Sailing on a Feeder

Seven round trips to Saint-Petersburg


In July 2005 the start of my nautics studies got nearer. I had just returned from England where I had been jobbing on some square riggers. Checking the mail I found a letter saying that I should enroll in Warnemuende by the end of September - still a bit more than two months to go. Time which I hoped to use to get an insight into "real" seafaring - not the makebelieve world of a sail training ship, but the merchant fleet and especially those vessels that carry cargo.

Surprisingly it took me only one call to the Heuerstelle Hamburg (special jobcenter for German seafarers) and a couple of hours later I sat in the train to Kiel where I should board a ship called CONTAINERSHIPS VI as a deck rating...

I feet a bit unsure of what I am heading for when the taxi driver drops me off at the seamans mission next to the Kiel Canal locks. Having called the ship earlier I know that she is underway in the canal and will enter the locks in about 3 hours time. So I follow the friendly lady in the seamans mission's advice to take a nap on the sofa being awoken by her in good time to board my ship.

At 4:30 a.m. "my" ship enters the lock. I take my luggage and head for the gangway where I meet chief mate. He sends me up to the bridge for mustering. Gosh, the way up there seems to have no end. 1st deck, A-deck, B-deck, C-deck, D-deck, E-deck and finally on the F-deck the door to the bridge. I open the door and am stunned. Being only used to the tiny wheel houses on tall ships this bidge seems huge to me.

I hand in my seaman's book and sign the ship's articles. Now I am a crew member. After this chief mate shows me my cabin. It seems to me like luxury to live in a cabin of my own having even my private bath room. On my last ships I shared a much smaller space with one or more crew mates... I learn that our next port will be Arhus where we will arrive around noon time. Until then I may rest what I accept gladly. Despite the loud engine working directly below my cabin I am sound asleep only minutes later.

6 hours later the phone on the wall rings. I am told to go to lunch and afterwards see the ship mechanic at the aft manoeuver station. Below decks are two mess rooms, one for the officers and sometimes passengers and the other one for the ratings. There I meet the others of the crew: ship mechanic Alex, two A/B's from Romania Tudor and Gazi, the apprentices Kunze, Markus and Leif and the trainee Billy. Our cook is called Balthazar. He comes from the Cape Verde Islands and speaks fluent German. With Tudor and Gazi we communicate in English. All others are German.

After Lunch we arrive in Arhus. I know this port form a visit with MIR a couple of years ago. Then we had been berthed near the city center. Now we make fast at the container terminal. Markus, Leif and Billy received shore leave. Being very fond of the blonde Danish girls they cheerily head for town. Gazi rigs himself a stage to re-paint the ship's name. Tudor and I receive paint rolls and a drum of primer to paint the side of the ship. Kunze is on cargo watch. So the afternoon passes by and only a few hours later we leave Arhus again with destination Kronstadt. Our ETA there is only 36 hours from now what irritates me. With a tall ship it would take us a week. The CONTAINERSHIPS VI has a service speed of 21 knots.

Apart from the never ending maintenance works there is one more job for me to do. I am mustered as watch keeper what means that taking turns with Markus I go the night watches (midnight to 4) together with the 2nd mate. Our main job there is to be on look-out. But sometimes it is quiet and not much to look out for. As 2nd mate Sven is also responsible for the education of apprentices and trainees he uses those times to teach us things like radar plotting, chart work, weather, helming, colregs, etc. We also need to do some small jobs during our time on the bridge like washing windows, emptying the paper baskets and cook coffee. In fact we have a quite pleasant time up there. Sven is a nice guy. Very young though. Having just passed his exams this is his first voyage as watch officer. So he can give us a lot of useful advice and the watches go by quickly.

Kronstadt is a former fortress situated on an island near St. Petersburg/ Russia. Formerly it was a restricted area and only open to members of the Russian navy. Nowadays it is connected with the mainland by a bridge. Originally the project had been to build a big wall with a lock to prevent the old part of St. Petersburg from flooding when in the spring the ice melts. Unfortunately it was never completed and now the parts and pieces of it rot beneath the beach. In front of them a number of more or less seaworthy boats are moored with people woking on them more or less busily. Next to this is our terminal. It is 20m too short for our vessel and so we cannot follow the usual routine for berthing. On the aft manoeuver station we first send the spring ashore and then we need to wait until one of the linesmen left the terminal with his car, drove around it, left his car, climbed over some rocks and rubbish and is finally ready to take the aft line. Now the gangway needs to be placed between a electricity station and a hut with a security camera. Having managed this we now wait for the immigration officers. After those left the ship (laden with gifts...) we can start discharging the ship.

My job here is the gangway watch. Every 6 hours I stand here for 6 hours. Thanks to ISPS (security code invented after the 9-11 terror) at any time somebody must stand at or near the gangway and write a list about who comes on board or leaves the ship. A dull job. Reading a book or listening music during that time is not allowed. Since no terrorists come I spend my time fighting the millions of midgets attacking us after dark. However, 6 hours have an end and after being relievd by Markus I use my off-watch for going ashore. Seamen need no visa for Russia but can go ashore with their seamanbook and a shore pass. A friendly woman at the immigration office informs me which bus to take to town. Soon after I sit in a beergarden beneath a fountain and while enjoying my Baltika beer I watch the children play in the water. It is the time of the white nights and even though after midnight it is not completely dark and there are many people out on the street. Too soon it is time to return on board for my next gangway watch.

Our next port is Tilbury, the port of London. A three day voyage. Enrico, our chief mate has scheduled a lot of work for us. He wants the cell guides in front of the superstructures painted and hopes that we complete this in those three days. Unfortunately this is not so. Many rusty spots can only be reached by artistic climbing and we cannot always use the tools we needed to. Rust hammer and needle gun can only be employed after 10 a.m. since before this the 2nd mate and his lookout are still asleep. After lunch the master rests. So we can only work 10 to 12 a.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. but during those times it always rains.

Or he have drills scheduled. Every week we perform 1-2 drills. As a rule this is done in the mornings after coffee time. Sven is in charge for the planning and execution. This time it is fire fighting, rescuing a person from a bruning cabin and a boat drill. Alex and I don the breathing apparatuses and protective clothing. Then we must find and rescue Billy from his "burning" cabin. We bring him outside where others perfom first aid to him and return to the "fire" to extinguish it. The breathing apparatus is slightly different than the ones we had in the basic safety class, the communication does not work out and we stumble over a line. Okay, we will have to practise this again. Actually that's why we make those drills. To make sure the mistakes are made here and not in the real situation.

We arrive in Tilbury earlier than planned. This gives us the chance to launch a working boat and paint the ship beneath the waterline. To get there we must climb down a light rope leddar which is hanging from the aft deck. This is a bit tricky as the rope leddar is swinging around. So Markus and I decide to skip the coffee time and stay in the boat instead of climbing up there and down again after 20 minutes. Alex sees this and soon after he sends down a bucket with flask and mugs with the heaving line. Three cheers for our ship mechanic!

In the evening we receive shore leave. But the gate closes 10:30 p.m. and so there is not enough time to hit the train into London. As there is nothing interesting in Tilbury we just buy some beer in the local supermarket and sit on a nearby lawn to drink it. I also buy a garden chair for my gangway watches!

From Tilbury we sail to Teesport and Rotterdam. In both ports we cannot set a foot ashore as all the crew is busy around the clock and uses the short breaks to find some sleep. I learn about the cargo watch. Patiently Gazi explains to me what to do and checks from time to time if I get along well. There are working with two gantries here and neither stevedores nor lashing people come on board but the crew has to do all the work. One deck man per gantry. Our job is to check that the right containers are put on board and placed according to the stowing plan, to open and close the hatches, to put the quick releases ("twist locks") in place and open or close them, to place and fix the lashing bars. Sometimes, e.g. when 40 ft containers get loaded inside the hold we just stand nearby and make notes on the stowing plan. But few minutes after one needs to do all things at the same time. In Rotterdam they load a new container every 2 minutes. If one has to plug in reefers, place twist locks and prepare the next hatch in time one needs to look lively. Finally all hands are called out for lashing all containers and get the ship ready for the sea. For this up to 10 m long lashing bars are hung into the corner castings of the lower three layers of containers and connected with the deck by turnbuckles.

From Rotterdam we sail to Kronstadt again. Via the Kiel Canal we need only 2 1/2 days for this. This time a barbeque is planned while we are underway. On the aft deck we set up a grill and Balthazar cooks saussages and steaks. With this we drink some beers that were donated by our passengers. We have two passengers this time. Via an agency people can book a passage on our ship. The passengers like the CONTAINERSHIPS VI as there are so many Germans on board and the board language is German. This has become quite rare. Due to the globalisation many shipping companies hire cheap crews from Asia and sail under a flag of convenience. Our ship sails under the German flag.

From Kronstadt we sail to Helsinki. The approach between a number of small rocks and islands is very scenic. Sadly we have no time to visit the city as we stay here only two hours. Aftwards it is again Arhus and Teesport. The weather fax has a gale warning for us. A cyclone over Scotland which we happen to meet in the North Sea. Soon after passing the Skagen buoy the fun starts. The sea is coming from the side and our only with empty containers laden ship starts to roll heavily. Billy gets seasick. All others are well - until the cook serves a hairy pork knuckle and sauerkraut for lunch. Nobody eats much. Enrico has some special jobs for us. Tudor and Gazi are sent to chip rust in the fore peak. Alex is send to a locker nearby for some welding works and I am told to clean the walls beind a shelf there with rust cleaner. For this I need to climb inside the shelf and work above my head with the smelly stuff. Being close to giving up I gladly return to the deck as Enrico calls the action off. Gazi is over the edge. First the hairy pork knuckle and now the fore peak, that is too much for him. He swears only to sign on to bigger vessels in future (they do not roll so much) and turns into his bunk for the rest of the day.

Rotterdam, Arhus, Helsinki, Kronstadt, Teesport, Kronstadt, Helsinki and finally Hamburg. Our crew has reduced to 13. Kunze returned to school for his final exams to become ship mechanic. Billy leaves the ship in Hamburg. His time as trainee is over. He will sign a contract for an apprenticeship and then return to the vessel. But first he needs to go to seaman school for the basic safety training and the familiarisation course. Hamburg is our home port. So as a rule the crew changes take place here. Also bunkering and the taking of provisions are done here. So again no time for shore leave. It would not make sense anyway as we are here at the Burchardkai which is far away from the city center. A taxi to the Reeperbahn would cost more than 35 €.

Our roundtrip has changed. From now on we only sail Hamburg - Arhus - Kronstadt - Hamburg. I don't mind. Actually it does not matter where we go. Container terminals all look the same be it in Russia or Timbuktu. Without the stressy ports Rotterdam and Teesport our work gets more relaxed. By the time when we call Hamburg the next time our master and our chief mate go home for leave. Dieter, the new chief mate brings his dog. Husky girl Candy is the new attraction among the crew. She often sits with me at the gangway when I am on watch.

Again in Hamburg Sven and Alex leave the vessel. The next one going home will be me. My two months on board are almost complete. One more roundtrip and then it is "Rolling Home" for me. I have learned a lot. I could also use a lot of that what I have learned on the sailing ships. The work on a feeder is hard. Now we had summer. How will it be in winter time when the Baltic Sea is covered with ice and snow? The cameraderie is as good as on the tall ships. But it lacks the team work. The crews on modern cargo ships are slim and everybody is more or less a lone fighter seeing his collegues only at the meal times - if at all. Machinery helps the crew and a line which formerly was heaved on board by three men is now heaved by one man and a winch. The helmsman is replaced by an autopilot and the work of the radio mate is taken over by the watch officer. Other things are the same. Just like 100 years ago the crew fights a never ending battle agains rust and rot and dirt. Most of the working hours of the deck crew are filled with chipping, cleaning and painting works.

Being a female in this male job? Well, there are different reactions you get from your male collegues. Most of them simply accept that there is a seawoman. But others permanently complain that women do not have the same body strength as men and sometimes cannot manage the work with heavy tools as e.g. lashing bars. Also it appears to be difficult for the officers to find the right way to deal with female crew making mistakes. Being used to behave gallantly towards women it feels strange to them sometimes having to shout at one.

On arrival in Hamburg a friend picks me up with the car. With a laughing and a sad eye I leave the vessel. A ship always becomes home to the seafarer and if you can leave her without being a little bit sad than something was wrong. But the laughing eye looks into the future to the coming study and the new life waiting for me.


length:                                             154 m
beam:                                                21 m
height deck above water:                 12 m
max. draught:                                     9 m
gross tonnage:                              9950 GT
:                                        966  teu


PS: In February 2006 I sailed on another ship of the same company through the ice. See Photopage "CONTAINERSHIPS V"

this page was updated 10/07