Thursday, February 21, 2008

Behind the scenes on container ship, Part 1

Late January saw me joining the crew of the Danish-flagged container vessel Emma Maersk in the Malaysian port of Tanjung Pelepas, just across the strait from Singapore. The Emma was about to leave on a two week journey to Europe, via the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea, having been laden with thousands of containers from the Far East bound for Western consumers.

The Emma is one of the largest vessels afloat, 397 metres long (longer than the Titanic, Queen Mary 2 or the biggest aircraft carriers), and rising as tall as a twenty story building from the quayside. She is undeniably big, in every sense of the term. She can carry more containers than her competitors by a healthy margin; her size has required the dredging of new channels and the construction of larger gantry cranes; even climbing aboard the Emma requires scalling one of the longest gangway accomodation ladders in use today.

Surprisingly, the Emma is operated by a crew of that can number less than 20 mariners, owing to the current technology available. The same cannot be said of the ground crews at container terminals like Tanjung Pelepas, who must transfer thousands of boxes to the vessel quickly and with great efficiency. In Malaysia, the Emma Maersk will spend less than 24 hours to complete the process of loading the ship and make her scheduled departure time of 1640 hours local time.

(Top) Trucks waiting to have their containers loaded on the Emma Maersk
at Tanjung Pelepas and (bottom) a view of the terminal from the ship.

Shortly after 1640 (4:40pm), the Emma's lines are cast off and a couple of harbour tugs nose themselves against the forward port side to help inch the container ship away from the pier and swing her 180 degrees to face south toward the Straits of Singapore, from where she'll make her way to the Malacca Strait and, eventually, the open waters of the Indian Ocean.

Overseeing the Emma's departure is her master, Captain Jorgen Sonnichsen. With 42 years of professional experience as a mariner, Sonnichsen is at the pinnacle of his career. The Danish seafarer is a member of an elite group of master mariners who are given responsibility for the operation of the largest sea-going vessels ever built, and for the next fortnight I'll be given the opportunity to watch him and his crew in action.

Emma Maerk's master, Capt. Jorgen Sonnichsen

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