It took 15 days at sea to cross the Pacific from Xiamen, China on Saturday 2nd December to Los Angeles, USA on Sunday 16th December. Our double day was Saturday 9th December 2017. We travelled with CMA CGM on the G. Washington, a new container ship less than a year old which was built in South Korea specifically for this route between China and America. The 28 officers and crew on board consisted of Romanians and Filipinos, some of whom had been on board since its beginning in April and others had just begun their contracts a few days before in Hong Kong. We were the only passengers on board.
Getting from the hostel to the ship involved Henry, our Chinese driver, who turned up in his slightly (very) worse for wear car and drove us to immigration and then on to customs. We had the unique experience of having officially left the country while still being in the country. Stamped out at immigration yet customs was another 20 minute drive away and the ship a further 10. The process was straight forward yet took time, with a simple face check at immigration and a quick glimpse into our bags at customs. The final drive to the ship got us to the bottom of the long unstable ladder at about 4pm and up we climbed.
The busiest time for the crew is when they are in port, so we didn’t get to fully meet everyone on our first day. We did however quickly meet Robert the deck cadet and the resident comedian for the trip. He helped make the journey entertaining and was very happy to show us round and explain anything we didn’t understand.
It wasn’t until around 8am the next morning while we were sat eating breakfast that the ship finally left the port. We slowly said our goodbyes to Xiamen and China while spotting dolphins in the port. Later on in the day we passed many small islands which belonged to Taiwan.
This was the passengers deck. The room we’d booked (we had no idea what we had booked) was the middle of three, all of which face forward, and as passengers had just come off there hadn’t been time to clean. We were given the corner cabin on the port side and told we could move to the middle once it’s cleaned. We decided not too, having a corner one is what we’d hoped for, views out the front and the side (port this time). It was very spacious! Two double beds, a sofa and two armchairs around a coffee table, a desk and cupboards complete with fridge, wardrobes with immersion suits and life jackets in the bottom and a private bathroom with shower.
We had the whole deck to ourselves. Along with the three big cabins, there was the passenger’s recreation room complete with TV and DVD player.
Edwin the messman served us and the officers three huge meals a day. The crew’s messroom and recreation room was at the other end of the galley, the kitchen. All meals were included, and because they were so generous there was no need to snack between them. They were however very carnivorous, and we had been told that being vegetarian wasn’t really an option. We ended up trying things we hadn’t eaten before: beef liver steak, grilled squid, turkey drumstick (for Mischa). Given the officers were romanian, we got to try different romanian soups too made just for them.
Breakfast was eggs of our choice with either sausage or bacon. There was plenty of bread for toast, cereals and porridge too as well as yoghurts always on our table.
Lunch and dinner were the same setup: soup for starters (same soup for both meals), breads and cheeses on the table, the main meal was a large chunk of meat in a sauce/fried/roasted/grilled with potatoes made different ways and boiled vegetables. Finally, pudding was usually fresh fruit though occasionally ice cream or a different treat. Apart from the soups and steak for lunch on Sundays, for 15 days we never ate the same food twice.
Premade bread ran out towards the end which meant the chef made fresh bread (delicious) and fresh fruit also ran out meaning pudding became tinned fruit.
It turns out the ship was a dry ship – this meant no alcohol on board. We were shocked and the officers didn’t seem too happy about it either. Seamen aren’t proper seamen without alcohol it seems! The shop sold snacks and cigarettes and wine only for passengers, but at $11 a bottle we only got two in the end. We sorely missed our 50p or less bottles of Chinese lager.
Other than our recreation room, there was also a fully equipped gym which Mischa visited most days and a swimming pool which was never filled, the weather was too bad!
On Day 1 ’16:00 sports :)’ was scribbled on the notice board outside the mess rooms, and luckily for Mischa the sport was basketball, his favourite. We spent the time leading up to it speculating where on the ship they had the space to play, only knowing it was at the aft (the back). Robert led us outside and straight down the starboard side of the ship for 200m or so, right to the very back. Despite it being the safer or lee side (less windy) it was still fairly windy and wobbly and the speed felt much faster when you’re only a few metres away from the ocean with only a railing between you and it! On the aft deck there was a hoop towards the front, and a big green safety net to stop the ball from falling off the back. Mischa had a lot of fun! It was only half way through I realised the roof was actually the bottom of the containers.
We spent a lot of time on the bridge, chatting to the second officer on watch or simply staring out to sea. There were three second officers and each did a 4 hour shift, 8 hours off and then repeated. It was clear it wasn’t the most exciting of jobs given more automation and they were very happy to chat away and have company. We learnt a lot about the controls, the sea charts being phased out and all the information you could see on the radar and computerised charts. It was fun seeing the other ships on the screen which could be selected to bring up information about them, like where they were registered, their destination and due date, and a hint of what they were carrying. Mischa was disappointed about the size of the wheel though. Given how automated the ship was, the watch was mainly about checking the heading and correcting it only when the waves got too big. The wheel was only used by an able seaman under the pilot’s instruction when coming into port.
A brand new ship
The more we spoke to the second officers, the more we learnt about the 366m long ship. Designed for the China-America crossing and able to take 14,000 containers. This time it was carrying about 7,000. It turns out the CMA CGM G. Washington was a brand new ship, and only set sail in April. This meant it was more likely that something would go wrong, either mechanically or electronically. The crew numbered 28 which was more than usual and they were all experienced sailors, meaning when the problems arose they would be able to fix it quickly. Given the dark sense of humour from some of the officers, it was a little worrying when we were told it had never seen a winter before, and what’s the best way to test it in bad weather? Well, just sail it of course. So there we were in the middle of the pacific with 5-6m waves reaching the supposed safety limit of 7m with the sudden realisation that the ship has never experienced this before. We never felt unsafe though, and whenever we were worried the officers did reassure us. Even when an alarm when off during dinner and the port side door swung open because of a massive roll, just seeing how normal they behaved put our minds at ease.
On boarding the ship Robert said we had to take a test. The test turned out to be about safety at sea, mostly involving our role in the various potential incidents. There are different alarms for different situations and different places we need to go to when hearing them, but for most we head to the bridge. To abandon ship, we needed to head to A deck port side for the lifeboat there.
Every week there is a different safety drill. This is to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing and, as the crew changes regularly, for them to learn to work together or know the finer details of the ship. We witnessed the enclosed space drill where someone was “stuck” in a small compartment and needed to be winched out. The next week we stayed on the bridge with the captain for the fire and abandon ship drill.
A course change
We had mostly good weather, but we did hit some rain storms. The skies changed everyday and some of the sunsets were truly beautiful and maybe the best I’d ever seen. Definitely the best rainbow I’ve ever seen.
However, a couple of days after leaving China and while heading up past Japan there was news of a large storm further north. The officers said a lot of times, the container ships are big and strong enough to simply go straight through. This storm though was deemed bad enough to turn away from the most economical route to LA and head further south and speed up to avoid it. In the end we had two days of really heavy rolling (side to side movement), and some pitching (front to back movement). The rolling was around 10-15 degrees and this stopped the lift from working several times. This movement actually made it really hard to sleep, combined with many 23 hour days I ended up sleeping through two breakfasts…
Crossing the dateline: Saturday 9th December
On the second December 9th we crossed the international dateline. It happened at about 18:45 ship’s time, we had gone forward two hours at 14:00 to 16:00 already so time was only relevant to when we were going to eat in the end. The visibility wavered between poor and really poor. It had been a hard night to sleep through, rain and wind so loud it keeps you awake along with juddery movements from wind and waves did not make a good combination. It had continued to rain in the morning, yet when standing out on the wing nearing the dateline the rain stopped, the wind calmed, and with the mist it felt very eerie. If life was a film, a ghost ship was sure to emerge any second.
The dateline marked the physical half way point in our journey circumnavigating the globe, we were at the furthest point away from home we would be this journey.
The engine room
Towards the end of the journey we were given a tour of the engine room. The massive engine room, which was actually smaller than on previous ships despite the hugeness of the ship itself. Due to technological advances, less space is needed for a state of the art engine. We had to wear all the official safety gear which meant donning overalls – the smallest size was L. I spent my childhood wearing clothes too big for me so it’s a bit of a pet hate these days when it happens again. Nevertheless, it was an interesting experience, boiling hot, loud (had to wear ear plugs) and you could smell the oil and diesel.
Arriving into port
After 15 days, and on time, we arrived in Long Beach, California. It was probably the best day of the journey, before the mess of the immigration and customs! But we were very happy to get off and be on dry land again, but sad to leave at the same time. It’s still a little surreal now thinking back, that that was how we crossed the Pacific and that we were in the middle of the biggest ocean in the world. Hard to forget!
I would definitely recommend travelling by container ship for those keen enough and willing to pay the hefty fee. You learn so much about life at sea and the stories the officers and crew can tell you are fascinating and scary at the same time. We felt welcomed aboard and we’re looking forward to our next and final cargo ship journey across the North Atlantic, the more dangerous sea in winter!