41) Across the Indian Ocean to Australia

I’m about a mile off the coast of Australia, we dock in Fremantle in an hour.  For the past 48 hours we’ve been sailing south along the west coast of Australia.

The 9-day passage from Singapore to Fremantle has been mostly uneventful, except for having my hat blown overboard. We’ve had relatively calm seas, with swells mostly less than 4 feet.  Sailing from the Java Sea out onto the Indian Ocean between the islands of Java and Sumatra was very inspiring.  What a place to be on the planet.

The life of a passenger on a container ship is quite different than life on a cruise ship, and nothing like the busy life of crewing on a sailboat. Outside of the excitement of entering and leaving port, it’s mostly just full steam ahead for days on end until you reach the next port. As a passenger, I’ve had little to occupy my time except for reading and standing on the bridge looking out over the Indian Ocean, and napping. Walking the deck and standing at the bow looking out over the Indian Ocean occupied some time. Our tour of the engine room was the only event organized by the ship- at our request. I will say that the conversations at the dinner table with my fellow passengers- Anatole, Yvonne and Richard made for many entertaining evenings. You do meet interesting people on a cargo ship.

This giant 270-meter ship holds 3000 to 5000 containers (depending on container size), but has a surprisingly small crew of only 25. The officer and engineering staff on the Bellini is European. The rest of the crew are Sri Lankan. They are all employees of the shipping company- CMA CGM, which is a French company. Surprisingly, the crew members don’t stay on the same ship long term, but have “contracts” with the ship that go for several months, then they will take a couple of months off before being assigned to another ship with the same company. The captain joined the Bellini in July of this year, the chief engineer arrived in early October.

The captain’s official title is “Master”, but everyone just calls him “Captain”. He is a genial fellow in his late thirties from Romania named Alexandru Babu. He is well respected by his staff, and is very respectful to them in return. During the day, when he is not up on the bridge, he keeps the door to his cabin/office open so that the crew and passengers may feel free to approach him with questions and issues. Since his cabin is next door to mine, I can report that he likes to play his music loud in the afternoon, and has excellent musical taste that includes the Allman Brothers, the Beatles, and Johnny Cash.

There is a 1st Officer, 2nd Officer, and two 3rd Officers, who come from Russia and Croatia. Along with the captain, they hold the responsibility of “sailing” the ship, and do their work primarily from the bridge of the ship, high atop the ship’s tower where they can see the ocean and its traffic in every direction.

Down in the engine room there is an engineering staff of 7. The Chief Engineer is a very friendly, barrel-chested Croatian fellow in his early-fifties named Bruno Tomik. He gave us our tour of the engine room(s), which was quite awesome in its size and complexity, and loudness. He is responsible for knowing how to operate and maintain and repair all the ship’s mechanical and electrical systems, including the giant 10-cylinder engine that burns 127 tons of diesel fuel per day. Each piston is about 15” in diameter and around 18’ long. The engine turns a 3’ diameter drive shaft that rotates the ships propellers.

While the captain is the master of the entire ship and its crew, he and the chief engineer are considered professional equals. These ship’s officers and engineers are all positions that require a college or professional education with certifications.

English is the language of international shipping industry, and it’s the only language I’ve heard spoken on the Bellini. We passengers eat in the officer’s mess, but we could choose to eat with the crew. The Sri Lankan crew is served South Asian food (mostly curries and dahl), while the officers are served European food- meat and potatoes.

OK, enough of that- I’M IN AUSTRALIA!!!

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