When we mentioned to people that we were planning to finish our prolonged journey home from Papua New Guinea with three weeks on a container ship, (not a cruise ship, a container ship), their reactions fell into two distinct categories: those who said “Are you completely crazy?” and those, fewer in number, who said “How exciting!” Some people even wondered whether we would find ourselves sleeping in a shipping container.
Well, for those people, here’s our cabin, which soon became our home and our cocoon.
The other question that was frequently asked was “Won’t you be bored?” Well the answer has to be ‘No, absolutely not.’ Somehow, every day seemed to fill itself. What I never realised is that it is possible to stare at an ocean for extended periods of time and not even notice the time passing. I suppose it is a form of meditation, but watching the wake of this huge ship was an endlessly changing view of which we never tired.
One morning, as we were doing one of our tours of inspection around the outer gangway of the ship, we spotted a whale – only very briefly – but nevertheless we saw it and I almost got a picture to prove it. You’ll have to take my word for it, but the spurt of water that you might be able to see in this picture was coming from the blow-hole of a whale. Honest. That was certainly enough excitement to fill one day.
Our first day on board was partly taken up by our security briefing and alarm-drills. We were four passengers altogether, two Frenchmen, Jacques and Youri, and then Linda and me.
We all had to learn that there are a number of different alarms on the ship and that they all had different, and dire, meanings The general alarm of seven short blasts and one long one could signal anything from “Man overboard” to “Attack by pirates.” Whatever the emergency, passengers were to make their way directly to the bridge and await instructions from the Captain.
A wailing noise would signify a fire alarm and again passengers had to go to the bridge, while all the crew were to go to their pre-assigned fire stations. (The captain actually showed us pictures of a container ship that caught fire not long ago, and it was not a pretty sight. Apparently several containers from China were marked as “Christmas goods,’ and after several weeks exposed to the tropical sun on the top layer, one container exploded, took several of its neighbours with it. Eventually half of the ship was engulfed in a raging inferno.
The subsequent investigation discovered that the “Christmas goods ‘ had, in fact, been fireworks and no way should they have been exposed to full sunlight, even in a container.
If we heard short-long, short-long, short-long, we had to grab our survival suits and our pre-prepared bag of warm clothing and make our way to A-deck in preparation for “Abandon Ship”. A-Deck is where they keep the lifeboats. There are two of them on board and each will hold 40 adults. The total number of crew and passengers was 32, so that was a comfort.
Everyone has a survival suit in their cabin and we were told not to open them unless there was an emergency. However, one was provided for training purposes and Jacques, being the best looking of us all, volunteered to be the model.
Piracy around the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia is still seen as a potential threat, although there have been no reported attacks for over a year now. No-one seemed particularly nervous about it, but everyone was aware of the possible danger. The general feeling was that the Bougainville was so fast that it could easily outrun any pirate vessel and it was so big that it would be extremely difficult for pirates to get aboard. In all probability, any sensible pirate would look for an easier target that was slower and lower in the water. Nevertheless, some serious thought had gone into what might happen and we were trained in what to do if, heaven forbid, a “Captain Philips” situation should arise.
I am honour bound not to reveal details of the ship’s piracy protection plan, but suffice it to say that despite the relaxed attitude to the potential danger, it was, in fact, taken very seriously. Hi-jacking a ship like the Bougainville would be a coup and a substantial meal ticket for any enterprising Somali pirate captain! It also wouldn’t be a particularly gratifying experience for any crew-members or, indeed, any passengers involved!