From The UK To Australia: By Container Ship From Southampton To Port Kelang In The CMA CGM Musca (And Flight Beyond)
24/06/2014 Leave a comment
Since returning from Australia in November, I’ve been preoccupied catching up with the inevitable consequences of two months’ absence as well as all Christmas and New Years. I do, though, want to let you know how much I enjoyed my “cargo cruise” from Southampton to Port Kelang aboard the CMA CGM Musca.
You had, quite rightly, emphasized the need for flexibility in one’s travel arrangements, as there are so many variables involved in the logistics of large container ship movements, some of which demand decisions with short times. Over a long period of time our sailing date had moved from September 11th to the 13th, the 14th, then the 16th and finally the 19th. Just the week before planned embarkation, the Southampton port agent was in contact with me advising that weekend movements in the port were somewhat chaotic due to multiple late arrivals. Musca had meanwhile gone from Rotterdam straight to Zeebrugge rather than calling at Southampton first. Even so, she was held off the Isle of Wight for hours before being allowed into port late on the night of 18th September with a planned departure of 12:00 the next day. The port agent had telephoned me on the 18th to suggest I arrive at the Port Security Office as early as possible because they might be able to set sail as soon as 09:45.
None of this caused any problem; in fact, by arriving at the Container Port before 08:00, we avoided all the peak traffic, so my wife had a relaxing journey as my driver. From this point on, I found my expectations were exceeded. It’s a daunting sight to be standing on the quayside looking up at the ship’s gangway running all the way up to the upper deck: with Musca‘s considerable freeboard, the gangway seems to go on for ever – very different to boarding a vessel like the P&O Aurora, where the gangway runs to the ship from high up on the terminal building!
I had expected to carry all my luggage (1 large & 1 small case) aboard myself, but the port agent’s minibus driver insisted on taking my large case aboard. Once brief reception formalities were completed, the steward took both my cases along the corridor to the lift and settled me in to my cabin on F deck. To my surprise, although it was now 08:20 and breakfast time was officially 07:00 – 08:00, the steward (Syrel Alimpuyo, from the Philippines, official job title Messman) invited me to come down to the Officers’ Mess, where he prepared a welcome meal of scrambled eggs with all the trimmings. Not that it mattered to me, but we did depart at 12:00.
CMA CGM Musca, one of twelve similar vessels on the FAL3 route, is big (11,040 TEUs, Summer DWT 131,830 tons, 347 m LOA) but is eclipsed by the company’s newest 16,000 TEU ships (CMA CGM Marco Polo, Alexander von Humboldt and Jules Verne), themselves now overtaken by Maersk Line’s brand new McKinney Møller at 18,000 TEUs. Even so, to get acquainted with Musca is to understand the huge and sophisticated scale on which the modern commercial world operates. If, like me, you’re interested in these things and prefer in any event not to share your transportation with thousands of other passengers, this is a remarkable and privileged experience.
Musca has four double cabins on F deck (three face forward and one aft), the penultimate deck level before the bridge, and above container load height. Only the captain and chief engineer have their cabins and office on G deck, together with a Pilot’s cabin. On this voyage I was the only passenger, so not only did I have a very spacious cabin all to myself, but the entire passengers’ recreation lounge as well..
Understandably, when a bunch of Croatians come together at lunch or dinner, they will speak their native language, often quite excitably; but, since the Ukrainians and Croatians did not speak each others’ languages, there were usually interludes of English conversation, and the captain was always attentive to bringing me into discussions from my adjacent table. I can handle Italian, German and French , but none of their languages. The Filipino officers usually seemed to work differential shifts and took their meals in the crew mess, but I was struck by the polite and friendly behaviour of all 28 members of the ship’s complement..
On the first full day at sea I was given a very comprehensive introduction to and tour of all facilities and stations relevant to on-board safety and emergencies. Quite apart from the emergency procedures summarised in a folder in my cabin, together with hard hat, ear defenders, and full immersion suit, the formal safety introduction included familiarisation with one of the two fully enclosed lifeboats, as well as a visit to the “citadel”, which is a large secure facility accessed via the stern lower deck. The citadel’s purpose is to provide impenetrable protection for crew (and passengers) in the event of a hostile boarding: while the ship cannot be navigated or controlled from there, it does contain all forms of marine communication for continuous contact with emergency agencies, both military and civilian. During our voyage to Port Kelang Captain Dakic organised two fire fighting emergency drills which were formally timed with all appropriate reporting and subsequent debriefing. There is no substitute for the reassurance of knowing that everyone is quite clear what they have to do in the event of any type of emergency.
While it is quite unlikely that anyone could actually manage a seaborn hostile boarding of a ship the size and design of Musca, all CMA CGM vessels operating in known areas of high risk are equipped with very effective anti-grappling devices around the stern lower deck – trained Royal Marine Commandos have failed to get past these, even when stationary in calm water. When we passed through the Gulf of Aden a full lighting blackout was enforced, which meant all illumination except navigation lights was made invisible from the outside. Again, the guiding principle was to make no convenient assumptions and to take nothing for granted..
My main motives in choosing to travel by container ship rather than simply catching an aircraft from London to Perth, Western Australia (my ultimate destination) were: to enjoy the peace and rest of a long sea voyage, get plenty of sea air, pass gradually from one time zone to another, read and write at leisure, observe how these giants of the sea operate and how their crews live, and to eat three square meals a day – the latter being something I rarely do at home, despite being one of the minority who could actually benefit from gaining some weight! I can say with confidence that these objectives were all very well served – my only regret being that Musca couldn’t take me all the way to Perth..
I did miss two meals during my 26 days on board: a breakfast one morning when I overslept (though Syrel subsequently reminded me that I could come down to the Mess at any time to get cereals, toast and coffee), and a dinner one evening when I simply had no capacity for any more food, settling instead for some fruit. The meals were good and varied, with some amusing Filipino versions of the menu descriptions (e.g. Chicken Gordon for Cordon Bleu, Crockets for Potato Croquettes, Leche Flan which proved to be Creme Caramel). Captain Dakic occasionally influenced the choice of menu by calling for fish as well as meat, and bringing out the ice cream or the blue cheese. Wine was usually served with dinner, with the alternative of German lager if preferred – the only exception being while we were in port at Jeddah, when all alcohol had to be locked away in the ship’s bonded store: “Saudi prohibition”, as the captain ruefully described it! On two or three occasions meat was barbequed in a surprisingly large semi-enclosed BBQ facility on E deck: there was room enough for the crew to sit and eat in the same facility, while the officers and I were served in the Mess..
Keeping fit is a matter to be taken seriously when you’re at sea for months on end. If you take two tours of the upper deck on Musca, you will have walked 1.5 km. For me as a passenger, I was required to contact the bridge first, so they could advise me of any work in progress on the upper deck and they would be aware of where I was going; I would then let them know when I returned. One would not normally be allowed on the upper deck after dark or in extreme weather conditions and certainly not when cargo operations were underway in port. Common sense is required on deck at all times, as much of the time no one will be able to see you – least of all from the bridge. I always made a point of walking down from F deck to B deck for all meals, though it was a tall order to walk back up again after three courses, so the lift was usually preferred afterwards..
The alternative, though, was the gymnasium – well equipped with treadmill, weights, punchbag, as well as table tennis and darts – although the most impressive sight was the oldest crewmember, the 61-year-old chief engineer, jogging round the upper deck. He did this most days, irrespective of the high temperatures, finishing by returning to his cabin on G deck via the external stairs. Even though I’m seven years older, he made me feel quite inadequate as I smiled at him through the window from my air conditioned comfort in the passenger lounge. Then, if you’re not hot enough, there’s always the sauna! Better still was the lure of the swimming pool, freshly filled with seawater pumped up from the Red Sea at 32°C..
Management gurus will always emphasize the importance of teamwork and bonding when considering how the best organisations operate. A real sense of mutual support, as well as personal commitment, was very evident aboard Musca, and there is always plenty for everyone to do, both mundane as well as technically complicated - in fact, it is remarkable that a complex vessel of this size, running 24/7, only requires a crew of 28. Officers and crew rotate at different intervals, from three months to as long as nine or occasionally twelve, so individuals go on leave and are replaced on a continuous rolling basis. Any running repairs are handled according to circumstances, with any major works being undertaken in port where, if necessary, additional spare parts might have to be made available. The ship does, though, carry a wide range of spares: I even noticed a new piston and connecting rod in the engine room. If additional skills and manpower should be required, company engineers are flown out to join the ship at a port of call and will stay aboard for as long as it takes..
An on-deck BBQ party was organised one evening as we cruised across the Indian Ocean – this was on the starboard side of F deck, which was large enough to have a big portable BBQ and tables and benches for all to be seated. Several of the Filipino crew were keen amateur musicians and there was no shortage of entertainment, much enjoyed by all. I was quite surprised by the number of guitars on board, together with microphones, amplifiers and speakers. Making your own amusement is a valuable skill..
Extended cargo operations which seemed to go on forever in both Beirut and Jeddah made a further dent in our schedule - and we had waited a whole day outside Beirut pending clearance to get in on a berth. Such are the routine frustrations confronting these ships – even if the vessel is ready to go, you’re still dependent upon tugs and pilot. While the plan had been to arrive at Port Kelang on 13th October (having originally been the 11th), we were only able to get there on the morning of 15th October. What had originally been anticipated as a 28 day voyage had been replanned at 24 days when the Southampton and Zeebrugge calls were reversed, but had gone out again to 26 days due to the further delays. CMA CGM’s operations manager responsible for the FAL3 route had once told me all his ships had operated to schedule over the last two years; I know now how he did that: by moving the goalposts! To be fair and realistic, I don’t envy him the constant challenges of his job though. As things worked out, I had no regrets at all..
Captain Dakic had offered me my own on-board email account quite early on. I didn’t do this, as I didn’t want to encourage a flood of incoming messages, especially those of a casual nature. Instead, at his invitation, I used his email account to keep my wife up to date, to confirm progress with a friend of mine who had been trying to track the ship on-line via AIS – impossible between Suez and the Malacca Strait unless you can justify the cost of Satellite AIS – and to contact the hotel I had prearranged in Kuala Lumpur. When I disembarked, most crew-members made a point of saying farewell and wishing me luck, and they insisted on carrying my luggage down to the quayside. The captain had also taken it upon himself to negotiate with the Port Agent in Port Kelang for him to get me to central Kuala Lumpur after taking me to the Malaysian Immigration Office outside the port for passport formalities. This the agent did for US$20, good value considering how far he drove me and the 1¼ hour Kommuter train ride, for which he paid, and which deposited me just 100 metres from my hotel. It’s not the captain’s job to do these things, but these people know how to use their contacts and get things done..
The humidity in Kuala Lumpur was very oppressive and , while I had intended to look around for a couple of days, I was not displeased to be on a flight to Perth the next day. After a month in Australia, winding up in Sydney, I was, however, less than thrilled to be subjected to 24 hours of flights to get back to the UK. Where was Musca when I needed her?.
Any regrets? Well, I should have chosen to do an engine room visit in port rather than at sea, if only to make it easier to have a conversation – though it was reassuring to see the huge propeller shaft actually turning! Would I do such a voyage again? Without hesitation!.
For details of how to book a cargo ship voyage with CMA CGM please contact Miri Lopusna at The Cruise People Ltd in London on 020 7723 2450 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.