Trinidad, Cuba. This year's destination?

2nd to 23rd January 2009
Voyage Out - The Med to Havana

The "Desperados" ready to board in Barcelona - this is the shipping
company's name for us which we quite like. We earned it by being
prepared to cross the North Atlantic in mid winter.

2nd January 2009

We left the apartment just before midday and pedalled down to the commercial port. Going through the dock gates was something of a culture shock. We were suddenly out of tourist Spain and into industrial Spain. The pollution can be tasted here. Dust and dirt and roaring lorries everywhere.

We found our security passes ready at the entrance to the container port and were instructed to follow a yellow car with a flashing light on the top. It was not an unnecessary health and safety issue, the port was really dangerous. Mind you cycle hats seemed to pass as hard hats.

We snaked past giant cranes on rails and ducked out of the way of machines which came from “War of the Worlds”. These machines towered above us and at first seemed to go in random directions with no driver. The management relied on the lead out car but felt more comfortable when he spotted the machine’s driver’s cab high in the air.

Arriving at the Melfi Iberia we were warmly welcomed on board by the captain and crew. Access was via narrow gangway steps. Once the luggage was aboard the tandem was carried up by two crew members and disappeared into some hidey hole.

The Melfi Iberia is a rather strange contrast to the Grimaldi ships we have previously travelled on. She is only just over half the size at 20,150 DWT drawing 9.84 metres and she is 167 metres long. The cargo area, full of containers stacked up to seven high, is functional. In contrast to the cargo area the superstructure aft topped by the bridge is comfortable, pleasant and fully air conditioned.

We were shown to our cabin, just two decks down from the bridge, and were surprised by its large size. It is at least as large and is better appointed than a state room on Grimaldi. It has windows on three sides and a desk and table in the lounge area. It even has a fridge for our whisky.

We suppose the difference is that on Grimaldi there are several thousand tin gods in the hold whereas containers are not deities. Furthermore, the cargo on Melfi Iberia may be rated as grade A hazard but it does not have that all pervading stink of cellulose paint which marks out a car carrier.

We left Barcelona in the early evening. An oval shaped tug pulled the stern out from the quay and at the same time the bow thruster and ship's engines got her under way. We watched from the bridge as the distant shore lights slipped by on the starboard side.

It was a very pleasant first evening, the sea being almost flat calm. After dinner we listened to some radio podcasts and slept well, undisturbed even when we dropped anchor outside Valencia Harbour.

3rd to 5th January 2009

We awoke on Saturday morning to the sound of driving rain. We were at anchor off Valencia, having arrived in the early hours. We stayed anchored for 36 hours until Sunday afternoon. Apparently the captain is entirely in the hands of the pilots and the agents in these circumstances.

The wait gave us an opportunity to find our sea legs and get into the gentle rhythm of ship board life for passengers. The motion of the Melfi Iberia at anchor was not bad considering the size of the waves. Hobnob would have found them quite large and it was blowing around 25 knots.

The captain ordered a lifeboat, safety and fire drill. The crew assembled at the muster point beside the lifeboat. Each has a spot to stand on and a specific task to carry out. There are 24 souls on board including us.

The lifeboat is one of those which free falls into the sea like a sledge going down hill. We were shown how to strap ourselves into the seats and get the boat into the water, and going, if we were the only survivors. It all looked pretty dangerous and we asked the captain whether the lifeboat could be safely test launched. He said it had to be done every six months but that it always worried him whenever he had to do it. He asked the crew to volunteer to take part because of this.

To our considerable surprise we suddenly up anchored at about 16h30 and arrived in port just before sunset. Some of the crew, looking very excited, were allowed shore leave but we waited until morning.

Monday was a lovely day and while we were having breakfast the ship was busy loading containers. The stoker negotiated our shore leave with Ryszard (Richard) the captain. It was agreed that we would be back on board by 15h00 and keep the mobile phone on in case the ship was loaded early.

The tandem was removed from the store by two members of the crew and carried down the gangway. We set off through the forest of containers in search of the exit.

We cycled the 6km into town, much of it on a dry watercourse which has been turned into a popular linear park. It was very busy and we competed for space with the many cyclists, runners and walkers.

Once in town we did a little last minute shopping for the voyage. We also reluctantly changed some euros into dollars. This is to enable bribery and corruption more easily, which in view of the events of the last year seemed an appropriate use for the US currency. After this we spent a very enjoyable time in the sun at a pavement café.

We returned to the commercial port via the original dock buildings which have been beautifully renovated to support the America’s Cup yacht race. They are in stark contrast to the utilitarian area allocated to cargo ships. At the dock gates we were told that we could not ride to the ship and a van was summoned. It was a people carrier and too small to carry the tandem so we lied and said we would walk. Like the majority of situations where some mindless idiot decrees that cyclists should walk it was much safer and quicker to ride.

Two smiling members of the crew again met us at the gangway and carried the tandem on board. One of them, clearly used to bikes, rode it along the very narrow companionway to the store. Here it was carefully laid to rest on some old mattresses and we were assured it would be given a blanket to keep it warm. We set sail at sunset having been in port 24 hours.

 A force nine gale in mid Atlantic looks like this.
It continued for six days with hardly a let up.

6th to 9th January 2009 – Valencia to the Azores

It is hard to describe how excited we both felt as the lights of Valencia reduced to a glow and finally disappeared in our wake. It was next stop Halifax and our first Atlantic crossing by ship. Once on our way and as we crossed the Greenwich Meridian the ship’s time was “retarded” by one hour.

It was just over another twenty four hours of shipboard life before we reached the Straits of Gibraltar. Passing through is always interesting. Ships converge from all directions into the traffic separation lanes. Even though we were on the Gibraltar side North Africa seemed nearer.

We had a last go at getting emails when the phone came into range. As has been usual ever since 1990 O2 lied to us about their latest piece of technology. Our new 3G phone did not work to download our emails. It got itself into such a funk when faced with a mass of operators that it gave up and had to be rebooted. We resorted to last year’s technology and put the sim card into our old phone. We then manually selected Amena, a Spanish operator, and dialled up our isp. Everything then worked well and we sent and received just before going out of range.

For travellers to Europe it is worth being aware of the mobile phone company rip offs. Look very carefully at the small print. It can still cost a fortune to phone or receive calls in the most unlikely places. For example, the Channel Islands and Northern Ireland can both cost more than, say, Spain or Italy, and these are far from the only anomalies. Had we been automatically logged on to a Moroccan or Gibraltar provider it could easily have cost four times what we spent using Amena. Furthermore, to download emails via dial up was no more expensive than 3G would have been even if it had worked.

The change in the ship’s motion was apparent as soon as we were clear of the Straits and out into the Atlantic. It was also quite windy. We were in for a bumpy night, especially as we were going from the continental shelf into the deep ocean.

By breakfast time the ship felt far more alive than she had in the Mediterranean even when it had blown hard. We were already 200nm from land and it was a lovely day with the odd white top on the waves, post cold front crystal clear visibility with just the very occasional shower driving through.

Ship board life for us takes on a certain rhythm. It is in some ways like going into a retreat. A typical day involves being up, showered and dressed for breakfast in the Officers Mess. Sometimes a member of the crew may be eating but usually they have already been and gone. After breakfast we climb the steep internal stairs to our cabin four levels up. The stoker then usually attempts to learn Spanish from the mp3 player. The management would then leave by the outside stairways for a walk around the ship.

Cargo ship passengers need to make their judgement with regard to all aspects of personal safety. When there are strong winds or the sea is rough the lower decks and walkways can be awash and even washed over by huge waves. On most days the mainly Filipino crew will be working around the ship. This can vary from knocking rust off and repainting, checking that the cargo is secure or large construction jobs involving welding. Passengers are always met with a friendly smile and greeting. Even in good weather this work is arduous and these guys are tough seamen for whom we have huge admiration.

On fine days the management might do a couple of circuits of the ship. This may involve ducking across between the containers to avoid wet areas. He particularly enjoys standing in the very furthest forward part of the bow but does not linger long in this exposed place.

The management would then normally do some navigation. He is doing his best to navigate as he would his own vessel. He has prepared a passage plan for the voyage. He plots and records the course on his computer chart plotter using the bike’s GPS “SmartyPants” for the basic information. He keeps a full log of the course sailed, distance run, weather and sea state with revised etas at the waypoints. Much as he would like to he cannot set the actual course and speed of the ship. He does however have frequent conversations with Ryszard, the enormously experienced captain, on the course he chooses and the reasons for it.

For a voyage of this length, over 3,000nm, it would be normal to plot a great ocean course. This is the shorter route but does not look it on the chart as this is a flat representation of the curved surface of the round earth. The management’s passage plan was for a great ocean course. He discussed this with Ryszard who pointed out his two main problems in using such a course in the North Atlantic during the winter. The first problem would be with ice. By going to the north we risk ending up like the Titanic. The second problem is the weather and this was perhaps the greater difficulty for him. Melfi expect him, as captain, to deliver the cargo on time and in good condition using the least amount of fuel. To do this he has to make complex judgements based on his experience and his interpretation of the weather forecast for a 12 day period.

The ship has many electronic aids but we enjoyed doing our own
navigation with the faithful and brave Garmin GPS "SmartyPants"

10th to 16th January 2009 – The Azores to Halifax, Nova Scotia

Leaving the Straits of Gibraltar the captain set a course to go just south of the Azores which was at times 180nm south of the management’s passage plan. This took advantage of a high pressure area and we made good progress. Once past the Azores he had hoped to set a course direct for Halifax. The extreme weather we had for six days, most of the rest of the voyage, prevented him from doing this.

We were struck by a series of deep depressions above a high which was moving faster than is normal. Ryszard’s primary concern is for the safety of his ship and crew and secondly to deliver his cargo to Castro in one piece. The normal course he would have set would have been about 290 degrees and we could have made 16 knots. In order to avoid the worst of the bad weather and storm force winds Ryszard did northerning when he could but was frequently forced to go west. There were periods when he sailed the ship on a course of 245 degrees doing only 4 knots. The winds were regularly blowing at force 9 with huge waves breaking over the ship.

We arrived in Halifax two days late but without any discernible damage to ship, crew or cargo. Seeing Ryszard stride the bridge and making these decisions brought home very clearly the real responsibility and enormous skill required to be in command. And if our experience of most senior management is anything to go by he is unlikely to get any thanks for it. It may even be noted by those on shore that he is late.

The last full day before Halifax the wind strength decreased a little but it became very cold. Only those who had to left the accommodation area. The doors were kept firmly shut.

16th to 23rd January 2009 – Halifax, Canada to Havana, Cuba

That night we were cold in our cabin. We awoke just as the ship was coming into the quay at Halifax. We and most people onboard were looking forward to going ashore. This despite the cold which at breakfast time was -20.

Just as we were about to climb the stairs to our cabin we were ordered to a “muster” in the crew’s mess. The Canadian customs had come aboard in force. The whole crew and we three passengers had to stay in this small room while they carried out a “rummage” of the ship.

The stoker was the first to be taken away and interviewed, she is clearly a suspicious character. It was a bit like one of those TV game shows where they ask one spouse about the other. Actually they were slightly less unpleasant than the obnoxious Israelis last year. Even so, behaving like the US with British nationals is neither right nor acceptable.

The management must have given the right answers. We were eventually released after a couple of hours and took a taxi into Halifax. Halifax is Hicksville though to be fair it seems to be going out of its way to further this image to encourage hick tourism. We had heard about eastern Canada in winter. It is not for the faint hearted being cold, boring, lacklustre and dingy. But then we suppose we are comparing it with the vibrancy of wealthy fashion conscious Barcelona. But if you like indoor shopping malls, endless pine trees and a coast line like Norway with the pretty bits removed it could be for you.

When we returned to the ship customs were still there, having taken away our Italian fellow passenger in handcuffs. There were rumours among the crew that a suspicious package has also been taken from his cabin. Apparently he was not who he claimed to be and his passport was a forgery.

Just about everybody on board was fed up. The captain had to explain to the ship owners about the passenger and the delay to the ship. The owners may have to pay a substantial deposit to have the Italian repatriated. The crew, particularly the Filipinos, wanted to be at the nearby seaman’s mission to Skype and phone their families. As it was the ship loaded all night. Thanks to the hard work of all involved, and none to the customs, we left only half a day late.

We were a couple of days into the voyage to Cuba and 219 miles off the US coast, 200 miles being the US territorial limit. It was Martin Luther King Day and Obama is being inaugurated tomorrow. As his final act Bush has released two murderers sentenced to jail for killing an unarmed drugs smuggler on the Mexican border.

The above sets the scene for Ryszard to knock on our cabin door. Bad news he says, you can leave the ship in Cuba but will not be allowed to board again when she returns in six weeks. Passengers may not travel by commercial ships out of Cuba by order of the harbour master. Emails start to fly, the content heavily influenced by the stoker.

We have valid tourist visas which were issued by the Cubans in London because we have return tickets on the Melfi Iberia. It would therefore seem that we would be allowed to leave the ship. The harbour master was saying that he will not let us back on the ship so we would have no way of getting home in six weeks time.

The first reply came from the agent in Cuba who said it would have been fine if we were Germans travelling on a German registered ship. The stoker replied saying all EC nationals are entitled to be treated in the same way. She was also tempted to say that there is not a single German on this fine ship. Meanwhile the ship steamed on and we awaited the next email instalment. We hoped Gordon Brown and the Queen would not be required to declare war on the harbour master who is not complying with the words in our passport.

The following is a quote from the final email to the captain which solved the problem “…now we received information from Harbour Master that pax can return Europe on your vessel next call Havana. Now everything according immigration rules and the common sense.” Even though Andy at Strand Travel had been very helpful about alternatives we were very pleased that we are back to the original arrangement. The stoker can now sleep more easily with only the normal level of worry caused by the management’s plans.

We arrived at the pilot station off Havana just 12 hours later than the management’s eta, on the evening of 22nd January. This was again caused by rough weather on the US eastern seaboard. The master was informed that we may have to drift until 28th until there is room for us to come in. In a former life the management has had some experience of bureaucracy and we can’t help but think that one thing has led to another.

Drifting by the way is exactly what we did but for less than half a day. The ship’s engine was turned off but it is too deep to anchor here. The crew carried on with their never ending work and we sat in the sun near the pool with a temperature of +20. It is hard to believe that only five days beforehand this same spot was covered in snow, the ship had frozen pipes, and the temperature was -20.

We left the ship in Havana for a Casa Particular (Cuban B&B) with our return arrangements in place. We would like to thank Captain Ryszard Witczak and his Polish, Filipino and Lithuanian officers and crew for an interesting, pleasant and safe voyage. We have great admiration for the seamanship and navigation skills required to get us here safely in atrocious weather. We would also like to thank Ryszard for the great way he dealt with the Cuban authorities for us. The captain has huge responsibilities and that he was prepared to do this for us was very much appreciated.

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