Last day on the open seas.
After a very good night sleep, I woke up to the alarm on my iPhone. I had taken a sleeping air pill and, by nine o’clock, was out, woke up around 03:50 to go to the bathroom and slept through the rest of the night.
Shower and breakfast, then up to the bridge to send my position. There were many ships around us now that we were getting closer to the Straights of Dover.
We had three cargo ships behind us, one smaller coaster to Starboard and I could barely see four on our portside on the westside of the traffic separation line. Behind them I could vaguely perceive the British coast. France, on our starboard side, was still too far away.
We went through the Greenwich meridian when we passed the Greenwich light vessel indicating that we had transitioned from the western longitudes to the eastern longitudes. By the time I took a picture of the radar screen, it showed that we were at 50◦19.958N and 000◦04;397E. Our ship’s clock was already set to the time zone of Western Europe, UTC plus two hours.
The Third Mate explained some of the functions on the display connected to the engine room, like temperature of the raw water intake (16.5◦C), the temperatures inside each of the six cylinders, the location of the generator that we will have to use to work the bowtruster once we get to maneuver in closer quarters, etc. He also told me stories of evacuations of sick crew members, like the time that they had to divert all the way to the Acores to bring a crew member on shore who had chicken pox. The Coast Guard in the Acores picked him up on the high seas, brought him to shore for treatment and, by the time the vessel docked in the UK, the patient was already smiling on the quay waiting to come back on board. After his treatment he had been flown from the islands to the UK to rejoin his ship.
As the current through the Straits of Dover is pushing us harder, the ship had to reduce speed in order to arrive on schedule. No news yet of the pilot strike in Antwerp. The Captain had clarified that it was actually the Belgian sea pilot union that was calling for a strike. Once you get closer to the river Schelde, which would lead us to Antwerp, we would have to bring a sea pilot on board for the last 20NM or so in open seas. After that, a river pilot would board the ship and guide us up the river to the entrance of the locks, where a docking pilot would take over from him. If the sea pilots indeed went on strike, we would have to make a 40NM or so detour and pick up a Dutch sea pilot to guide us to the river.
As we were getting closer to 10:15, I went up to the bridge again to get ready for the alarm drill. The Captain was sitting at his command post and activated the alarm button. Seven short blasts followed by a long one. If this had been an evacuation situation, he would have signaled one short followed by a long, followed by a short and so on while announcing the abandon the ship orders over the ship’s intercom.
I put on my life jacket and helmet and ran down the outside stairs to the muster station. All the other crew members were already there. They had gathered before the signal went off and the watched me run down. I told them they were cheaters for assembling even before the signal was given. Anyway, I stood at my position number 22 and waited for further orders. The First Mate checked the presence of all crew mates and of the lone passenger and passed each one in review asking them what their duties were.
As the last one in the line, he asked me if I knew where the immersion suits were stored – which I remembered from my initial safety briefing – and he told me that there was not going to be an evacuation drill overview, but the rest of the crew would proceed with a fire drill.
While all this was happening, we were being passed on the portside by the Maersk Hamburg container ship. She was high on the water and there were no containers on deck.
I went back to the bridge and from there back to my cabin to catch up on my emails and write my report.
12:15 and time for lunch. This must have been the first time on this trip that I really felt hungry. Menu of the day was a vegetable soup, a rather tough piece of beef with oily roasted potatoes and fired portobello mushrooms. You can’t expect haute cuisine on a cargo ship. This definitely ain’t the Princess of the Seas or some other cruise ship but I wouldn’t trade the experience. This was the real seafaring experience.
I saw the first sailboat of this voyage. AIS identified her as SV Maya but no other details. She seemed to be crossing from the UK to France. There were lots of ships all around us as we were entering the Straits of Dover and both coasts were very visible. On the starboard side, France with Cap Gris Nez and the entrance to the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer and, farther away, on the portside the spectacular White Cliffs of Dover. There was just enough sun to make them shine from afar.
The Captain informed me that the strike of the Belgian sea pilots had been called off and, in order to make it to the pilot rendez-vous point, he had to reduce power to 12 Knots. Faster cargo ships were now passing us on both sides.
P&O Ferries are crossing our path in rapid succession. Some are going from Oostende in Belgium to Dover, others service the Calais – Dover or the Boulogne-sur-Mer to Dover routes. This is a busy place. It reminds me of my young years when, still living in Antwerp, I would drive my small Citroen 2CV car to Oostende and then take the ferry to Dover to go visit friends in Surrey.
The Second Mate has been able to call his mother on the phone and my SMS texts are finally getting out as well. I had texted my kids to tell them about my progress and was able to send them some pictures. I already called my business partner, Maria, in Antwerp and she will pick me up tomorrow morning at 10:00 at the cargo terminal and then go to the harbor police to get complete the Belgian Customs and Immigration process.
Lots of activity on the bridge at 18:00 and quite some traffic. Between Dunkirk and Oostende and going at slightly over 7 Knots. Contact is made with Wandelaar Approach, which is like air traffic control but for ships. They asked us for the freeboard of the vessel in order to figure out the boarding of the pilot, asked about the type of cargo; do they have any hazardous material on board? What is your draft. Is the boarding system in place in compliance with SOLAS?, etc.
We have been advised that the pilot will come aboard on our portside at 20:00. Always an interesting maneuver.
17:15 and the radio crackles with instructions to the various ships telling them what heading to go on and what speed.
We are passing a huge car carrier, MV Lake Superior, on our portside was instructed to slow down and we slowly pass her. Ahead of us the MSC Regina at our eleven o’clock turning towards the entrance of the river and on our starboardside, abeam of us, a small container carrying coaster. After nine days on the ocean this quite exciting. 18:30 and Oostende is at our two o’clock. Eben from this distance, I can recognize its highest buildings.
20:00 and the pilot is aboard. I got a great video of the pilot boat approaching the ship and the pilot boarding. Once on the bridge, het took over control and started giving headings to follow towards the mouth of the river about 20NM away.
We are well into the channel leading from the North Sea to the River Schelde.
It is dark now and the buoys show us the way. Red to port and green to starboard, contrary to what we have in the USA where the red buoys are on the starboard side when you return to port.
We have one ship right ahead of us and several fishing vessels on either side of the channel. We passed the port of Zeebrugge and the pilot gives ever changing new headings to the Third Mate who is at the wheel. “Zero-eight-zero” repeated by the Third Mate who then confirms “Zero-eight-zero” once he is on course, followed by a “Eight-zero-five” by the pilot and confirmed by the Third Mate.
A sailing yacht receives instruction from traffic control near the port of Vlissingen (Flushing), to proceed on course but to stay out of the commercial channel.
21:53 and the pilot announces that the pilot boat is five minutes away to pick him up and to have the river pilot board. We are a zero speed now.
I was outside on the bridge deck and saw the pilot catamaran approach and was able to film the whole process. It is amazing the quality of videos that you can make with an iPhone.
I watched the into the river and decided to go head for my cabin and go to sleep. It was 22:00 and we were supposed to dock at 06:00. Around 03:00, I felt some serious bumps as if we had hit something and looked outside. We were in the lock between the river and the docks.
I “jumped” in my clothes and ran to the bridge to make sure that I would not miss anything of the maneuver. Two smaller coasters entered the lock behind us and the lock gates between the lock and the river closed.
When the water level had increased to the level of the docks, the gates opened and we proceeded to our berth about half an hour away, under guidance of the dock pilot.
Once docked at the berth, it was about 04:00 by then, I went back to sleep and woke up around 07:30 for my last shower and breakfast aboard/
The Captain was still as sleep after last night’s hard work but I had already thanked him for his hospitality before going to bed. I thanked the officers and the crew and disembarked.
A van brought me to the gate of the secured port area where my Antwerp business partner picked me up.
One last visit to the Port Police to clear customs and immigration, which lasted a mere two minutes and the trip was now officially over.
Tomorrow, we hit the road to Italy to join the Tuscany Flotilla.
Capt. Jean De Keyser