Yoga lessons for the Captain, coffins on board and Filipino-style Karaoke: Life on cargo ship MSC Ilona

Oceans and Seas » Atlantic » North Atlantic
September 13th 2010
Published: September 14th 2010
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I soon find that one thing you really need to have at sea is patience. When we arrive in England one day after leaving Bremerhaven, our ship has to hover outside Felixstowe for twenty-four hours, as the harbour is full. So we stop the engine, drop the anchor and spend a leisurely day on board, gazing longingly towards the shore. I feel a bit like I am on Alcatraz, captive on a strange, colossal rock in the ocean. Everybody breathes a sigh of relief when we finally lift the anchor (a gigantic device connected to the longest, thickest metal chain I have ever seen) again and reach the harbour.

Today is a Bank Holiday in England. This means that the harbour is short-staffed and the loading works will take twice as long as planned. Thus, we get a day’s shore leave, and I meet my friend Emma in Felixstowe. By now I’m happy about our detour, as I haven’t seen her for three years and it’s great to catch up. Plus, I can stock up on some soya yoghurt and other vegan goodies not readily available on board. All is well.

In the evening, I need to catch a
On the top deck in Le HavreOn the top deck in Le HavreOn the top deck in Le Havre

photo by Horst Simon
shuttle back to the ship from the local ‘Seaman’s Club’. Every harbour has this facility. Here, seafarers can use the internet, call home and get support. The clubs also have free transport from and to the ships. While waiting for my shuttle in the club’s pub, I am delighted to meet a group of Indian seafarers who work on a vessel called SCI Chennai. I ask them if they sing kirtan (devotional Hindu chants) on the ship every day, but they just look at me as though I am crazy. I think that there might be a job for me on an Indian cargo ship one day, perhaps as resident yoga teacher, fire ceremony pujarin and ayurvedic consultant!

The next morning we sail to Le Havre in France and arrive late in the evening. Again we are delayed, because the pilot, a local former captain who has to navigate the ship safely to the harbour, can’t come to our ship for hours. Once he arrives, we have to manoeuvre through a small lock to get to our docking point. Horst, HJ and I stand below the Navigation Bridge at 11pm and watch with baited breath as we slowly inch
A street magically lifts up to let us into the lockA street magically lifts up to let us into the lockA street magically lifts up to let us into the lock

Le Havre - photo by Catherine Dennler
through the narrow passage. It takes a few hours, and involves the lifting of two streets!

Again, we have a day’s shore leave and I have the pleasure of meeting a colleague: the Port Chaplain, who gives us a lift into town. Reverend Michael Ludwig is a German priest who is employed by his Church (and the Seaman’s Mission) to look after the needs of seafarers. He visits passing ships and also gives the occasional mass if required. I wonder if they have a need for Pagan Chaplains? In Le Havre, a second woman comes on board, the very lovely Catherine from Switzerland, and I am happy that I have some female company. All the male crew and passengers are super-nice and respectful, but it’s nice to be able to chat with a woman again.

We leave France the next morning, again behind schedule. Somewhat unusually, our pilot, who is generally picked up by motor boat, leaves the ship via helicopter. This, I am told, is because he suffers of seasickness. It’s like an action move: the helicopter appears, hovers dangerously close over the ship’s upper deck and drops a rope which the pilot attaches to himself. Before we know it, he dangles in the air, then climbs into the open helicopter door like Spiderman, waves and is gone.

Now that we are at sea without break for about a week, tranquillity sets in on MSC Ilona. But what does one do on board of a container ship all day long? On the surface, the entertainment possibilities are limited. That doesn’t bother us passengers, though. We find that there is never a dull moment - in fact, there is so much to see and do that we hardly have any free time left. Horst, one of my German companions, and I are endlessly fascinated by everything to do with the maritime life. And I mean everything. We walk around the ship for hours with the curiosity of children and marvel at the smallest things. We climb into the lifeboats, peek into garbage rooms and delight at fire drills. We ask the officers incessant questions and speculate about the crew and life on board for hours. Every new movement on board, from shore leave to cargo operations to the facial expression of the officers, is discussed ad nauseum. Together, Horst and I are like the ‘Maritime News Central’,
The pilot says goodbyeThe pilot says goodbyeThe pilot says goodbye

photo by Z Piotrowski
often knocking on each other’s doors with the latest hot news we have just discovered.

We also keep fit by taking walks around the containers. With a ship the size of MSC Ilona, a brisk walk around the edge of the vessel equals a nice morning walk of 700m. Admittedly, it is not the most picturesque of walks - it’s a narrow, grey industrial path, atmospherically enriched with loud clanking from the massive iron anchor chain as it hits against the ship, ominous machine sounds, mighty winds and the pungent smell of heavy fuel oil. But look over the railing and it’s all forgotten: the deep blue and turquoise waters ahead of us never fail to enchant us, and sometimes we spot dolphins playing in the waves. I even see a whale once.

During the evenings, I learn rudimentary Filipino phrases from Rogelio, our adorable Second Officer, and teach him meditation in return. And towards the end of the trip, I have the honour of teaching our Captain a yoga lesson in the Officer Recreation Room, as he suffers of back pain. Again I think that there could be a job for me on cargo vessels in the future!

The Filipino crew, on the other hand, enjoy different pleasures: they love to sing Karaoke. One Saturday night, we are invited to one of these events and watch in awe as the men, one after the other, take the microphone and passionately sing along to a plethora of soppy love songs while beautiful Asian women wander forlornly among abundant flower gardens on screen. When one man sings, the others listen reverently and erupt into roaring applause after he is done. It’s a sight to behold, and Catherine even has a love song dedicated to her by Joel, one of the A/Bs (short for ‘Able-bodied Seaman’). I don’t get away with just listening and sing a duet of a Filipino song with Rogelio, much to the amusement of the crew. Another evening, we sing Catholic gospel songs accompanied on guitar by our steward Jeric, with original lyrics that go ‘Heartache and broken people ruin life, that’s why you die in Calvary’ and melodies so poignant that they almost remind me of The Smiths.

I have to admit that I am blissfully, stupidly happy on board. I take to ship life like a fish to water. Maybe it's to
Our original trioOur original trioOur original trio

photo by Catherine Dennler
do with the fact that I have once again embarked on a new adventure, another unconventional, possibly challenging journey. I absolutely love being on the ocean and I can't help thinking that people don't know what they are missing when they fly. I know, not everybody has the luxury of time to undertake such a trip.... but I am having a hard time to contain my exhilaration and the familiar feeling of ecstatic aliveness that is with me all through my time on this ship.

One of the great things about cargo ship travel is that you get to know how everything works. The crew is very accommodating and happy to answer our questions. I spend many afternoons on the Navigation Bridge, where Rogelio explains the fascinating world of ship navigation to me. It’s all computerized and when at sea, the ship mainly goes on auto-pilot. On the monitors, we can spot nearby ships and even radio them to ask how the weather has been two days ago. I learn about knots, weather cards and astronomical navigation. And then there is the view: to stand on the Bridge and watch our mighty ship calmly cross the ocean is a wonderful feeling - and at night, the view of the Milky Way and the stars is absolutely amazing.

Far below the Bridge lies what we call the Underworld - the ship’s machine room. Thus we have given the ship’s Chief Engineer, Mr Michael Koehn, the name of Hades, mythical King of the Underworld. Clad in a dark blue overall he rules over the roaring, black beasts in the vast stomach of the ship, while an entourage of so-called Oilers, Wipers and Fitters make sure that everything runs as it is supposed to.

One day, Hades invites us into his Kingdom. With measured movements, he unlocks the creaking gates of the Underworld and ushers us into the mysterious realm that lies beneath our everyday awareness. It’s incredible. The ship’s gigantic tummy houses an entire city, several storeys low, filled with thunderous machinery. It emanates a sound that is so loud that we have to wear professional ear protection, sweltering heat (around 48 degrees Celsius), and air that is heavy with dust and oil. I think that this is what Hell must be like. I am intrigued to see that the ship has its own sewerage system and even filters its own water.

Near the propeller machine, there’s even a coffin. It’s a box made from simple wood. ‘Do people actually die on board?’ I ask Hades. ‘Yes, of course’, he says. ‘On my first journey ever, the Chief Mate died of a heart attack. So we had to put him into the coffin and carry him to the fridge room, so that he was preserved until we reached the next harbour.’
‘Yes, it’s true’, Rogelio tells me later. ‘During one of my journeys, the ship mechanic died of a heart attack. We couldn’t turn around because we were only three days away from Japan, so we put him in the coffin. We had to bring him into the fridge room. The guy was Catholic, like many of us, and I always have my prayer book with me. Another guy had holy water. The entire crew and officers put on uniforms, and together, we carried him in a funeral procession to the fridge. It was sad, but also nice that we could give him that final honour. We also took pictures for his family.’

Overall, what I like most about my journey with MSC Ilona are the many conversations I have with some of the crew members. Apart from our dashing Polish Captain Zbigniew Piotrowski and Chief Mate Michal Gogolkiewicz (also known as First Officer), Hades and two other German engineers, the entire crew is from the Philippines. Most of the men have a wife and children back home. As their work contracts are around seven months long (as opposed to around three months for European seafarers), this means that they only see their wives and children for an average of two months per year before their next voyage begins. This weighs heavily on them.

‘We don’t see our children grow up’, says Rogelio. ‘And we can’t make decisions about their upbringing. This is all done by our wives. Yes, we e-mail and from time to time speak on satellite telephone, but it’s not the same. It’s hard, but we do it to support them financially. Here, our salaries are good, whereas in the Philippines, it’s not so easy. So we take this sacrifice to support our families.’

‘The contracts for us used to be longer’, adds Rene, ‘but they make them shorter now because the seamen were all getting crazy! So far from the family all the time. Right now, my children are ill - they caught some infection. I could not sleep all night because I was worried about them, but what can I do from here?’

Despite the camaraderie on board, a seaman’s job can be very lonely and monotonous indeed. ‘It’s interesting when you first join, of course’ says one crew member, ‘but after many years it’s all the same. We rarely get time to go on land when we dock, so all we see for months on end is this ship and the same faces day in and day out.’

A tough sacrifice? ‘It depends on how you look at it’, says Hades. ‘Everything has pros and cons. Yes, I’m away from my wife for most of the year, but when I am back, I am really back one hundred percent. We enjoy our time together for two months. And when I worked on land, there was not so much time anyway, because I often came home late and was stressed with other things.’

And of course, the seafarer’s life also gets into their blood. Some men try to take jobs on shore to be closer to their families, but often the call of the sea soon becomes too strong to ignore again. They are modern-day nomads, used to this way of life, and I think it must be hard to adjust to anything else once you’ve been at sea for twenty years or so. And their job is an important one: I was surprised to find out that the modern world relies on seafarers for over ninety percent of daily goods and services. The containers contain absolutely anything from clothes to shoes to DVD players, car parts and bananas.

It’s also interesting to see the different nationalities live and work together, and the gifts and conflicts this can bring. The ranking on ships is very hierarchical, with clear structures that denote Steward, Wipers and Oilers as the lowest positions, and engineers, officers and Captain as the highest. Although the interactions on MSC Ilona are generally very positive and respectful, I occasionally observe nationality-related derogatory comments and differences in treatment. Perhaps it’s human nature and most definitely also rank-related, but I still find it difficult when it happens, whether it’s a German talking negatively about his Polish colleagues or an European officer treating a Filipino crew member with disrespect. On the other hand, the nationalities learn to live with each other and certainly also from each other, which can only make them more tolerant.

During my fourteen days at sea (yes, that’s how long it takes to get to the USA), the seas are remarkably calm for most of the time, and we are blessed with our fair share of sunshine. It’s often too windy to spend too much time outside, although we identify little spots on board where we can lounge around on deckchairs. Thankfully I don’t get seasick, although sometimes the ship wobbles around quite a bit. I like sleeping in my comfortable bed. It’s a bit like being on a slow, vibrating swing, with the soothing lull of the engine singing me to sleep. Actually, it’s not so different from sleeping on a train, just smoother, with the added bonus that the ship doesn’t stop.

‘Have you ever been in a hurricane?’ I ask our Captain during lunch. ‘Yes!’ he tells us in his delightful Polish accent that I never tire of. ‘One time, it was terrible. The waves were something like fifteen meters tall!’

‘Did you throw up?’ I ask.

‘No’, he smiles, ‘I was too concentrated for that. I mean, it was a terribly dangerous situation. But I was a little nervous, yes. I am happy to say though that I didn’t lose a single container. My colleagues asked me how I did it. I don’t know - I said I flew over the hurricane, haha! It was a challenge - but a dangerous one. Now, when a hurricane is forecast, I always change course.’

On my last full day on board, I get to participate in a 'Stowaway Drill'. These drills happen frequently to train the crew for the possibility of stowaways on board. Today, the crew is instructed to search the whole ship for Stowaways. The previous night, I had the (somewhat crazy) idea to play the Stowaway (as usually, it's just an exercise and nobody is found). I get the okay from the captain, borrow a red NSB overall from Rogelio, wrap a black T-shirt around my head, and hide in a bed in the Suez Crew room on the deck. Nobody apart from the Captain and Rogelio know I'm here. It takes the crew about an hour to find me (during which time
Searching for the StowawaySearching for the StowawaySearching for the Stowaway

photo by Catherine Dennler
I sweat in my overall in the dark and dingy crew room). When they finally manage to track me down, I have a hard time staying serious when I see their initially shocked faces. 'A Stowaway! A stowaway!' they cry. Rene the 'cookie' looks as though he has seen a ghost but soon they catch on it's me and nearly collapse on the floor laughing. I'm glad they recognized me and didn't throw me overboard! :-)

Despite the initial delays, we arrive in Charleston, South Carolina, on 10th September as scheduled. And I am not even jetlagged. Because we were travelling westwards, we put the clock back for an hour every night. This was nice and gentle transition to adjust to the time difference of six hours and meant that our days were twenty-five hours long for a week.

I leave the ship with a laughing and a crying eye. It’s been a wonderful journey that has opened up a new and fascinating world to me. Before I came on MSC Ilona, I didn’t know the first thing about seafarers and cargo ships. During this trip, I have learnt so much about all aspects of life on board,
The Stowaway is foundThe Stowaway is foundThe Stowaway is found

photo by Catherine Dennler
both technically and interpersonally, and fallen in love with this way of travelling and really enjoyed listening to the stories of the crew members. A big thank you to Captain Piotrowski and his excellent crew, as well as Frachtschiffreisen Pfeiffer GmbH, for making this journey so joyful and memorable. If ever you have the opportunity to travel with a cargo ship, do it - you won't regret it.

For more information about cargo ship travel, please visit:

Frachtschiffreisen Pfeiffer GmbH

Reederei NSB


Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


Stowaway or Taliban?Stowaway or Taliban?
Stowaway or Taliban?

photo by Catherine Dennler
With our CaptainWith our Captain
With our Captain

photo by Catherine Dennler

17th September 2010

soooo toll
hej tiziana maaaaaaa, jetz hab ich es grad halbwegs geschafft, mein schiffsweh in griff zu kriegen und dann schau ich auf deinen blog und seh da all die vertrauten lieben gesichter, das vertraute liebgewonnene schiff und dazu die geschichten,...; hab grad das totale déjà-vu erlebnis und durchleb noch mal die tolle ueberfahrt!!! und es ist ja echt zuuuu lustig, dass du genau auf dem gleichen schiff warst und dann auch bei michael...zufaelle gibts im leben...hach! ich wuensch dir gaaaaaaaanz viel spass auf deiner reise und hoff, du hast es weiterhin so toll wie auf der ueberfahrt!! und dass du nicht zu sehr die lecker gerichte von rene vermissen musst... lieben gruss aus little bregenz maggi
17th September 2010

versuch 2 einer begeistert-neidischen ex-passagierin :)
sooo, jetz bin ich leicht verwirrt, dass mein kommentar beim ersten mal nicht geklappt hat. oder braucht es einfach eine weile, bis es das veroeffentlicht hat? hm...ich probier es jetz einfach noch mal kurz und wenn es wieda nicht klappt, dann mach ich es morgen noch mal.... bin seit dem letzten versuch sogar NOCH mehr beigestert-neidisch-enthusiastisch geworden und wuenscht, ich koennt auch noch mal auf so einen tollen trip gehen!!! wuensch DIR weiterhin gutes reisen und freu mich auf charleston berichte :) lg aus far away austria maggi
18th September 2010

Hey :)
Hey Maggi, Danke fuer die Kommentare! Ja, ich leide auch noch stark unter Schiffsheimweh und kriege noch taeglich Updates per Email von der Ilona..... es war wirklich so eine schoene Reise. Der Charleston-Bericht sollte morgen veroeffentlicht werden..... ganz liebe Gruesse Dir auch, long live MSC Ilona! :) Tiziana
2nd November 2010

so funny
Even I know all that, even I was part of that vessel, I could laugh so much about your description. It's so complet, it would be hard to have something to add. Thanks a lot, I loved to read all what I lived Catherine
2nd November 2010

Thanks Catherine! Such lovely memories! :-)
27th January 2011

I was interested as we plan a trip
I realy enjoyed your emails as it gives us some idea what to expect on a cargo ship travel.We are elderly but fit and have done a lot of cruises.I know it will be a challange.We will be going from a port in Spain to Port Klang in Malaya, about 30 days, we are reserching it at present and would welcome any advice you can give us.It has an interesting itinery.
27th August 2011

Life on-board
My daughter is coming state side after some terrifying experience flying to German. The Ilona is a world unto itself. The experience you describe comfort my mind to know that the voyage sound like a whole new world of sights, sounds and friends are at hand. Thanks for the images. The best traveling approach is: The plan is no plan. Everyday is a good day if there are no expectation.

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