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The Lion Max

A  2200 teu  Container  Ship

Seven Month and Seven Days  - Seventy Seven Port Calls!

The South African shipping company that I had worked for was split up and sold to two companies, one Greek and one Danish, a sad victim of "asset management", or was it just bad management? The Greeks got the Bulk Carriers, Salvage Tugs and Reefer ships and the Danes got the Container Vessels. I happened to be on a big Cape Size bulk carrier, the "Saldanha", when this action took place so was "sold" to the Greeks! Of course I had two choices, like it or lump it! I decided to like it. Why stress for no good reason? The style of the Greek company was completely different from what I was used to but there was no real reason to leave and a change of environment might not always be a bad thing. Anyway, one reason for going to sea is the adventure, so My Adventure Continues!

After a few changes of plan in quick succession, I was off to join a five month old container vessel, the LionMax, in Long Beach, California. This was a complete and welcome change from the bulk carriers that I had been on for the last few years. The flight from Cape Town was via Johannesburg, Frankfurt, over Greenland and on to LAX at Los Angeles.
I took over from Captain Drescher, a shipmate from various container ships on the South Africa/Europe run - a great captain. He had taken delivery of the LionMax from the builders in Taiwan and had been on it since then. After a good handover I was in command of a real ocean greyhound! Captain Drescher flew home to Germany to have some leave and to move into his new house. We completed cargo work and moved from the Long Beach Container Terminal to the inner anchorage to take bunkers and stores from a barge and then sailed for Manzanillo, Mexico. My Pacific Adventure had started, read on!

The first thing that strikes you when joining the LionMax is the climb from the main-deck to the Captain's cabin, seven decks. NO LIFT! Luckily one of the Russian crewmen carried my suitcase up, the cabin bag was bad enough. And that is my only gripe about the LionMax. Just one small lift would have made it a zero-gripe ship. Here are some facts and figures for the technically minded.

Length 195.6 metres Beam 30.20 metres
Call Sign C6QV4 Port of Registry Nassau
Flag Bahamas Builder China Shipbuilding, Taiwan
Service Speed 20.5 knots Date Launched 23 December 1999
Displacement 42 184 tonnes Lightship 11 481 tonnes
Summer Draft 11.00 metres Engine Power 20 870 kilowatts
Containers 2 200 TEUs Passenger Absolutely None
It is a modern, fast and well-built ship. When a new ship is ordered there are hundreds of things to consider, such as available draft of the ports visited, the speed required, the cargo to be carried and cargo -gear to be fitted. This is all balanced against construction and running costs. The fuel price is now a big factor.

There are three powerful cranes on deck, each with a safe working load of 45 tonnes, to handle any size container. Most modern ports use those big container gantries now but there are a lot of smaller ports that require ship's cranes for cargo handling. In the wheel-house the navigation instruments and wheel are off-set to the starboard side so that we can see past the big cranes. All equipment on the bridge and engine-room is very modern. Communication is done by telex, fax, phone and e-mail via satellite or normal high-frequency radio. No Radio Officer is carried, this job is now a do-it-yourself one. Computer literacy is a requirement.

As is usual, the ship is driven by a single diesel engine, in our case a B & W seven cylinder with a Lips six -bladed propellor which weighs 27 tonnes. Maximum power output is a handy 20 870 kilowatts (or 28 380 brake horse power for the old-fashioned non-metric) at 95 RPM. That is power! It burns about 76 tonnes of heavy fuel oil per day at 90 RPM, which gives a service speed of 20.5 knots.

The crew cabins are modern and comfortable but with few extras. Ship Owners go easy on extras. There are no books or videos on board, in English or Russian, so these will have to be collected over time. The food is plain Russian grub and there is enough of it. The soup is "see-through", unless it is the famous Ukrainian borch cabbage soup (red or green) which usually comes with pampushki. The siberskya permini are good if the cook can find enough bear-meat! I top-up on corn flakes and multivitamins. Obesity is not endemic.

The crew are Russians, all twenty of them, actually Ukrainians of Russian extraction. I have found the entire crew to be very friendly, keen to please and always very hard workers. If I could choose a crew they might very well be Russian Ukrainians (Ukrainian Russians?). They are technically first world and first class. Except sometimes. Most can speak English fairly well and the others have a smattering but don't hesitate to practise it on me! My Russian has got as far as word number ten and I will be working on words eleven and twelve next week. How can one learn Russian when the dictionaries are printed in funny writing? The Charterer is Chilean and maybe my next ship will have a crew of Philipinos or Zulus onboard! One cannot learn every language one comes across, so I am not getting too worked up about learning Russian, a few words or phrases will be fine. I am lucky that the Greek Owner and Company speak English. All messages between ship and office are in English, which is the standard marine language world-wide. In theory I also speak Afrikaans and I have a spluttering of Spanish and a smidgeon of Zulu. My Greek extends to knowing a few dishes at Greek restaurants in CapeTown.

The Chief Officer, as does most of the crew, comes from Odessa, Ukraine's major Black Sea port. He worked for the Ukrainian national carrier, which went bottoms up into oblivion, per kind favour of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has his Master's Certificate, now called a Class 1 Certificate and could get my job if I pop my clogs before signing off!

We had two Third Officers in the seven months, both good. The first one was an ex Red Army lieutenant, a good guy to go ashore with on dark nights!

There were also two Chief Engineers during my tour, one from Mykolayiv and the other from Kherson, both ship-building ports.

The Bosun is also from Kherson, about 70km from Odessa on the Dnepr River. Probably the best Bosun I have ever sailed with. He wants to stay on the ship for over a year as he was on the beach for a long time without a job and has to make up for lost time.

Cooks take a lot of flak from all sides. A tough job! It is not true that Russian cooks make their mint sauce from boiled up old tea leaves and green, mint flavoured toothpaste! It just seems like it sometimes!

Most onboard are first class and I hope to sail with them again.

The bulk carrier crewman probably sees more of the airports on the way to and from his ship than he sees of the ports visited. This is not the case for container ship crews, who usually have more chance to get ashore. Time in port ranges from a few hours to a day or two, sometimes longer with luck.There is a lot of work to be done in port and it is not a case of having all time in port off. When loading or discharging all onboard are at their most active, with some ranks taking a lot of pressure. Simultaneously, stores are taken, bunkers pumped from barges, crew join and depart and various shore types are seen. The Owners, Charterers, Agents, Ship chandlers, Technicians and Port State Inspectors can call at any time, all without an appointment. The chance of shore-leave ranges from none to not much for the Chief Officer while the Cook has a good chance in most ports.

We talk almost as much about the airports visited as we do about the seaports! It is common knowledge that Amsterdam has great shopping and the casino is a good place to drop a few dollars if you get bored waiting for the plane. Dubai has the best tax-free but the last time I was there somebody, who shall remain nameless, forgot to pay for my ticket, so I was trapped in a corridor between the runway and the transit lounge for five hours until the airline office opened and I could pay for it myself. Singapore is popular as it is efficient and pleasant, the air conditioning works. Sao Paula is to be avoided, too hot and crowded. Kuala Lumpur is probably the most modern but there are long walks to the departure doors. Perth has a nice friendly coffee bar if you stop to refuel between Sydney and Jo'burg or fly down from Port Hedland. London, Heathrow is better than it was a few years ago, even Terminal 3. Cape Town International can be great or otherwise, depending on whether one is headed for or from home. It has a great view of Table Mountain. An even better place to view The Mountain from is the first tee at Mowbray Golf Course! - par four, hitting straight towards Devil's Peak between the tall cluster pines, got my first birdie there. But I digress, back to the LionMax and the ports we call at.

Any report from a seafarer of ports visited must be brief. We do not stay in port for long, as was the case before some idiot invented containers. The container terminals or bulk facilities are usually miles from the local town or the old part of the harbour. So there are no pub-crawls in the Hamburg Reeperbahn, no window shopping in Tokyo's Ginza and no London West End opera (Ha! Ha!) as there used to be.

The service we are on runs between Chile, other South American countries and the Far East, with a call at Long Beach, California on the way back from the Far East. Ports called at change as the cargo requirements change, all the decisions are made by the commercial side of the Charterer and the vessels are the last to know where they are going to. Crew members have a vested interest in knowing where they are going to. For instance: one of the officers sent some money home from Chile but it did not reach his bank in the Ukraine, he has a pressing need to see the bank manager in Antofagasta!

The ports below are in no special order. Do not get the impression that we are here for the tourism, we are here to get the Charterer's cargo from A to B, look after the Owner's ship, get paid and go home. Sort of deep-sea truck drivers. Tourism does help one stay sane but is no guarantee.

Long Beach was my first US West Coast port but I had no chance to get ashore. I went off on my second call there looking for some computer software and found - none! There is no computer shop in central Long Beach, California, USA, amazing! But the hamburger and computer curled fries at Hooters were good and there is a nice second-hand bookshop, "The Book Baron" on Third Ave. which is worth looking into.

Manzanillo, Mexico; where the manzanillas grow. The port is set in a bay surrounded by forested hills with sparkling white hotels scattered around the beachfront. Acapulco is just down the coast. I went ashore with Marta from Martha's Pacific Ship chandlers and the Chief Officer and had a great fillet steak at a beachfront hotel. And one tequila. We also went to an open-air Mexican music spot, very good. The Corona beer was cold.

Balboa is at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal with Panama City not far away. We docked at a new pier with deep water so there was no draft problem for us as there is at some other ports on this run. The Pan American Highway crosses the Canal at this point. Panama was established in 1519. The other Captain Morgan sacked it in 1671 but it has recovered and is now doing quite well.

Buenaventura, Columbia is not a good place to go ashore. We were warned not to go out of the dock gates as there are all sorts of baddies out there, especially drug smugglers and I hear that the gun-runners can also get nasty. The town is situated on an island in some mangrove swamps and did not look like the sort of place where one would want to go ashore anyway. If the low-lifes don't get you the leeches will! There is an old colonial building at one end of town which one can see from the ship which looked nice. Must be a film set or something.

Guayaquil, Ecuador. They use the US Dollars as legal tender here so there is hope for the economy. The stay there is short so there is no chance to get up the road.

Callao is the port for Lima, the capital of Peru. A good place to go ashore if you want Inca curios or flutes or alpaca wool caps. Or a dried piranha head key-ring.. Crime is a problem in Peru and we were warned to go in groups if we went ashore at night. I bought some neat silver brooches for the girls back home and a bottle of real Pisco.

They have some very weird rules in Peru. For instance, the Master of each ship must go down to the gangway to meet the port officials on arrival in port. As if the officials are some sort of ambassador or something. They can be friendly, just the rules are on the the arrogant side. And each rat-guard on each mooring line must have the ship's name painted on it, so the rats know which ship they are boarding! The fine for contraventions is $15 000! No joke.

Iquique, Chile. A big fishing port and one of the old nitrate and copper ports. As in other Chilean ports the pilots are very good and the people are friendly. There are some amazing railways zig-zagging up the side of the mountain. It is on the Atacama Desert coast and it is so dry here that the trees chase the dogs!

San Antonio is close to Valparaiso and Santiago. A small port but very active. The Charterer's Cargo Planner took me to a nice restaurant, the "Logroņo", overlooking the harbour where we had a steak and a small bottle of red Santa Rita wine, rather good. The Chileans are a friendly crowd with none of the officiousness of some of the other South American countries (think Peru and Brazil).

Antofagasta is a big copper exporting port. The British had some influence here in the past, constructing the railways, mines and ports. They invested in the nitrate and copper industries. There is a sort of replica of Big Ben in a square in town, complete with crossed Union Jack and Chilean flags, lions and condors rampant. For your shopping go to Ripley's, about ten minutes from the dock gates. Eat at the Yacht Club, muy bien!

Chaņaral is a few hours sail down the coast from Antofagasta. We loaded copper there, moored to a quay that is so short that it can only service one hold at a time. If the ship is loading into more than one hold it must shift up and down the quay by adjusting the mooring lines. No shore-leave as there is no gangway to the shore. The stevedores board the ship from a launch via the pilot ladder.

A good run ashore now and then is a must, otherwise one goes crazy. Hong Kong is my favourite port for that run ashore. It is not as cheap as it used to be but all I am usually after are a few VCD's and a book or two. The subway system is good for getting from the ship to Kowloon or Victoria. The Cargo Planner took me for a Chinese meal, very good although I need some practice with chop sticks. Kung hai fat choi! Happy New Year in the local dialect.

Keelung in Taiwan is the main port for Taipei. Not an impressive city. I had not been ashore there for years but it has not changed much. Kong shi fa chai! I recommend the Pizza Hut.

Busan is the only port in Korea that we generally go to. The city centre and shopping area is an easy walk from the general cargo berths but if you dock out at the new container terminals near the harbour entrance you have an expensive taxi-ride to town. There are a lot of Russian expats selling furs in Busan, they come from Sachalin, Kamchatka and Nakhodka which are not far away in Siberia. As with Hong Kong and Japan the prices are a lot higher than they used to be.

Yokohama is a port where I have not been ashore for years. The skyline has certainly changed, it used to be a low-profile town but now has some impressive high-rise buildings and great bridges.

Shanghai is a must! The architecture is FANTASTIC! Some of it anyway. The city has sixteen million people and covers a huge area, probably has more bicycles than Beijing. The land is flat with low buildings in the Chinese style. The city centre is different! It is a show-case of modern China. The main shopping street, Nanjing Road, is closed to traffic for most of it's length and is crowded with obviously well-off Chinese and foreign tourists. The old Bund is the river-front street where the European traders had their "factories". It has some really well preserved old European style buildings dating from way back. Over the river at Padong is a big cluster of the most amazing modern buildings I have ever seen! very tall, very futuristic, very shiny, very expensive; more than enough to make any architect drool. Also very sterile. There were no people walking around when I was there at six in the evening, while on the other side of the river there were crowds. The buildings are corporate headquarters and not much more. Just a few metres off the main roads, away from the shopping areas, the apartments look like rat-holes in concrete blocks but don't let that put you off. It is the smell that will really get too you. So stay on Nanjing Road and the Bund.

Ishigaki is a Japanese port where not many seafarers will get ashore. It is a port with no imports or exports, no big quays, no cargo work. China does not allow ships that have been to Taiwan to go directly to a Chinese port. So the ships call at Ishigaki to get a port clearance from a non-Taiwanese port, then they are allowed into China. All that hassle and expense just for a piece of paper!

Other ports are called at on occasion but I have covered the main ones on this service. During my tour of duty we made seventyseven port calls in seven months and seven days. And then I flew from LAX, where I joined the Lion Max, to CPT, home at last!