The Chief Mate informed us passengers during breakfast that is very difficult for the ship to hold its course. We might take some extra time getting to Europa. He was talking about going to West Africa, which would be easier than our scheduled route!

Beautiful sunset with a rough sea. North of the Azores Islands.
Beautiful sunset with a rough sea. North of the Azores Islands.

The weather is good, there was clear sky and the moon and the stars were out last night. The winds are light at times. But there is a strong swell that rocks the boat. For two nights in a row now, it was very difficult to fall asleep because the boat is rolling constantly. For me it is almost impossible to fall asleep if the whole weight of the body shifts from left to right every two to three seconds.

I learned to prop my body with pillows on either side. I have also experimented to lay diagonally in bed, on my stomach with pillows either side. But it has not helped. My body doe not come to rest. Only if there is a break in the extreme rolling, that I find some rest, like a short nap. And I wake up again when the cabin creaks and everything shifts and bangs.

Last night, I tried to change position. We had a discussion with the Chief Mate and he suggested that the orientation of the beds is wrong for these conditions. So I took the mattress and put it on the floor, at a ninety-degree angle to the bed. It sure made a difference: When I first settled, I had to get used to the head rush every time the boat tilted to starboard. I also tried to hold on to the rim of the mattress with my toes. But eventually, I found some sleep.

Until the fire alarm went off at six thirty this morning. But nothing but a false alarm due to a sensor problem that was likely triggered by the extreme rolling. Twenty to twenty-five degrees is normal, but the ship has reached thirty degrees, which seems to be a value that is concerning for the crew. There must be some limits to the stability of the vessel. That is one of the reasons why they changed course again, sailing towards Africa rather than Europe

By now, we should be halfway across the Atlantic. The original route that was planned for this voyage would have taken us just north of the Azores Islands and then heading for the entrance of the English Channel. This afternoon, I’ll go up to the bridge to inform myself about our current whereabouts.


It looks like we took a couple of turns. Around two o’clock, we started heading northeast from the Azores Islands. I didn’t see the islands, but I spotted a ship on the horizon, heading west. Beautiful weather, it is inviting for sitting and contemplating on the deck (at least on the lee side). But the waves continued to give the crew trouble.

Just before dinnertime, the captain ordered another maneuver, this time heading in easterly direction again. Maybe Marrakesh? Or maybe he just wanted to sail in calmer waters while eating dinner.

January 25, 2013

The first lights in sight. Late this afternoon, we passed Bishop Rock, the first portion of land along the English Channel, but it was so foggy that nothing was visible. It was a feature on the radar map. But tonight, I peaked out my cabin window and saw a single blink of a light. And I had to focus hard to confirm that it was not just an imagination. Then it blinked again, and again.

It has been almost two weeks now, and I am getting a little excited about the next part of the journey. It has been a good sea voyage over all, but now I believe it is time to get back ashore again for a while!

January 26, 2013

A beautiful morning: I woke up early, around four and thought that I heard some foghorns. So I looked out the window, expecting to see the English weather. Instead it was clear sky and calm seas, no fog at all.

After breakfast, I went to the bridge to observe the traffic around us. Of course, I can do that from the pilot deck, too, but I find it more fascinating when I have the various instruments at hand for additional information. It is like a big puzzle that can be put together.

Fullmoon over Calais, France
Fullmoon over Calais, France

January 27, 2013

Last night, I was able to text Celia from the ship. The vessel was close to shore in Calais and it was within range of the cell phone signal. At least now I know that we can contact each other that way. And I was thinking about her and the rest of the world more often over the last few days as the proximity to life on land became more palpable.

Now, the ship is tied up to the dock in Antwerp. I missed most of the river journey and the docking operations. When I woke up at seven, the ropes were just tied to shore. Now it is three hours later, and except for breakfast, nothing has happened yet.

There is a tanker vessel alongside, either pumping stuff in or out. And some of the ship’s crew is putting new life rafts in place. It is raining, windy, and it feels cold – very different from the beautiful weather yesterday.

Now I am also back to the mind space of worries about worldly matters. It felt good to be so removed. I think it was a real relief for me. The small things that impose on life on a daily or constant basis are back. At least in theory, the remoteness, the hermitage is gone – soon there will be email, google, new questions and answers, decisions to make. I enjoyed this total embeddedness in a relatively closed system.

It reminds me much of the days on the “Alp” or the farm: A small organism that functions quite autonomously in many ways. It is this system and idea of self-sufficiency that keeps fascinating me; it is manifested in the life of the nomads in the Sahel, the traditional Inuit and other indigenous peoples, Pelly Farm and our own farm projects back in the “old days”. I am looking forward to that degree of remoteness once I get to the monastery in Rapperswil.

In the meantime, I will be a pilgrim in a different world, wandering from oasis to oasis…

3 thoughts on “En route – Transatlantische Überfahrt

  1. Thank you for sharing your diary with us, Othmar. I’m sure I was not the only one wondering about your experiences en route. I had a similar experience being tossed about by big waves and sucked into the undertow in Tofino, BC, when I was a young teenager. It was a wake-up call for me also. The ocean is beautiful, yes, and far more powerful than I. A humbling lesson…

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