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Kalahari - Southern African Desert
(See the movie - "The Gods Must be Crazy")

Kalahari - A Cape-size Bulk Carrier


This page was the very first that I published. Things move on, another voyage, another chapter and this is now in the Archives. Read on!!

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Flew home from Port Kembla, Australia on 6 December to Cape Town, South Africa for some hard-earned leave. My tour of duty was a bit longer than usual, just less than six months, so the break was welcome. It also gave me some key dates at home! First-off was a three day sail on a friends catamaran helping prepare for the Cape to Rio de Janeiro Yacht Race. Then came Christmas, the usual family "do", followed by my younger daughter's Sixteenth Birthday Bash on Clifton beach and the Great Millennium Roll-over. Cape Town went wild!! My wife's Birthday and our Wedding Anniversary have come and gone but the Big One was my older daughter's 21st Birthday at Leesia's Greek Restaurant at the end of January. Leesia's is still in one piece but only just!

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I flew to Paris and took the fast train to Dunkirk. Flying is a part of our lives, we join and leave ships all over the world. A taxi took me to the bulk carrier "Kalahari" after a night in a hotel. The handover was the normal routine of counting the money in the safe and having a good look at the ship. Then Captain "Big Joe" Birtles flew home to Johannesburg for a hard-earned break. After discharging a full load of coal we sailed on 24/6/99, steering rhumb line courses for Guayacan, Chile via Cape Horn. The weather was very good. Traffic in the Straits of Dover is lighter than it used to be as there are fewer ships although they are bigger and faster. Ferries cross the straits and there are yachts and fishing boats to watch out for, we navigate with caution! Out in the Bay of Biscay traffic thinned out and the weather got a bit foggy, with a choppy sea, which is better than it can be! South past the Canary Islands, across the Equator and on to the coast of Brazil and Argentina the weather held. The speed required by the Charterer was "most economical", which for the Kalahari is about 13.00 knots. Maximum is 15.00 kts when in ballast, 14.25 kts when loaded. The weather turned windy on approaching Cape horn.

The course took us between the Falkland Islands and Argentina and around the tail of South America. Cape Horn is an island south of Tierra del Fuego, about 56 south and 68 west where the weather is usually really foul, with big swells blown along by the Westerlys. Icebergs are common. We rounded The Horn on July 10 (winter in the southern hemisphere) and had Great Weather! A light wind blew, temperatures were around 10C and the crew had a braai, which is what South Africans call a barbecue. That must be a first! No photos unfortunately.

After rounding The Horn certificates were printed for the whole crew as evidence of a small adventure. There is nothing like it to motivate a crew! All went well as we steamed up the coast of Chile with the rugged, snow covered islands of Patagonia out to starboard. Currents and wind were favourable and the temperature rose into the twenties and thirties as we passed Valparaiso and on to Guayacan. There is a lot of sea-life on this stretch of coast, with whales, porpoises and millions of birds around.

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We arrived on schedule off Guayacan and anchored in Coquimbo Bay, just north of the big town of Coquimbo. Guayacan is an a small bay to the south of the town. The loading berth was occupied by another vessel and the rule of "first come first served" applied. One cannot get away from queues! There was some fog in Coquimbo Bay while we were at anchor but otherwise the weather was good. Fog is very common in this part of the world, it has something to do with the cold currents and hot winds.

After a day at anchor the port officials came out to the ship in a launch and all the formalities were completed. The Chileans are very friendly and efficient and obviously a very nautical nation. The usual bottle or two of Scotch disappeared but there was none of the heavy-handed begging that goes on in some countries. Two pilots came out on the 27th and took us into Guayacan Bay with the help of one small tug, no mean feat for a ship of the size of the Kalahari! The bay is pear-shaped, with a narrow entrance. A big swell rolls in from the Pacific so the ship's gangway cannot be used but a launch is laid on to ferry crew and stevedores to and from the quay. Some provisions were delivered by a ship chandler, at exorbitant prices, I won't use him again. The Chief Engineer and some of the crew went ashore but returned hot and dusty after a long walk to town. There is a statue of the English sailor, Drake, on a hilltop overlooking the bay, he sacked the town some time ago.

The very friendly Charterer's Agent gave me two bottles of the local brandy called Pisco. The Peruvians claim that only they can make Pisco as they invented it! It is a serious matter in these parts, wars have been fought over lesser matters!!

We loaded about 44 000 tonnes of iron ore in two holds and sailed on 29/8/7/99 for San Nicolas, a few days up the coast in Peru.

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San Nicolas is in a small bay open to the north and northeast. There is one jetty and a breakwater to give some shelter. The iron ore facility was built by an American company, Alcoa Mining about forty years ago. It was nationalised by the Peruvian government (big mistake!) and is now being operated by a Chinese company. The mine is about twenty kilometres inland, over a range of big sandy hills. The landscape is totally dry, the Atacama Desert is reputed to be one of the world's driest areas. All the local workers live in the small town of San Juan some ten or more kilometres along the coast, to the south. The Chief Engineer and I were taken there by the Agent for an afternoon as "tourists". It is a very dusty, run-down town inhabited by the descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors and the Incas. The Peruvians were very friendly but all said that that is not the case in the capital city of Lima and other areas. A few cold beers and the local delicacy of octopus sushi in hot pepper salsa were consumed at a two table "restaurant". The crew had a good run ashore, which is not a very frequent happening on a big bulk carrier. One sails the world but one does not get to see much of it!!

96 000 tonnes of iron ore was loaded in the remaining holds and we sailed for Kakogawa, Japan via Long Beach, in the U.S. of A. where we took bunkers.

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The route from San Nicolas to Kakogawa, also called Higashi Harema, took us past the Galapagos Islands and on to Long Beach, California. The call at Long Beach was to take bunkers for the voyage. The cost of oil in Japan is very high so it makes sense to take them in the USA. The Kalahari uses an economical 56 tonnes of fuel per day when steaming at full speed so we have to "fill up" now and then! A great circle course from San Nicolas to Kakogawa is only nine hours longer via Long Beach than direct, strange but true! Our bunker stop took six or so hours and we took 1 200 tonnes of HFO, heavy fuel oil. A ship chandler supplied fresh vegetables as well as a couple of dozen video tapes for the crew. The Chief Engineer left the ship here and headed home to Durban, South Africa, after handing over to his replacement who had flown in from a gold mining town called Orkney. I had never been to California before and as we took bunkers at anchor in the harbour I never did get to go ashore. I have a cousin (Hi Sally!) in Novato, near San Francisco, so I hope to get some time in California in future. Of course I have a long list of places that I would like to go to but probably won't! Such is life as a "deep sea truck driver"!

As with the rest of the voyage the weather was very good. California lived up to it's reputation for sunny skies and a dash of haze. The only hazard encountered was the jet-skis racing to Catalina Island and back.

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The great circle course took us quite far north but not as far as the Aleutian Islands. A big swell caused us to have some days of bad rolling, had to screw my computer to the desk-top! The sea flattened out before picking up the pilot at the pilot station off Tomagashima at the entrance to the Inland Sea near Osaka. Once the pilot boards from his fast launch there is about five hours of navigation through Osaka Bay, past Kobe where we change pilots and under the Akashi Bridge to Kakogawa. The bridge has the longest centre span in the world and is very impressive. The lights change colour at night, a nice touch! During the earthquake a few years ago one of the huge support towers moved a metre or so but as it was under construction there was no problem, just a slight design change!

After a short time at anchor off Kakogawa, waiting for the high tide to allow enough underkeel clearance, we docked at the Kobe Steel berth. Many berths have only enough depth of water at high tide and ships must wait for the right depth of tide before docking. Ships load to a certain draft and this is measured in centimetres, so cargo planning and ballast water pumping must be done accurately. Once alongside and after the draft survey had been completed, the discharge of the cargo commenced. Total time in port was five days. The discharge rate was not very fast, enough to allow the crew to do some shopping and for the ship's spares and stores to be loaded.

One of the big problems on big ships is the distance that the ships dock from town. The nearest town to the Kobe Steel plant is Kakogawa, which is a $45 taxi ride away, quite a wad just to post a card or make a phone call! Kobe is the closest big city and that takes a taxi ride and a train to get to and takes an hour or more but Kobe is a favourite with seafarers and it is well worth the effort. I bought my Sony digital camera at a tax-free shop on the Motomashi shopping street. That Sony Malvica camera was state of the art at .68 mega pixels and the memory was a single floppy disc! Wow! My present camera, a Canon D600 has 19 mpx. Bought a Big Mac, which put me off them for life! We sailed from Kakogawa on 10/9/99. Before getting out into the open sea ships must navigate through the Inland Sea for a few hours. Our course took us around a big sandbank where there are some seaweed farms and then out into Kobe Bay (also called Osaka Bay) via the Akashi Kaiko (narrows) and under the Akashi Bridge. From there to the pilot station at Tomogashima takes about two hours. The first few hours of the voyage are in coastal waters with very heavy traffic, mainly small coastal vessels and some big fast container ships. Fishing boats are all over the place and big bulk carriers have no right-of-way over these. Junior officers can get very nervous in these waters and when junior officers get nervous the Captain gets nervous! Our course took us on a rhumb line from Tomogashima to the Spice Islands and then through the pirate infested Indonesian seas past Timor and finally to the anchorage off Dampier, Australia. No pirates came near and if they had they would have had difficulty climbing the 13 metres from the sea to the deck! The Australian troops were landing at Dili, East Timor but we did not see any sign of them. The weather was great and there were no cyclones, which can be nasty in these seas.

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Dampier is on the mainland, set in behind some islands and has nothing more than an iron ore facility, some oil and gas works and a salt dock. The town is very small and not for tourists! A lot of the locals live inland at a slightly bigger town called Karatha, a new town with very little character. The sea is crystal clear and must be a great cruising area for yachts. I had placed a big order for provisions with the local chandler and these were trucked up from Perth, 1500 km south. The chandler thought that the 50 cases of Emu beer was a lot but then he did not know the crew! Also the voyages can be quite long and so I had planned for a long one to Japan and then The Cape of Good Hope, where stores are cheap. In the end we needed the stores as the next voyage took us to Japan and Canada, both high cost places and then back to Australia. So I saved some cash, hope the Boss noticed!

Once again we loaded iron ore for Kakogawa and set off after a two day stay in port. The cargoes in "Cape Size" bulk carriers are always either iron ore or coal, so it can get a bit boring. The route took us back the way we had come which made things simple for the Second Officer, who does the navigation. There were some big thunder storms on the way north which gave the ship a good wash down. We arrived at Kakogawa on 10/10/99 and anchored for a while before docking at the Kobe Steel berth, it was becoming a regular spot for us.

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Once again the crew went ashore in Higashi Harema, the port for Kakogawa and once again paid for the trip! The Third Engineer bought a cheap phone card from a quayside vendor and then spent $25 to find a phone to accept it! The payphone on the quayside belonged to a different company and would not accept his card - it is a tough life at sea! Are sailors slow learners or what? Discharging went as per plan and there were a few crew changes. There is a constant turnover of ship's staff and the Crew List is in a constant state of being updated. Computers make it easy to keep up to date. Before computers (BC?) most of the paperwork was done by a Purser, a rank that is now long gone.

I got orders from the Charterers that the next voyage would be to Prince Rupert in British Columbia, Canada and the cargo would be coal. This was to be a first for me as I had never been to the west coast of Canada before. Once again the discharge port would be Higashi Harema, Kakogawa. We are getting to know it very well. It promised to be a rough passage as the Pacific in mid-winter is not very pacific! We sailed on schedule in perfect weather.

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The course to Prince Rupert was a great circle which took us up to just south of the Aleutian Islands and then to the Dixon Entrance north of the Queen Charlotte Islands where we anchored west of Rose Point for a day waiting for the charter period to commence. The weather going across was good for some of the time but there were two westerly gales that gave us a good roll around as the swell came from the starboard quarter - very uncomfortable! Things had to be secured again. The Chief Engineer's filing cabinet fell on him although it had stayed in place for three years. It is now bolted down! There is a surprising amount of container traffic across the North Pacific. We met other vessels every day and were overtaken by numerous fast container ships. Being overtaken is a fact of life on a slow bulky!

Prince Rupert, just south of the Alaskan border, is British Columbia's second biggest port, exporting coal and forest products as well as other goods. We were berthed at the coal terminal about eight miles (they still use old fashioned miles in Canada) from town, so once again not many of the sailors went shopping. A very friendly Korean ship chandler supplied the fresh vegetables and a few other things at a good price. I'll use him again. The e-mail system was up-graded by a technician from Vancouver. A "high speed" modem was added to the Inmarsat B satellite system. Sending data over the normal satellite phone line goes at only 2 400 bps, the new line gave 9 600 bps (wow!), compared with a normal home modem sending at 56 600 bps. But it was a great improvement, allowing graphics to be sent in under a minute per small jpeg file. (Remember that this voyage was in 1999).

The scenery in British Columbia is the rugged-forest-and-islands sort but there was not as much snow as I had expected. It rains on most days. Lots of fishing boats and other odd types abound among the many islands up the coast. Yachting is popular in the summer. Currents and tides are very strong and that makes navigation tricky. Big ships, including many cruise liners always take local pilots. Sea life includes orca and other whales as well as numerous bird species.

On completion of cargo-work we set off on the voyage across the North Pacific using navigation and weather advice from the well-known Ocean Routes company.

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The Ocean Routes company advised that we direct our course from Prince Rupert towards the north west before heading west to the Unimak Pass. After the short coastal run between the islands we were to steer a great circle north of the Aleutians to west of an island called Attu, the western-most of the American Aleutians. After rounding Attu we would steer along the Kuril Islands for the east coast of Japan and the pilot station at Tomogashima. This course would protect the ship from the intense low pressure systems which move in from Asia. Traffic is light in this area with some fishing boats and the odd container ship. Fishing must be a tough life, not for city types.

As it happened the weather was good all the way past Attu and only turned nasty while we were passing the Kurils. Then it was really bad. The swell was from the south-east, some typhoon must have kicked it up far out in the Pacific and the wind waves were from the south-west, so the net result was a ship that rolled in all directions! When waves are superimposed on each other the height of the two waves are added, which makes one big wave! If two troughs coincide the same happens and a big trough results. If a crest and a trough coincide they cancel each other out. So if there is more than one wave system things can get bumpy and if the directions vary things get chaotic! This is what happened. The ship's speed dropped to 10 knots or less and the schedule was shot to ribbons. The Charterer was not happy. We try to keep the Charterer happy (they pay the bills!) but sometimes they just have to accept bad news.

We got into Kakogawa about twelve hours late so missed the tide and another ship got our berth at the Kobe Steel plant. Nobody was happy. Some of the crew were signing off and their flights had to be re-scheduled. The friendly Agent took me to a Japanese sushi bar and we had sushi and some other traditional Japanese food. Very nice but you can't beat a good steak and hedgehog potatoes, with some South African wine!

The discharge went well and we sailed for Port Hedland, Australia to load iron ore for Port Kembla.

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The voyage from Kakogawa to Port Hedland takes almost the same route as that to Dampier, West Australia, through the Indonesian Spice Islands, also called the Moluccas. We took the usual precautions against pirates, which by all accounts are becoming more of a problem in these waters due to the economic and political chaos here. The approach to Port Hedland is through a narrow gap in a sand bank, after which we spent some time at anchor before going in. The pilot comes out to the ship in a helicopter which lands on a specially designated helicopter hatch. Safety is important and a special helicopter drill is carried out whenever a helicopter lands on deck.

Port Hedland is in the mouth of a river, with iron ore loading facilities on both sides. The town is on the east side of the river. It is in a very flat, grass covered countryside with very few trees, except in town. The iron ore comes from a mountain range a few hundred kilometres inland. Because the iron ore dumps are so close to the old part of town the iron ore dust blows all over the place. Even the trees are red! The houses are protected from the cyclones that are found in this area by special window covers and roof ties.

An old friend of mine is the Assistant Port Captain and he took me out for a braai and drive around the area - very interesting, even if it is not a tourist spot.

The loading of half the cargo which was for another Australian port, Port Kembla in New South Wales, on the town side we moved over to the west side of the river to complete loading. While here we lowered the freefall lifeboat. Safety regulations require this to be done every six months.

We sailed on a windless day and took the pilot out about twenty miles, beyond the sand banks that are scattered around offshore.

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The currents and weather were favourable for the nine day voyage around the southern coast of Australia to Port Kembla. Lots of whales were seen while steaming down the west coast.

An Australian coastal voyage is unusual as the Australian laws do not normally allow foreign ships to undertake coastal trips. This is called cabotage, the USA has the same system.

As I was leaving the ship in Port Kembla all the paperwork had to be up to date and handover notes written. The money in the safe was counted and various items checked. This is all stuff that should be up to date anyway but handover time is a crunch period where it must be right. Some safety surveys were done as well, including the Cargo Ship Safety Equipment Certificate and Cargo Ship Safety Radio Certificate. These must be done at set intervals and are checks that the ship is seaworthy. While in port my sister-in-law (Hi Gill!) and her family (Hi Richard, Lindsay and David!) who emigrated to Australia and now live in Armidale, New South Wales, visited the ship. A very pleasant hour or so was spent catching up on 12 years of family history. Of course the size of the ship impressed them, as it does with all visitors.

The discharge in Port Kembla is a slow business as the three gantries are ancient and two are too small to reach the outer side of the hatches. The whole iron and steel plant is a bit archaic. The unions have killed a lot of heavy industry in Australia as well as their Merchant Navy.

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I had completed my handover and was ready to leave the ship by the time about half the cargo had been discharged. My taxi was waiting and my bags were packed (had been for a while!) so, as there was nothing holding me, I departed! It is a really great feeling after six months onboard to finally be on the way home. The trip to Sydney Airport took about an hour on a nice coast road and through the outer suburbs of Sydney. Australia is way behind South Africa and the World when it comes to freeways. Commuting must be a pain in Sydney. Otherwise Australia is a nice place with friendly people. There was a fairly long wait at the airport and then the flight to Cape Town takes a good sixteen hours, including an hours pitstop at Perth in Western Australia and a two hour flight from Johannesburg (usually called Jo'burg) to Cape Town. The welcome in Cape Town was the same as always, great!

Now for a great, relaxing time in a great relaxing city. I will update this site when I return from my next tour of duty, which will be on a sister ship, the Karoo. Both the Kalahari and Karoo are named after desert areas in Southern Africa.