WILLIAMSTOWN HIGH SCHOOL
MELBOURNE, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA
LIFE ON A CONTAINER SHIP
When did it all start?
The first container ships were built in the early 1980s in response to an urgent need to increase the capacity of freight movement across the globe. We all expect to have what we want when we want it even it’s not available locally to where we live!! The first of the containerships carried about 1000 containers, each holding up to 20 tons of goods. Gradually ports have had to increase in size and function to cope with the current largest containers which hold about 8000 containers. They are referred to as 8000 TEU [Twenty-ton Equivalent Unit – or ‘small’ container] ships. The smaller ships (like the Utrillo at 2250 TEU) can sail at about 20 knots, that’s the equivalent of just under 40 kilometres per hour. The larger ships travel more quickly improving delivery times.
The amount of container traffic doubled between 1990 and 2000, and is expected to double again by 2010. Some companies are planning to build containerships with a capacity of 18000 TEU and they have many interested potential clients. However, there are currently few ports that can manage such large ships and the economics of such expansion has not yet been proved. Much of the development is taking place in countries of the East such as South Korea and China where business is booming.
CMA CGM is the largest freight operating company in France and has operations worldwide. In 2005 it owned 55 vessels varying from 8 small ships (of which one is the Utrillo) of between 1858 and 2550 TEU, up to its 10 largest ships of 8200 TEU. In 2006 it will begin to operate 4 even larger ships of 9163 TEU. The company has operations in all continents of the world. The largest number of staff work in and from France, but there are large offices in the USA, South America, Africa and the Far East. There are small but well-established offices in Australia South-East Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Over 6,500 people work in the offices – this figure doesn’t include the many thousands of officers and crew on the ships.
The Utrillo is one of eight ships in a group which does round-the world trips. The timetable is such that there is a weekly departure from each port round the world. The whole trip takes 84 days approximately. The itinerary covers Tilbury (UK), Hamburg (Germany), Rotterdam (Holland), Dunquerque and Le Havre (France), New York (USA), Norfolk (Virginia USA), Savannah (Georgia USA), Manzanillo (Panama), Panama Canal, Papeete (Tahiti), Auckland (New Zealand), Noumea (New Caledonia), Sydney (New South Wales Australia), Melbourne (Victoria Australia), Adelaide (South Australia), Fremantle (Western Australia), Singapore, Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), Suez Canal, Damietta (Egypt), Malta, La Spezia (Italy).
The Panama Canal is a real highlight of the voyage. The locks are an amazing feat of construction, opening in 1913 and rising over 50 metres in a triple ‘staircase’. Approaching in the dark all you can see is a narrow strip of water that seems too small for large ships to pass each other, with a wall of lights and lock gates ahead. This picture shows the Utrillo steering into the right hand set of locks. Small engines run alongside the ship at every lock. They are not large enough to tow the ship, but they keep the bow and stern lines taut so that the vessel doesn’t bump into the sides.
In most ports the ship stops for about a day while loading and unloading of containers takes place. Passengers and crews can usually visit the towns and cities of the ports visited, but occasionally the visit is short and dock activities take place during the night making it difficult to go on shore. Several officers and crew members commented on how much they preferred ‘the good old days’ when shore visits could be as long as 10 days and they could get to know the places they had visited.
Different countries’ dockside working practices.
It is very interesting to watch how containers are loaded and unloaded. The machinery that hoists 40 ton 40 feet long boxes around as if they are featherweights is extremely impressive, and yet it places them with great accuracy – mostly. There are marked differences between methods used in France, the USA and Panama. Most ports offer us two huge cranes of very similar style.
In Le Havre, two little container ‘shepherds’ service each huge crane. They rush off to the container park where they can straddle a pile of containers up to three high. They pick one, self-load it, bring it to the space under the huge crane, and place it accurately so that the large crane driver doesn’t have to move his crane to collect the container – only the hoist. The large crane then picks the box, swings it up and places it - moving in and out along his jib. He returns and the second ‘shepherd’ has placed another box on the quayside, and so it goes. I have no idea how many times each box is handled before it reaches the container farm, but for the loading, two men and machines serve one large crane.
US dockside practices seem to have full employment rather than speed as their watchword. Each container is brought under the large crane by an articulated lorry and trailer. This lorry is loaded in the container farm by a huge fork lift-type truck, and when it arrives under the crane, a man [who appears to have no other job] raises his hand as the lorry approaches and lets it fall when the lorry is correctly placed under the crane. There is a constant queue of lorries under the crane, so about 10 lorries service each large crane, plus of course the ‘positioning’ man and the crew in the container farm.
Passengers have cabins on one of the upper accommodation decks. The cabins are well-appointed and have a shower room. However, containers loaded high outside the portholes mean the view of the sea is usually restricted. Passengers eat meals in the officers’ dining room. They also have their own quite large, comfortable lounge with a TV, DVD player, and coffee making facilities.
The Utrillo has an extensive library of books, mostly in French. However, there is a selection of English books, and a few in Spanish and German. The library also houses ‘the gym’ which consists of a rowing machine and an exercise bike. There is a small indoor swimming pool which is filled with sea water when the temperature is high enough! Using a carefully rigged bit of rope it is possible to get a reasonable amount of exercise in the pool.
Passengers have access to all of the ship except the engine room when the vessel is at sea. A walk round the edge of the lower deck beside and underneath the containers is about 400 metres. Passengers are also welcome on the bridge and can observe how the officers and crew navigate. Most passengers also choose to have a supervised visit to the engine room – or the cathedral as it is known on board.
Christian Claquin, the commandant, or captain, of the Utrillo has spent all of his career at sea working for CMA CGM. Commandant Claquin first went to sea as a baby in 1955 with his father as commandant. His first voyage as a sailor was in 1973 and was on a refrigerated freight ship to Argentina. The vessel was, at about 165 metres long, much smaller than the vessel he now commands. It was called a cargo classique, and goods were packed in the hold in sacks and wooden crates for carriage. The main cargo to return to Europe was Argentinean beef. On the way out to Argentina the refrigeration was not used but the hold filled with all sorts of other freight.
The arrival of container ships was not until the early 1980s, since when the size of ships and their payload has increased dramatically. Some of the new vessels can carry as many as 8000 forty foot long containers. Commandant Claquin’s current command holds up to 2250 containers, and has a complement of 25 officers and crew. The ship also takes up to six passengers on its three month round the world voyages.
M. Claquin’s first command was in 1997 as Chef Mechanicien, and then in 1999 as Commandant. The Commandant has overall responsibility for the ship including navigation, loading and unloading, security, dealing with outside agencies such as the police and customs officials, and also the day to day and strategic management of the officers and crew.
Commandant Claquin lives in Avranches, near the Mont St Michel in Northern France. His wife and his three children , aged 15, 14 and 11 have all visited him on the ship during shore leave. His wife has also undertaken two voyages on the ship with him.
I asked Commandant Claquin whether he would recommend the sea as a career to his son or other young people. He said that the job was different from the one he took up in the sixties. Then, shore visits could be as long as 10 days and he got to know many corners of the world. Nowadays port visits are short; the immense amount of container traffic means that ships have to move on from ports to make room for others. Nevertheless, he feels that the career structure is good, and CMA CGM looks after its staff well. He also welcomed the fact that, even though numbers are small, some women are beginning to take up careers in freight shipping. In fact about 8% of officers in the CMA CGM fleet are women, including the wife of one of the Utrillo officers. The proportion of women in the crews is lower but gradually increasing.
Walter Sigwalt has worked for CMA CGM for eighteen years. He was born in Picardy in France and now lives in Normandy. The role of chef mechanicien is mainly concerned with technical aspects of the management of the ship, including the engines, energy and water production etc. However, all officers who work for CMA CGM are required to qualify in both engineering and command aspects of ship management, and M Sigwalt hopes to command his own ship in the future.
The engine room is familiarly known as ‘the cathedral’. You can see why as soon as you enter. The entry walkways are five stories up from the base. The engine is HUGE, very noisy and very hot. The chef mechanicien is in charge of operations in the engine rooms twenty four hours a day. At any time there are four or five engineers working in the bowels of the ship. The temperature in the engine rooms is high. The noise levels are such that all personnel entering them must wear ear protection. Even from the outer decks of the ship it is clear how noisy the engines are.
The control room of the engine rooms is completely enclosed under deck. There is an array of computers and gauges ensuring that the engineers know the state of the engines all the time. However, it is a slightly quieter place to work than the main engine room.
There are seven cylinders, each of which can be isolated from the rest and worked on while the engine is running. The horsepower of the engine is enormous. Each day the engine is running it uses a massive 80 tons of fuel. The ship sails at just over 20 knots [approx. 38kph] 24 hours a day. That’s getting on for 1000km per day. Now that’s impressive!
Pierre-Yves was born and brought up in Marseilles in France, but now lives with his wife and young daughter in Noumea in New Caledonia. This is a regular if short stopping place on the round the world voyages undertaken by the Utrillo. Pierre-Yves started his sailing career in Marseilles and worked for some time for a small freight company in Papeete, the main port in Tahiti. He then joined CMA CGM and has now completed his qualifications and hopes to command his own ship in a few years.
In common with all the crew members I spoke to on the voyage Pierre-Yves enjoys working on the Utrillo rather than on the newer, much bigger, container ships. The shore stays are slightly longer and more flexible. The larger ships carry over three times as many containers as the Utrillo, but the work on board is done by a similar number of officers and crew members. He is also happy to have learned both the command and engineering roles on the ship as it enhances his career opportunities, but he prefers the command function.
One of the main roles of the second officer is to manage the loading and unloading of freight. This function is co-ordinated in Marseilles, but the day to day organisation is done on board. The company uses a sophisticated piece of computer software to keep track of freight movements. The software represents the loading areas of the ship in 3D and in multiple colours. The colours are used to identify types of freight which might need special conditions, such as away from direct sunlight or an electrical connection for refrigeration. At any given time perhaps one third of the containers are empty and are being returned to their home port. The skill of the planning is in ensuring that the ship is balanced by weight front to back and side to side, and also ensuring that the containers needed at the next port are easily available for unloading. Most of the containers on board belong to CMA CGM or its partners P & O Nedlloyd, Marfret and Contship.
Loading and unloading in a port can be a complex and time-consuming affair, especially in a port without large rolling cranes where the ship’s own cranes need to be used. With the most up-to-date equipment a 2 TEU container can be moved from the ship to the dock in around 60 seconds. Using the less sophisticated ship’s own crane it can take between five and ten minutes. Even in a small port the numbers of containers being loaded and unloaded can be large. For example, on this voyage 193 containers were unloaded in Papeete and 246 loaded there.
This is 22 year old Luc’s first round the world trip on a containership as trainee officer. He was born and brought up in St Malo in France, and his ambition has always been to have a career with lots of holidays, and if it could be on the sea, all the better! Luc has been studying at the Ecole de Marine Marchande in Le Havre for the last three years studying the theory of all aspects of managing a freight vessel. He is currently undertaking the first of three years’ practical studies. His title is ‘eleve’ with the Utrillo. Next year he hopes to be promoted to ‘lieutenant’ or ‘mate’ and his holidays will then increase from 20 days for each three month voyage to equal time at sea and on holiday.
Luc considered several types of career on the sea : passenger liners, oil carriers, general freight, but decided to choose a career on container ships working for CMA CGM, the largest freight company in France. CMA CGM has a very wide range of routes operating and is a flourishing company with increasing numbers of vessels each year, and also an increasing number of very large vessels. The career structure is well mapped out and secure within the company. Luc hopes that he might be a commandant or captain by the time he is 35 years old.
Luc told me that he is very much enjoying his work on the Utrillo with Commandant Claquin and his crew and is looking forward to his first transit of the Panama Canal and of the Equator.
Aurel Cercel is the steward on the Utrillo who looks after the officers and the passengers on the ship. He starts work in the morning preparing the dining room for breakfast and cleans the officers’ and passengers’ cabins during the first part of the morning. He then serves lunch in the officers’ dining room, and has a short break before serving dinner at 7pm each day.
Aurel, tells me that over 2 million Romanians have left his country to work abroad. It’s good for the country’s economy, he says, as they all send money back, but its harder for those Romanians who have stayed at home as they can’t compete with the money that the expatriate workers send home. Aurel is married and has two children – 23 and 21. His older son is going to sea like Aurel, but will be on a line around South America. Aurel has learned English and French for his work, and has encouraged his son to learn Spanish and English. After each three month round-the-world trip Aurel has three months holiday – a welcome rest after working 12 hour days for three months!
Dominique Trechel hails from Brittany in Northern France, and he lives in St Brieuc a beautiful, small port. He began his training as a chef at the École de Cuisine in St Brieuc and has continued to learn about cookery throughout his varied career across the world. He was a chef during his national service in Toulon in southern France and has worked in hotels and restaurants across Europe including The Ritz and the Société de Cuisiniers in Paris and a three star hotel in Luxembourg.. For a period of about eight years Dominique worked on oil rigs in the Gulf and in Mexico. He has also worked as a lorry driver, and for a time was a deep-sea fisherman in the North Sea. He later took up his career as a chef again in the merchant navy and travelled the world.
Dominique is happy to be working for CMA CGM on the Utrillo and other freighters in its fleet. He enjoys working with a French and Rumanian crew who appreciate the food he cooks. He is assisted by one kitchen assistant in producing superb meals three times a day, seven days a week, for 25 crew and officers and up to six passengers. During a round-the-world voyage of 84 days he provides over 5000 three or four course main meals and 2500 continental breakfasts. All of the food is freshly cooked on board. Specialities such as ‘tazard’ - Spanish mackerel – a large deep-sea mackerel native to French Polynesia, and fresh tuna tartare from tuna sourced in Tahiti - are on the menu when the ship has shore visits in the area. Freshly baked, delicious French bread, as good as you would find in any boulangerie in France, is served with every meal, and croissants add to the menu for breakfast every Sunday.
Supplies are taken on board at most ports. For an 84 day voyage the ship’s kitchen needs about one ton of meat, half a ton of fish, and half a ton of fruit and vegetables! Dominique tells me that he doesn’t plan menus for the whole voyage – he uses the ingredients he has to create a new menu each day. A sample Sunday lunch was:
Truite aux amandes
Pintadeau à la normande Crique
Container transport on the seas is one way of reducing the environmental impact of the movement of massive amounts of freight, especially on the roads which are overcrowded already. CMA CGM has made a strong commitment to conservation in the way it operates its ships through its initiative ‘First Environment’.
‘First Environment’ now has its own department in the company. The effort covers all aspects of the company’s work even down to recycling ink cartridges from the large number of computers used all over the world. On the ships there is a very strict code of environmental conduct which covers energy production and use, use of resources such as water and waste disposal. All refuse on board is sorted and dealt with appropriately, some on board and some in port. Much of the waste can be incinerated on board safely and effectively, but waste such as fuel residues have to be collected on board during the voyage and taken to an appropriate facility on shore for safe incineration. In offices and where possible on ships, low voltage lighting is used. Crews and passengers are encouraged to respect the cleanliness of the sea. A senior CMA CGM official said ‘ The sea is our working tool. We must preserve her.’
Large customers such as IKEA and Volvo who make extensive use of container fleets are keen only to work with companies with the highest regard for environmental protection. IKEA, for example, will only use carriers whose staff have ISO14001, the standard relating to control of pollution. CMA CGM works co-operatively with its customers to ensure the relevant steps are taken to protect the environment.
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