The Larger the Load

 container ship

The Larger the Load

   Bill Hartley weighs anchor

The Germans had agreed to dispose of the depth charge, which was decent of them since it had originally been dropped by the Royal Navy. The floor of the Baltic Sea is said to be littered with unexploded ordnance; the detritus of two world wars and the practice of dumping unwanted munitions. It was to be the crew’s last job for a while. Bad weather had brought them into harbour, tying up at a berth just behind our ship.

Esbjerg in Denmark is a rather obscure place. It’s a deep water port which also serves as a base for servicing the country’s off shore wind farms. Just across the harbour was a cable laying ship, also in port because of the weather. Before this work can be done a safety zone has to be trawled, which was how the depth charge had been found. Learning about the ship’s role provided a brief interlude for our crew who stood muffled in layers of clothing and waterproofs, ready for eight hours or so on the freezing dockside. They were waiting for the huge offset stern door to be lowered before work could begin.

Our ship is a 51,000 ton freighter with a considerable draft, meaning that entering this port required a pilot. The captain explained that we have only a metre or so clearance over the sea bed. Added to which such a large ship can’t safely manoeuvre to a quayside under her own power. As we closed in two tugs took on the delicate task of nudging the ship into her final position. Damage to the paintwork along her bows suggested that this job isn’t always wholly successful.

Our voyage had begun three days earlier when we set out from Avonmouth Dock in Bristol. It took three tugs to pull us out into the channel before we could head off to Cork. Although she carries general cargo the main task of the MV Grande Mediterraneo is shifting cars, lots of them. She is one of a fleet belonging to the Grimaldi shipping line. You may have noticed one of these monsters out at sea. They are utilitarian vessels devoid of any grace. The ship looks ugly because function shapes its form. The crew quarters and wheelhouse are so far forward that the bows drop away from just beneath the bridge, rather like the bonnet of a car. The only other feature on the superstructure is the funnel, a considerable way to the stern and reduced to a huge metal box, inside which lie a cluster of giant exhaust pipes. A feature which used to give a ship some style has been effectively hidden away.

The reality of modern shipping is that the container is king. At Cork, one of the smaller ports on our itinerary, there are a couple of huge mobile cranes, designed to roll along the quayside and pluck containers from decks and holds. The old high angle cranes which used to shift individual cargoes in nets are long gone. Mechanisation has led to a massive reduction in the dock labour force although in Southampton there is now actually a shortage. The supermarket company Lidl has opened a warehouse in the city. These are indoor jobs and pay better than dock work.

Cork though is a minnow in the world of ports. For sheer size there is little to beat Antwerp. Sailing up the Scheldt estuary takes us a mind numbing five hours. With land barely in sight a pilot comes out to meet us in a fast cutter, our ship slowing whilst he makes the precarious leap onto a ladder which a couple of sailors have lowered. It doesn’t take long to appreciate the value of a pilot in this crowded waterway. At some points there are actually giant traffic lights to guide ships. Then at intervals come the banks of cranes. These are real giants compared to the ones at Cork and they operate continually, lifting containers from the decks of ships with scarcely a pause. When we finally get to our destination there is a wait of nearly an hour. This is to allow several smaller vessels to join us in a vast lock before we are admitted into the dock basin.

At each of our ports the ship has loaded or unloaded some general cargo but the main business is moving cars. A modern deep water port needs lots of land to accommodate the hundreds of vehicles waiting to be moved. The facilities at Antwerp dwarf most other ports to the extent that car parking must take up quite a chunk of the Belgian countryside. From the width of my cabin porthole I counted five rows of cars stretching into the middle distance, a total of seven hundred vehicles and a tiny fraction of what lay to each side.

The crew of the ordnance disposal ship have been on a night out and unfortunately for their hangovers they are in for a noisy time. With the stern door open work is ready to start. Inside is a cavernous lower deck suitable for taking large vehicles such as heavy plant or construction equipment. Above this her other ten cargo decks are filled with cars. This is the point where the products of the motor trade are concentrated. Much of our cargo comprises the small economy car. Unless you’re in the trade it’s hard to distinguish one from another without seeing the badges. The differences in style appear minimal. It’s as if manufacturers have opted for a safe composite design in which no significant departure from the standard will be risked. Our job is to move these almost identical cars around various ports in northern Europe.

After the deckhands have signalled to the bridge that all is in order the process begins. For the officers and crew, the Scandinavian ports in February are a grim test of endurance. After Esbjerg it’s to be Wallhamn in Sweden and there’s not much difference between the two. At each it’s grey skies, icy winds, rail squalls and not a glimpse of the sun. Everything is done at speed. The less time spent in port the better as far as the owners are concerned and the crew seem to share this view. Curiously whilst a range of equipment is available for the rapid unloading of containers, no-one has figured out a way to speed up the movement of cars. Each one has to be handled individually and it is quite labour intensive. Like a scene from the Italian Job a procession of cars is driven into the ship at high speed whilst another descends from an upper cargo deck and the two miss each other by inches. Sometimes it is British built being exchanged for those made on the continent. Job done, the drivers pile into a minibus which has been trailing them and the process is repeated.

Whilst all this is going on we also do our domestic chores. Kitchen waste in wheelie bins is lowered forty feet from the upper deck onto the quayside. At the same time two road tankers empty their loads into our fuel bunkers. Finally, with night falling the quayside grows quiet as the dockworkers depart in their minibus.

Our approach to Esbjerg has been a slow one. In the North Sea passing through German Bight, one of those shipping forecast locations, visibility was negligible due to fog. On the bridge the world outside is reduced to opaqueness and yet the radar tells a different story. The North Sea can be a crowded place. This is not all deep water either and at intervals to emphasise this, strange shapes appear out of the murk; huge timber structures, long abandoned markers for sandbanks. Modern technology has rendered such things obsolete. Interestingly whilst there are banks of screens on the bridge, the captain has an officer at a chart table doing navigation the old fashioned way. The captain is five years off retirement and presumably of an age where he’s unwilling to place all his trust in IT.

Only in specialist vessels like the ordnance disposal ship are the majority of the crew likely to be European. All the sailors on board the Grande Mediterraneo are Filipino, a hard working group of men often out in bitter weather far from home. On this trip we will have sailed 2,500 nautical miles with one day of decent weather whilst proceeding up the English Channel. Prior to that we were skirting Storm Doris in the Irish Sea before hitting another in the Baltic. This followed us into the North Sea and kept us out of the Scheldt estuary for nearly a day. All this so that the car buying public of Europe can enjoy their dubious choice of models.

BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and he writes from Yorkshire

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