Slow travel across the Atlantic: The Independent Voyager

4 Sep 2013 james

Independent-Voyager-740670Mika Minio-Paluello, Anna Galkina and James Marriott are heading to North America as part of a tour over September and October to promote The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian to the City of London. You can find more info about their confirmed speaking dates in Virginia, the Bay Area, New Orleans, Baltimore and Washington DC here. In the first of a series of blogs on his travel to and across North America, James Marriott has written about his journey across the Atlantic on a container ship.

49o32.127 N        27o54.227 W       Mid Atlantic

Fog. Fog all around. The steel grey sea, dimpled by a light wind, rising and falling with the slow swell, stretches only a short distance until its swallowed by a white wall of fog. Mid Atlantic, 9,000 foot of water, almost exactly due south of Iceland. Nothing to be seen, not a bird nor a whale. The ship closed in on itself, announcing its presence by the repetitive call of the deep foghorn. The instruments on the bridge tell that the nearest vessel is Maersk Missouri, 20 miles away, far from view. Christian, the Captain, checks the computer screens, and casts glances at the stretch of sea that lies between the prow and the fog. We are making good progress, 13.4 knots of speed, running only 58 minutes behind schedule. Alex, the Chief Mate, stands silent, hands behind his back, gazing through the windows of the bridge, down on two hundred meters of red brown containers, and the grey sea either side. Watching.

The MV Independent Voyager is a standard mid-range container ship – capable of carrying 2,400 twenty foot container units – or TEU’s as they are known, the standard unit of measurement in this industry. She is dwarfed by the titans that have are currently being built, like the MV Majestic Maersk, launched a month ago, which is twice the size of this ship and transports up to 18,000 TEU’s. Our vessel ferries cargo between Antwerp and Liverpool in Europe, and Chester and Willmington on the otherside of the Atlantic. A constantly cycle repeated every 28 days. A voyage of about 4,000 miles each month. She has been at sea consistently since her maiden voyage in June 2011. Twenty-seven months, over 100,000 miles of sea passage, equivalent to four times around the Earth.

Her schedule is plotted out at least a year in advance by the chartering company, ICL of Richmond, Virginia. The days in which she should arrive in Chester or Antwerp are only effected by variations in tide or wind direction, or perhaps an intense storm in the Atlantic. Mostly her journey is entirely predictable, plotted out by computer and guided by satellites. Despite the seeming emptiness of the steel grey ocean, this 39,000 tonne mountain of metal, shuttles back and forth like a tram or train. The officer on watch can vary the route a little, say to avoid a school of whales, but the schedule of departures and arrivals is set down like an iron grid – our ten day journey is running 58 minutes late.

Mid-Atlantic, the Third Engineer, takes me and my fellow passenger down into the engine room. A bone-shaking roar and rattle, the noise of the engine reverberating around the steel box of the ship. Tomas takes it in his stride, but the sound knocks the breath out of me. How is it that we make these Promethean spaces? It is just HUGE. The scale of the main engine cannot be exaggerated. And so solid. A vast, throbbing block of steel. I can feel the intense heat of it – as it burns 11/4 tonnes of heavy oil every hour. As I stand looking, it is incinerating fuel brought from Shell, loaded in Antwerp, 2,000 miles ago.

Jaroslaw, the Second Engineer joins us, beaming with delight as he shows us around. Occasionally he shouts and prompts us to lift an ear guard. When I do so I can hardly hear him. This thing, the main engine – he proudly shows us the maker’s plate – made at the MAN Cegielski works in Posnan, Poland, gives out 21, 000 kilowatts of power constantly. Twenty-one thousand kilowatts! That`s surely enough to run a small town. I know from Platform’s Delta project, that a small-hydro electric scheme for a village in Nepal provides 1 kilowatt, so there are 21,000 villages in this one ship. A power station jammed inside this heap of steel in order that it can carry its cargo of containers across the Atlantic twenty-four times a year.

The ship burns three types of fuel – high-sulphur heavy fuel oil when outside the 200-mile limit around the EU and the USA, low-sulphur heavy fuel oil within the limits, and diesel when operating in the docks. It’s all to do with ever-tighter emissions restrictions, Jaroslaw explains. Indeed, mid-ocean the funnel leaves a dirty yellow smudge across the sky.

All three types of fuel are loaded from bunker barges in Antwerp harbour once a month, the result of a year long contract between ICL in Richmond and Shell Marine in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The heavy fuel oil that Shell sells is not necessarily produced at one of its dwindling number of Western European refineries such as Pernis in Rotterdam, but may have been puchased from another company, such as Total’s refinery at Antwerp, and sold on to ICL. The diesel need not have been refined in Europe, but could have come from the Motiva plant at Port Athur in Texas. In the past few years increasing quantities of diesel have been exported from the US Gulf Coast to Europe by companies such as Shell and Valero – some of it refined from crude extracted from the tar sands in Alberta. There’s a myriad of oil roads criss-crossing the Atlantic.

Perhaps the fog that surrounds the Independent Voyager, and the great spaces of the ocean, hides the traffic of tankers from the US to Europe ploughing through the Atlantic in the opposite direction to us. I’m put in mind of the Dugi Otok, that we tracked in The Oil Road running between Ceyhan and Trieste, carrying her load of Azeri crude towards Austrian, German and Czech refineries.

I wake in the night. Complete darkness, beyond the porthole the fog hides the stars. Only the sound of the fog horn and the constant rhythm of the pistons, ninety feet below my bed. The engines rattle the cupboards and the ship gently rocks. It is past 4 o’clock and I know that Alex, the Chief Mate, is on the bridge. The beautiful simplicity of this. Its tenderness. Here sleep 18 mariners and two passengers, reliant on the eyes of the one on watch. Looking out at the sea, looking at the computer screens, looking out for us.

This ocean is being constantly watched, from the bridge of every ship in every night and day. Some part of it must have been watched almost without break since the Norse traversed the Atlantic in the 10th century. Fog is common in this sea area, where the cold waters of the Labrador Straits, flowing from the Arctic north, meet the warm waters of the Gulf Stream coming from the south. These cod fishing grounds of the Grand Banks were known to Basque sailors at least by the 16th century.

But the temperature of the ocean is changing, and the currents and weather patterns with it. These shifts indicate the changing of the Earth’s climate. They are witnessed by observation. Indeed our understanding of the way the climate is shifting is the result of the distillation of watching – hundreds of thousands of hours of observation through instruments, of watching and annotation. The thought inspires me to the natural world around, to be on watch.

Information on the Independent Voyager’s fuel oil consumption is automatically fed back to the two companies that own and manage the ship, Hammonia and Peter Dolhe Schiffarts, both based in Hamburg. The data is not only used to assess the cost of shipping containers across the Atlantic, but also of the carbon footprint of the vessel, and hence the company itself. This ship is one of four sisters that work this route, one of 421 owned by Peter Dolhe, one of thousands currently driving through the oceans, beyond the fog and horizon.

Restrictions on the type fuel used due to sulphur emissions increases the cost of shipping. If a carbon tax, or some such, were introduced it would increase them further. Of course the price of shipping is linked to the global price of oil. They rise together. It’s hard to imagine this type of vessel, this type of trade system, existing in thirty years time. The ship is driving not only through the ocean, but headlong into the limits of the climate.

As dawn comes the fog has cleared a little, I can begin to see to the sea’s horizon. Fulmars skim the wake. There’s a hint of blue at the zenith of the sky. The Captain says the weather may change as we enter the St Lawrence Channel, where the waters of The Great Lakes spill into the ocean.

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