Archive for the month “April, 2016”

The Dance of the Trogglies.


So what would you call them?


They are strange mechanical animals that we discovered roaming around the dockyard in Algeciras, which was our first port of call after Port Kelang. We had been at sea for eighteen days.


I named them ‘Trogglies’, because I had this mental image of them living in a huge hangar somewhere and only venturing out into the daylight when they saw a container ship coming.  A cross between a ‘troglodyte’ and a ‘trolley’, hence “Troggley”.


A container would be deposited on the quayside.


A Troggley would arrive…


…and take it away to the stacks.

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And there it was, gone!


And when their day’s work was done, the Trogglies would dance!

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It wasn’t until we were sailing into Southampton, ( and, yes, the truth can now be told, we are safely back in the UK), that I was able to ask the English pilot what we call a Troggley in English.  Apparently they are called “Straddle Stackers”.

I prefer “Troggley”, myself.


Yep, a flying pilot. Delivered to your bridge.


And once the ship was safely delivered into the port, the pilot took off to guide the next one.  Never a dull moment!


The French do it with style!

One the subject of pilots, I just wanted to share with you how the French do it.  At least in Le Havre.  Not for them the heart-stopping leap from the pilot boat onto the tiny ship’s ladder.  As we approached Le Havre, I had to turn my camera in a completely different direction.


So what’s the helicopter for?



Really?  They are going to dangle a man out of that thing?





OK, so I can understand that, no matter how good your Captain is, he might need a bit of help getting a big ship into a port that he doesn’t know, that might have difficult tides or unpredictable currents, that might have shifting sandbanks or the wrecks of old ships to avoid, but a pilot for the Suez Canal, really?

It’s a canal. It’s a big ditch full of water that goes in a straight line from the town of Suez to the Mediterranean, no currents, no sandbanks, no wrecks, no locks, nothing!.  Did we really need a pilot for this stretch of water?

Well, OK, we were sailing through Egyptian waters, so perhaps we needed to have an Egyptian pilot in nominal command of the ship.  But did we really need five of them?pilot5


The night before we entered the canal, we had to anchor at Suez to await instructions about our place in the convoy that was being created for the following morning.  In the early hours a pilot came on board.  We sailed the few hundred yards from the top of the Red Sea into the mouth of the canal.  At this point, the pilot left us, clutching the cigarettes and other gratuities that he had been given by our Captain.  He was immediately replaced by two more pilots, three moorers and an electrician.

Mind you, for those of us with nothing else to do but take photos, the arrival and departure of the pilots was a real spectator sport.

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The usual way for a pilot to get onto to a ship was, quite simply, to jump!  Not a job for the faint-hearted.





Sometimes, I must admit, my heart was in my mouth watching these men trying to get on board.


There has to be an easier way to make a living.



Always pushing us around.

One of the fascinating things to watch on board the Good Ship Bouganiville was the antics of the various tugs that pushed, pulled and generally bullied us into position when we were either arriving in a port or, indeed, leaving.


It was amazing how these small boats could completely turn around the huge container ship like it was a rowing boat.

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From this angle, this tug even looks like a bully.






Even the onset of night doesn’t stop the tugs pushing the ship around.  The only difference is that the shadows are more impressive.

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You have to have a strong stomach to work on a tug, especially in the English Channel.

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There were times when we were very glad to be on our huge ship.





Ships in the Desert

There is something endlessly fascinating about seeing a ship pass by through the desert sands.

What on earth is that?

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Ah, yes.  It’s one of those.


Career Choices


When I was a secondary modern languages teacher, I used to have this picture on my classroom wall.  For those who don’t know it, the picture shows Beachy Head, a well known beauty spot on the south coast of England.  It is a favourite place for star-crossed lovers to go to throw themselves off, rather than be parted by angry parents.  There have even  been instances of people being murdered there.  ( A car was once found at the bottom of the cliff with the driver still taped to the steering wheel! (Or so the urban legend goes.)

Why was it on my wall?  Well, I used to use it as a teaching aid, particularly when trying to prepare my students for exams.  When they were in the exam room, faced with a question to which they did not know the answer, I asked them to imagine themselves teetering on the edge of Beachy Head. At that point, they had two choices:

Choice 1:  Write nothing.  The consequence of that would be that they would plummet to their deaths among the sharp rocks and sharks below and die with dishonour.

Choice 2:  Take a guess.  The consequences of this choice were twofold:

Either they would get the answer wrong, in which case they would plummet to their deaths, among the same sharp rocks and sharks … but die with honour;

Or they would, by sheer chance,  get the answer right, in which case they could walk away from the edge, go and phone their mother and ask to be picked up. (I had even h a red telephone box superimposed on my picture to make the point.)

I don’t know if my story ever helped a student to pick up a few extra marks in an exam, but it amused me!

So what has this to do with the Suez Canal?  Well, on our journey through the canal I took two pictures that I wished I could have had on my classroom wall as a reminder to students of the consequences of not working hard and not doing their homework.


This is the defensive wall along the eastern bank of the Suez Canal.


And this is the poor devil who guards it, all day, every day.

The Suez Canal


The first thing you need to know about the Suez Canal is that it is a canal. Even as canals go, it’s a pretty straightforward canal.  You just sail in one end and sail out the other about eight hours later.  There are no locks, no gates, nothing to make life complicated.

If the Captain and crew of the Good Ship Bougainville were skilled enough to handle storms, typhoons, tempests and tsunamis on the High Seas, you would think that they would be able to steer the ship along a canal without too much difficulty.

So why, I wondered, did we need a total of five Egyptian pilots, one electrician and three extra crew men to escort the ship up as far as the Mediterranean.

Ships go through the canal in convoy, so we had to moor at Suez and await instructions from the authorities, who decided which ships should go first and how many there should be in each convoy.


One pilot’s duty was to guide the ship from its anchorage, within sight of the mouth of the canal, into the canal itself, at which point, he was replaced by two fresh pilots.


Clearly, his job was to make sure that we didn’t bump into anything as we settled into our place in the convoy.


We set off on our voyage through the desert, the Nile on our port side and the Sinai on the starboard side.

Last year, Egypt opened a second parallel canal to ease the congestion on the main canal.  Unfortunately, within a very short time, a large ship managed to run itself aground in the old canal, so we were back to one-way traffic again for much of the journey.  There were some stretches where both canals were in operation, which enabled me to take a few ‘ship-in-the-desert’ pictures.


I’ve mentioned before that Maersk are the biggest freight shipping company in the world, and their ships, with their distinctive blue hulls, were everywhere.

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Anyway, back to the pilots.  Every so often there was a cross channel that linked both canals, and it was at one of these crossing points that our two intrepid pilots, having sat for four hours doing very little, left the Good Ship Bougainville.


They were replaced by two more, who were charged with delivering us safely to the Med.


For the first time in two weeks, we were not short of company and ‘ship-spotting’ became a new pastime.

Oh yes, I mentioned the electrician.  His job was the check the big searchlight that had to be mounted on the front of the ship as a safety measure in case of poor visibility in the canal.


When I say ‘check the searchlight’, what I mean is that he would ask a crew member to switch the light on and then switch it off again. If all was well, his job was done for the day, and he could retire to the cabin that was reserved for him to recover his strength!

And then there were the three men who arrived in this boat and had to be winched aboard.

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They were on board  just in case there was an emergency and the Good Ship had to be moored up somewhere along the canal.  Obviously the crew of the Bougainville would have been perfectly capable of mooring the ship, but in order to do so they would have to step onto Egyptian soil, which would, technically have constituted an invasion.  Not a very effective invasion of the country, but an invasion nevertheless.

So these three fine fellows had, literally, nothing to do all day, except sleep, (in the cabin provided for them for that purpose). Indeed, one of them took advantage of the fact that he was going to spend eight hours, with nothing useful to do, on a ship where the passengers and crew had little opportunity to set foot on dry land.  He had with him a huge canvas bag full of some of the cheapest and nastiest tourist trinkets I  have ever seen; fridge magnets in the shape of the pyramids, plastic statues of Cleopatra with diamonds in her eyes and a particularly sparkly plastic camel with a hinged hump that revealed a secret place for you to hide your jewellery.  I regret, every day, that I didn’t buy at least one of those. What a missed opportunity!


It was clear that the Egyptian government was fortifying the canal to protect it from enemies.  Ramparts, roads and walls were all under construction, although it wasn’t clear whether the perceived enemies were the Israelis or the Islamic State.

Either way, there was a lot of equipment along the Cairo side of the canal that could be deployed to get troops and military hardware across the water in a hurry.


Going though the Suez Canal was a great experience, with no shortage of things to photograph.  The problem is that it has whetted my appetite for canal travel and I understand that there is another quite famous one in Panama and that that one even has locks!

Meet Ramhyr


Ramhyr was one of the three Filipino Second Officers on the Good Ship Bougainville. When he was on watch, he was in sole charge of the entire ship and would only need support from the Captain if there were any unusual circumstances that arose.  The rest of the time, he was cheerful, chatty and utterly charming.

Unless, of course, there was work to do.

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Ramhyr’s story gives an interesting insight into the life of a Filipino merchant mariner.  He told me that he had married his long-time girlfriend at Christmas.  The Good Ship Bougainville sailed at the beginning of January, by which time, he proudly told me, his new wife was pregnant. He will be away from home for nine months.

He had been going out with his wife for nine years but had refused to get married because he had too many family commitments.  His father was retired/out-of-work and so he was supporting him and his mother.  He was also funding his younger sister and younger brother through university.  He concluded, therefore, that it was not right to marry his girlfriend and to start a family of his own, if all of his wages were going to support his parents and his siblings.

His brother and sister had now finished their studies and his sister was a qualified accountant who had agreed to take over the funding of his second brother who was about to finish secondary school. Ramhyr was only left with the task of supporting his parents, so he was free to marry.

He had done all this on the basis of his salary from CMA/CGM and, not unsurprisingly, he was quite proud of what he had achieved, particularly  in getting his brother and sister through university.

Ramhyr was twenty nine years old.

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He was also a pretty formidable basketball player.


“Left hand down a bit, it is, Sir!”

Something to do.

The Captain, First Officer, some Second Officers, the Third and Fourth Officers were French.  Three Second Officers and all of the Able-Seamen were Filipino.  Pay rates are not the same.  The French Officers eat in one dining room, the Filipinos eat in another.

On the surface, this ‘separateness’ was a bit of a shock, but apparently it is perfectly normal within the merchant marine and during my conversations with various members of the Filipino crew over three weeks I never heard any trace of resentment about the status quo.  It seemed that many of the Filipinos on board were glad to have steady work  and what was, by local standards, a good salary.

Everyone worked a six and a half day week.  On Sunday afternoons everyone, apart from those on watch on the bridge, could put their feet up. One sign of the separateness  on board was to be seen on Sunday afternoons at the blunt end of the ship, (what we seafarers call the ‘stern’), where the Filipinos would stage a basketball that could only be described as fast and furious.

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I was exhausted just taking the pictures.

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