Captain's Log

The following information has been extracted & reproduced from Holland America's Community Page - "Captain's Log" - I find Captain Mercer's comments extremely interesting and believe you will too! As passengers, our perspective is glazed and obviously sheltered from what actually happens on the Bridge as the ship's officers prepare to manuver & dock this massive vessel.  

Hong Kong

Captain Mercer

We arrived in Hong Kong yesterday. We had experienced rough weather for the last day, as we headed north-east through the South China Sea; a strong north-east wind had built up the sea and swell, consequently our passage was ‘bumpy’ at times.

On the bridge at 4 a.m., mainly there to assist the 2nd Officer, Sean, in the challenging ‘traffic’ situations when approaching one of the world’s busiest ports. Cargo ships, container ships and bulk carriers were everywhere and the situation complicated by the fact that there are 2 entrances to Hong Kong harbour, one which goes round the west side and another, which goes around the east side of the island. We were bound for the east entrance, the Tatong Channel and consequently had to cross those ships entering and leaving the west channel. The weather, apart from rough seas was abysmal; low cloud and rain hampering visibility and to top it off, the temperature was around 12C/55F, not what one would expect for Hong Kong…

We entered the routing system at the eastern end of the Tatong channel and embarked our pilot on time, at 6 a.m., the dawn was doing its best to break, hampered by the overcast skies. It did not seem to hamper our guests though, the decks were crowded as we entered what must be one of the most magnificent harbours in the world; towering skyscrapers reaching (literally) the clouds, boats of every size and description scurrying across and through the channels and lights, there are lights everywhere; one can almost feel urgency and excitement of the city.

We berthed on the Ocean Terminal, the cruise centre at 7:30 and our guests had started disembarking by 8, ready to enjoy the shopping, sightseeing and ‘flavour’ of Hong Kong. Markets galore, Bird market, Ladies market, Stanley market, Night market, to name but a few. Where we berth is actually alongside a massive shopping mall, (doom for any husband on board ). As soon as one is off the gangway, one is confronted with brand-name shops, 3 floors of them and stretching for at least 1/2 a mile. Tours to places such as the ‘Peak’, (the Beverly Hills of Hong Kong) are hampered by the low cloud, the Peak being ‘socked-in’ with mist, however this doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of 2 days in this vibrant city.

At night, for those on board, there is what is called the ‘Symphony of lights’; every skyscraper in Hong Kong and Kowloon are linked together and display colourful arrays of laser lights in unison, even in the gloom it is an awe-inspiring sight. For those ashore, the hustle and bustle continue with market stalls everywhere, street-side kitchens pop up out of nowhere and streets are pedestrianised to allow the people unhindered access, my words cannot do it justice.

This evening we sail, back across the South China Sea, destination Nha Trang, Vietnam on Wednesday.

Singapore

Arrival Singapore. The Singapore Straits are one of the busiest in the world, it’s a bottleneck for shipping, where both eastbound and westbound meet in a narrow neck of water. Nowadays, a modicum of organisation exists; the lanes are divided, more akin to a dual-carriageway, (or 2-lane highway), with a central reservation, or median in the centre. One can’t actually ‘see’ these lanes of course, they are marked on charts and courses and intended routes are laid off to follow these ‘lanes’.

The Straits are monitored by a VTS, or Vessel Traffic System, which oversees every vessel that enters their area; this has a vast coverage, not only the shipping lanes, but the sprawling harbour of Singapore itself. Literally hundreds of ships fall under their remit, from small barges to massive, deep-draft VLCCs, (Very Large Crude Carriers). These ‘babies’ are carrying millions of barrels of oil each, are hundreds of metres in length and draw over 60 feet (over 20 metres) of water. They are particularly vulnerable in these congested and, (to them), shallow waters. Unable to mark large alterations or move out of ‘deep-water’ routes (which are specially designed for them), they rely on the good seamanship of other vessels and the watchful eye of the VTS to ‘shepherd’ them.

Our early morning passage through the Straits was such that we had watches doubled and a senior officer on the bridge at all times, no autopilot here, hand steering all the way as we plotted targets. It is a long time since I have seen so many ships in one place, hundreds of them, literally. Some anchored, waiting for berths or orders from their owners, others transiting the Straits and in the mix, unlit barges and fishing boats, their occupants having little regard for their own safety or others.

A pilot at 6:30 a.m. and a move to the PSA terminal, as we had drawn the ‘short straw’; the Cruise terminal was occupied until 4 p.m. and the only alternative was a berth on the Container ship wharf until we could move. We docked at 8 a.m. and our guests either joined their tour buses on the pier, or caught one of the many shuttle-buses, which took them to a drop-off point at the Cruise terminal. The option of walking ashore did not exist; with massive ‘box-boats’ and car-carriers all around us, it was a dangerous place for a pedestrian; trucks, cars, tractor-trailers were everywhere, bustling around like hens nursing their chicks.

We were due to shift at 4 p.m., however, as with the best laid plans, nature and a recalcitrant bunker-barge skipper affected us. All ready to let go, the barge still tied alongside, the skipper and crew could not be seen. Much blowing of the whistle and constant calls on the radio had absolutely no effect, perhaps they were having lunch? Had they become the ‘Mary Celeste’? We had no idea, it was utterly frustrating. Then, hallelujah! They appeared, however they were in no rush to leave us and moved in their own, slow time. Just when I thought we could leave, the dark, threatening clouds which were lying too our north, suddenly unleashed a torrent of rain and with it came wind squalls of over 30 mph.

Eventually, the wind subsided as fast as it had arrived and we made the short journey to the Cruise terminal, berthing on the other side of the Zaandam, which was just about to start her cruise.

Bombay

Our passages up the coast of India have been busy. Apart from the coastal trade shipping, there have been vast amounts of fishing vessels. Every coastal community seems to have a fleet of these boats, ranging from reasonably large, in the 9-10 metre range, (28 feet or so), to small dinghy-size boats. They mark their nets with dimly-lit buoys, which are difficult to spot and in addition to this, the smaller boats carry few lights and what they do have are presumably powered by a 12V battery, as they are ‘dim’ to say the least.

Consequently, the officers and lookouts on bridge watches have had their work cut out, avoiding not only the boats, but the nets as well. A review of our courses steered during these coastal transits seldom reveals a straight line for any length of time, instead a zig-zag pattern is the norm as they deal with each boat (or boats) and their nets as and when they become a challenge.

Having safely negotiated these waters, we arrived at the pilot station off Mumbai at 0455 this morning, I having been on the bridge since 0330 in order to supplement the Bridge team in a congested area.

The approach to Mumbai and the ‘Ballard’ terminal, (where we dock), requires the utmost concentration and communication between those on the bridge. Our pilot, although on board, says little and leaves the conning of the “Amsterdam” to us, a situation I far prefer, as each and every pilot has a different way of doing things and ultimately I am responsible, even though a pilot is on board. I am often asked about the master/pilot relationship and it is a strange one; although a pilot can con your vessel, he is not responsible for it, any mistake he or she makes, comes down to me. I often explain to guests, in terms they can understand, that it is similar to someone walking onto the flight deck of an aircraft and telling the pilot and co-pilot that he is going to take the plane onto ‘final approach’ and land it, with the proviso that if something happens, it is the flight-deck crew who will take the blame. Thankfully, most sea-pilots are extremely competent and their ‘local knowledge’ invaluable and seldom, if at all, does a situation arise.

The channel leading to our dock is not marked with buoys and negotiating through the scores of anchored ships, either side of it, is an arduous task. Having done so, we make the final turn out of the channel and the approach to Ballard pier. We are now at right-angles to the main current, which in our case, is pushing us to the south at an alarming rate, allowing over 12 degrees of ‘set’ as we head towards the pier.

Our docking is further complicated by the fact that we have to go starboard side alongside, this is because our break doors, (the doors we use for gangways), are not evenly distributed on our port and starboard side; we have to go starboard side to, so that we can use 2 decks for our gangway, the rise and fall of the tide necessitates us shifting decks up or down, dependent on the tide height.

Going starboard side alongside results in us having to push our stern through the current; normal seamanship would have asked for us just keeping our bow into the current and using it to set us slowly alongside. Ours is not that case, having to get the stern through the current and then counteracting its effect to go alongside gently.