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Crossing the Pacific by Freighter (Part I)

Crossing the Pacific by Freighter (Part I)

The North Pacific Ocean

Crossing the Pacific by Freighter

Part 1 | Part 2 (available soon)

All aboard

The entrance to the Port of Vancouver is over a narrow overpass at the northern end of Clark Drive. It’s a hard-scrabble part of town, dominated by warehouses and ramshackle one-story buildings, where trucks grind noisily over cracked pavement on their way to and from the harbor. After a harrowing bus ride through the downtown eastside, during which I make acquaintances of several locals who, it seems, borrowed their personalities from some dystopian near-future science fiction novel, I am relieved to see the faded sign marking the entrance to the Port.

The roadway has no sidewalk, so I must venture under the overpass and then climb a concrete staircase that leads to a chain-link security gate. Next to the gate is a speaker grill and a small black bubble concealing a security camera. I press the button.

“…hello?” says a tinny voice.

“Hi! I’m a passenger on the Hanjin Copenhagen. My contact person is Ivan.”

The tinny voice doesn’t respond immediately, but I hear the shuffling of papers. “Can you hold your ID up to the camera please?” I don’t have my passport handy, so I present my international student card, a peel-and-stick affair that could be forged by a grade-schooler. After a moment, I hear the gate unlock, and the guard tells me to proceed.

I walk along the roadway to the main security gates, where an agent behind a window checks my ID again, ushers me through a turnstile, and then tells me to wait beside a bent stop sign for the Bunny Bus (this, I learn, is a shuttle). After a few minutes the shuttle picks me up and takes me to the berth where the Copenhagen is being loaded. An angled steel staircase descends from the main deck of the ship, several stories above, to ground level. This I climb, my backpack strapped tightly to my body, and then step down onto the deck of the ship that will be my home for the next two weeks.

Your stateroom, sir

Once onboard, I am lead to my room on the F deck, only a few levels below the bridge. A small plaque above the door tells me that I will be staying in the purser’s quarters. The door opens into a small vestibule, where outerwear and shoes can be stowed. A tied-back curtain divides the vestibule from the main room, similar to the sort that sometimes hangs just inside a restaurant to shield patrons from the outside air, but here serves no clear purpose.

The main room (I’ll call it my sitting room) is spacious and welcoming, with dappled carpeting, several sofas arranged around a coffee table, a large writing desk, and an assortment of ill-conceived décor. Light streams in through the lacy curtains that cover the porthole windows. I imagine the purser once used this room to host esteemed guests, guffawing over the latest news from the Continent while sipping claret. The room seems over-specified for its present use as a cabin for one. One of the pieces of artwork is a pastel drawing of (it seems) a bear dressed in motley and a Russian serf carrying a deceased donkey on a pike across a crimson field. It looks to be made by a child, or perhaps Matisse. I try removing it, but it’s been nailed to the wall.

A small bedroom is attached to the sitting room. There is a queen-sized bed, a wardrobe, and another writing desk, as well as various drawers and cabinets for stowing my belongings. The attached lavatory is one of those all-in-one affairs where the entire room becomes the shower—a necessity, really, given that water cannot be expected to behave predictably when gravity is constantly changing direction. Thoughtful touches abound: a retractable clothes-line zips out from the wall, and an ash tray is installed next to the toilet so that one can enjoy a cigarette while vomiting from seasickness.

My fellow passengers

Once settled in to my quarters, I explore the environs, hoping for an encounter with the other passengers. My imagination has already conjured up their personalities. One, a solitary natural philosopher named Professor, is traveling to the East on some philosophik mission, but because he cannot trust an airline to safely deliver his large and heavy steamer trunk of human skulls, must travel by ship. Also on board are Horace and Bernice, a convivial English couple with no style who wander the ship at random, suddenly appearing from behind curtains, corners, et cetera, startling everyone present.

I notice an old man on the deck, smoking a cigarette while staring at the horizon. I introduce myself.

“Hi! I’m Alex. How long have you been on board?”

A long, considered pause. “Seven months,” he replies.

Seven months!” I exclaim. “I bet you’ve seen a lot of great places. What are you doing on board? Are you, by chance, a natural philosopher?”

The man extinguishes his cigarette and flicks the butt overboard. “I’m the Captain,” he says after a time. “You’re the only passenger on board.” Without looking back, he retreats into the ship.

I spend the rest of the day exploring the ship and watching the loading and unloading of containers. Down below, a dozen trucks dance through the rows of stacked containers, each one arriving at the crane at precisely the right moment, their movements choreographed to maximize efficiency. Up above, a colony of seagulls establishes itself for the night on the corrugated metal islands. The ship is loaded long into the night, and I fall asleep to the sound of containers thudding into place.

Nothing but horizon

The following morning I awake to the rumbling of the main engine. Tugboats are prodding us away from shore and into the harbor. Once clear, the main engine rumbles into action and we steam slowly out to sea. Downtown Vancouver shines emerald in the morning light, and I can see the snowy cone of Mount Baker in the distance. As we pass under the Lion’s Gate Bridge I say a silent farewell to my home.

The ship rounds Point Roberts, weaves through the Gulf Islands, and then heads west around the southern tip of Vancouver Island, following the maritime border between Canada and the United States. At 15:00 we pass into the open ocean. It is the last time I see land for nine days.

I decide to explore the ship and meet the officers and crew. The hallways are empty, so I head down to the ship’s office. Also empty. The recreation room? Dark and vacant, the only sound a Ping-Pong ball rolling idly back and forth across the floor as the ship sways. Perhaps they’re in the mess hall?—that’s where I’d be if I were a hungry sailor. Wrong again. The ship is enormous, and yet it appears to be crewed by ghosts. The reality is that relatively few people work aboard a cargo ship, and they don’t have time to present some erudite passenger with a fruit basket upon arrival. To them, I’m just another form of cargo, and worse, one that talks.

The original plan is to steam due west, weaving through the remote Aleutian Islands that project from Alaska like a great geological sneeze. Unfortunately, reports of a storm prompt the captain to plot a more southerly course, and the prospect of seeing the Aleutians is replaced by endless horizon-watching, with only an occasional ship in the distance to break the monotony. The temperature hovers somewhere around 5°C, sometimes a bit warmer, sometimes a bit cooler, and a steady breeze of about 30 knots makes it too chilling to stay outside for long. There is a narrow deck aft of the cabins where warm air vented from the bowels of the ship makes for a balmy sitting-area, but the mixture of unburned fuel and sulfur makes this an unadvisable place to linger. I therefore pass the days indoors, usually alone, in my quarters.

The personality of a seafarer

There are twenty-one officers and crewmembers aboard, each with a well-defined rank and responsibilities. In command is the captain, the taciturn man I mistook for a passenger when I first boarded. When he enters the officers’ mess on the morning after departure I stand up, re-introduced myself, and extend my arm for a handshake. He reluctantly slips his hand into mine, standing perfectly still, his brow furrowed into an expression that tells me I have violated some arcane protocol, like how one should never touch the Queen. As I return awkwardly to my seat, his arm remains partially extended, as if infected, his face stamped with a look halfway between disbelief and disgust.

Most of the officers are quiet, stoic individuals with little interest in socializing with a bothersome passenger. When I try to start a conversation during meals, most utter a few words and then wait in silence until my motivation deflates, at which point they return to the focused task of eating. The chief engineer is a dour, disagreeable man who says nothing at all during the voyage, except for one half-bark issued to the Steward one morning for some minor lapse in performance. Many of the officers do not even know one another’s names; they refer to each other only by title. After about a week onboard, the ship’s mechanic loosens up a bit and tells me of his military service as a youth. He departed on his tour of service with the East German navy in October of 1989, visiting ports on the Mediterranean and Atlantic on a round-the-world tour. After eight months at sea, he returned to find that the Berlin Wall had fallen and his country was no more.

The Filipino crew are vibrant and talkative relative to their German counterparts. When I join them in the crew’s mess for a meal one day, the room buzzes with conversation, and they happily tell me about their families and ask lots of questions about my life in Vancouver. Downstairs, in the change room where they don their orange coveralls and hardhats, two calendars hang by side: the first shows a luminous Jesus, his head cocked to one side, watching protectively over the crew of a ship caught in a storm; the second features a buxom blonde in a ripped t-shirt being hosed down on the hood of a convertible.

I do manage to make friends with the First Mate, a polite and relatively talkative man named Jan Schönefuβ. I spend some time on the bridge, where he teaches me about the operation of the ship. After some cajoling, he even agrees to be interviewed for a video I am making to document my journey. In the end he helps me plan shots and offers editing suggestions, and we trade stories of our lives.

Ship facts

The best way to trick a German seafarer into a conversation, I learn, is to ask lots of questions about the operation of a ship. In this way I learn some interesting facts.

The Copenhagen can carry 5600 containers. The largest ships currently in operation, however, can take 16,000 containers or more.

Loading containers at the Port of Vancouver

Loading containers at the Port of Vancouver

Our cruising speed of 18 knots (33 km/h) is quite a bit slower than was typical in the 80’s and 90’s, when cheap fuel made it economical to travel at 25 knots.
The Copenhagen’s engine is powered by diesel while in Western territorial waters, where environmental laws hold sway. Once at sea (or in Asia), however, they switch to heavy oil, which is much cheaper, but contains around 8% sulfur, all of which goes up the stack in the form of toxic sulfur dioxide.
The main navigational compass is a gyroscopic gizmo spinning at 10,000 rpm. Should it fail, there is a magnetic compass on the roof, well away from the magnetic influence of the steel ship. The magnetic north indicated by this compass must be calibrated against true north by spinning the whole ship around in a circle from time to time (magnetic north is a mercurial location that shifts around according to the Earth’s inner whims).

Two flags must be visible when a ship enters a harbor: the national flag of the port, and the flag of the ship’s country of registration. Failure to do so can result in a fine or even denial to dock. To this end, there is a grid of cubbies on the bridge filled with the neatly rolled and labeled flags of dozens of countries. The Americans are the biggest sticklers; the first officer recalls a time when the workers refused to unload the ship until the American flag was hoisted higher than the German flag.

Flags of all nations

Flags of all nations

By international agreement, radio communication with other ships, including emergency matters, is initiated on channel 16, after which the communicators agree to switch to a different channel. The radio on the bridge is therefore always tuned to channel 16, and under most circumstances remains quiet. That is, except in China, where 16 is used indiscriminately, filling the airwaves with an unbearable din.


Part 1 | Part 2 (available soon)

Up next: Check back soon for part 2 to learn more about what it’s like to cross the Pacific by freighter.


  1. OMG – The silence and solitary would not be for me. I can’t wait to read part two.

  2. I loved this post!!! 😀

    Fascinating ship details, and quite a vivid portrait painter of the crew.

    I must say I giggled out loud several times throughout, picturing you wide-eyed and bushy tailed on this adventure.

    “Why hello Captain! Will there be cocktails served at 4pm in the pursers lounge? I’ve pressed my ascot…”

    (Does one press an ascot??? Oh, I’ll never be invited to dine with the captain!)

    I don’t know why I didn’t expect photos, but they are amazing!! Keep them coming!!

    Cheers to you,

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