Measuring some 750 feet long she wasn’t small by any means. And when her engines roared it was clear we were in for a special journey. What we couldn’t have known at that point was the frailty of the engine that powered this Mediterranean Shipping Co-owned containership bound for the US.
We were onboard documenting some fluff for a magazine. Our welcome had been magnificent; the Indian crew and officers clearly delighted to have something out of the norm onboard.
We were set to go from Hong Kong to Ningbo, a port city a couple hours steaming south of Shanghai. It was meant to take two and a half days along a busy section of the East China Sea. No sooner had we left though than a problem arose. A piston gave way within 45 minutes and we spent a full 24 hours staring back at my home island of Lamma. Still, the inconvenience was negligible so hospitable were everyone onboard.
The cook hailed from Goa and prided himself on his curry skills. He was ably abetted by both the chief engineer and the master who grew limes and chillis on the bridge and in their cabins and made the most delicious lime pickle imaginable. In between meals we’d while away an hour or two playing table tennis or strolling around the deck. Our cabins were very decent – they probably each measured about half the size of my flat, which was just about in view as we lay prone while a team got to grips with the engine, appearing from time to time very grimy but always cheerful.
Masters of containerships hate this particular stretch of work, with so many port calls in China, and, post-911, more and more paperwork to fill in at every call. Worse still is the volume of boats dotted in the sea. The Chinese are hoovering their seas dry and it takes a fair bit of skill to avoid the phalanx of fishing vessels.
The night before we arrived at Ningbo there was an impromptu party with much drinking, singing and dancing, the latter a reminder of just how long these men can be at sea without heading back to their families.
I had put in a word to a tycoon in Hong Kong who originally hailed from Ningbo saying that I’d be heading up to his old stomping ground. I was gob smacked as we docked and glimpsed the red carpet and limo that awaited. “Mr Koo said to look after you, please let me know of anything I can do during your stay,” the driver said, before whisking us away --- passport stamps done in a VIP manner. We had arrived in style.