Freighterman's Questions

The following answers are my responses to questions from Dick Ahren, aka freighterman, who hosted my website for many years

Freighterman: It is my understanding that the engines found on modern freighters are low speed two cycle power plants that operate on "bunker" fuel.

Could you explain exactly what bunker fuel is and how it is stored prior to injection into the engine?

Captain: Modern ships are built with slow speed diesel engines, that can be operated between 40 and 120 rpms, and when at sea they burn bunker fuel. Bunker is a generic term that can refer to any fuel storage area aboard ship, or to the fuel itself. Coal can be called bunkers as well. In today's usage, it usually means "Bunker C" a heavy black fuel oil similar to the #5 fuel burned by power plants for electrical generation. The only difference is that it has no sulfur spec., ships at sea are not considered such a pollution problems as shore side power plants. It has a high viscosity, and when it's cold, it is similar to road tar. It has to be heated and atomized in order to burn.

All but two of my ships were steam ships, which had boilers and turbines to drive the ship. My experience with diesel is limited, but I found them to be noisier, with more vibration than steam. They were much more fuel efficient, not nearly the heat loss from the stack. They were also more prone to breakdown, requiring more maintenance. I also found them to be harder to handle. Although you had lots of backing power with diesel, you could not operate the engine at very low speeds that safe docking and harbor operation often requires. That meant you had to rely more on tugs, or thrusters if you had them. Bunkers are stored in tanks throughout the vessel, often in double bottoms or other spaces that are oddly shaped and not suitable for cargo. Those spaces have to be properly ventilated and have a means of heating the oil, so it can be pumped.

Freighterman: How much does it cost a ship owner to transit the Panama or Suez Canal? Is the cost based on the size of the vessel, cargo carried, or what?

Captain: When I last transited the Panama Canal the fees ran (the best I can recall) 80 cents per Panama Canal net ton. Net tons are calculated by the cargo carrying volume of the ship. The canal commission has to get the plans for the ship, and they figure the tonnage. If you have no revenue cargo or passengers aboard (i.e. in ballast), they reduce the fee to 60 cents per ton. You also have to pay for a Panamanian agent to "husband" the ship and take care of local paper work. The captain does not pay the fee directly to the canal. You only present the proper documents and forms, and your owner pays though the agency. The fees have increased in recent years. It is an important source of revenue for the Panamanian Government. The Suez Canal also has a similar fee structure, and assigns their own tonnage to the ship. The major difference is the hassle of providing enough "gratuities" (cartons of Marlboro's) to the pilots. It takes between 25 and 50 cartons for an American Flag ship to transit.

Freighterman: What is "ballast" and how is it used?

Captain: Ballast is extra weight that a ship often carries for the sake of trim and/or stability. Ballast these days is usually salt water carried in various tanks throughout the ship. These tanks are usually found in void spaces not used for cargo or fuel. When ships are empty, they often take on ballast to increase the draft of the vessel, that is to make it float more deeply in the water. This allows the ship to operate more smoothly in rough seas, and to give the propeller a better "bite" of the water. Stability is a problem that must be calculated before leaving port, you need to also calculate that you will burn fuel prior to arrival at the next port. You need to keep the ship riding smoothly, and not get so top heavy that it turns over.

Freighterman: What is your least favorite port? By this I mean the most difficult in which to navigate and dock?

Captain: I always disliked docking in Alexandria, Egypt. Although there are many ports that have bad weather conditions, crowded spaces for docking, and pilots who were hard to understand. Alexandria combines all three. Add to this the fact that the pilots were often as concerned with getting Marlboro's as much as safely docking the ship, and it was a hectic procedure.

Freighterman: My favorite voyages is from the West Coast of the U.S. to Australia and New Zealand because of the extended period at sea. Given your experience, if you were to take a freighter voyage today, what route would you take?

Captain: As a captain I too enjoyed long sea passages, preferably west bound ones where we retarded the clocks instead of advancing them. You start to feel jet lagged on a long east bound voyage. If money were no object I would love to take the passenger freighter cruise that sails from Tahiti to French Polynesian islands to load and unload at various islands. If time were no object I would chose an around the world (westbound) cruise that touched at Far East and South African ports, but did not call at the Middle East. Unfortunately both time and money are considerations for me.

Freighterman: Would you recommend an around the world voyage for a first time freighter traveler?

Captain: I think a first time freighter traveler should take a 2 to 4 week trip to the West Indies and Central America. Alternatively find a passenger-freighter. One reason I found this home page useful was the Questions and Answers section. If you scored in the lowest category, and have sailed on other freighters, then you are ready for an around the world cruise.

Freighterman: Am I correct in assuming that the major portion of a freighter passenger's fare is due to the cost of liability insurance carried by the vessel owner?

Captain: I never worked ashore for a shipping company, and was never involved with a cost analysis of carrying passengers. I know that in my years with Lykes, the Chairman and CEO, Jim Amos, told us that passengers were not only a source of revenue, but also an important public relations asset. Captains who did not treat passengers well did so at their own risk.

Freighterman: Working freighters can present hazards not found on cruise ships. Apart from things like slipping on a wet deck, tripping over a line on deck, or falling on stairs in rough weather, would you agree that a medical emergency, such as a heart attack, presents the most serious risk to a passenger?

Captain: Passengers are mostly (but not always) retired people in their 60's or 70's, and at higher risk than average for medical emergency such as stroke or heart attack. In another article posted here I wrote about the problems this creates, having to divert the vessel for medical assistance, and the burden it places on the crew. That said, I never had a passenger become seriously ill or die on one of my ships. When I was a cadet we had one woman jump overboard due to being rejected by a suitor. If one plans to take a freighter trip, make sure you have about twice as much medicine as you think you will need if you require maintenance medication. Prescriptions are difficult or impossible to fill in many foreign ports.

Freighterman: What formal emergency training do ship's officers have, if any? I assume they can suture lacerations, set simple fractures and give CPR.

Captain: All deck officers on the ships I sailed had some sort of medical training, at lest a current BLS certification (CPR). I was a certified EMT, similar to those who work in ambulances. I had training from the U.S. Public Health Service at Kings Point, but in reality got most of my experience with on the job training. Lykes carried a very well appointed medical chest. We spent thousands of dollars per voyage replacing a long list of required medications, so that nothing expired during a voyage. That said, when someone became seriously injured or ill, I always felt like I was in over my head. I have sutured wounds at various times. I have given injections, run I.V.s splinted fractures, and often been successful in the outcome. For that I thank God, not my medical skills.

Freighterman: As a former master, what was your worst nightmare, grounding, collision, fire?

Captain: In my years as master I was fortunate in never having a serious fire aboard ship. The only groundings were touching bottom in soft mud at low speed during docking, and no tugs were required, nor damage resulted. I have always successfully avoided Hurricanes and Typhoons. I've had a few close calls on collisions, but close doesn't count, I only had to launder my drawers.

My worst nightmare was in Mid Atlantic when an Able Seaman fell from a ladder in a cargo hold, falling about 30 feel onto a steel deck, hitting a beam on the way down. He remained conscious and in great pain for about 8 hrs. before he died. He was a good shipmate, and it was devastating for me and the entire crew. I immediately diverted to Bermuda, but it was a 20 hr. trip for us. Helicopters were not available. We could not give him morphine due to a fractured skull, CSF in his ears, Pupils unequal (concussion) and a fractured hip as well. In a situation like that you feel totally helpless. It would have taken a surgical team on the spot to save him, he needed brain surgery, clearly far beyond the crew's scope of expertise. It would have been a blessing if he had died on impact.

Freighterman: It is said that there are old racing drivers, and bold racing drivers, but no old, bold drivers. Are there any old, bold captains?

Captain: The ocean is a big place, and I am sure that there are a few lunatics out there who have managed to obtain command of a ship. I've seen some pretty dumb things done, and we all have heard some sea stories. That said, I always prided myself in operating a ship very conservatively, steering well clear of bottle-necks with other ships, taking a route far from storm tracks, even when it cost extra time or miles. Lykes was always good, never encouraging overloading or skimping on lifesaving or fire fighting equipment.

Freighterman: Why does a ship sailing from Seattle to Yokohama, not sail in a straight line?

Captain: The shortest distance between two points on a globe is a great circle. On a great circle trip from Seattle to Yokohama you get within sight of the southern Aleutian Islands of Alaska. A great circle is really a straight line on the surface of the globe. It looks curved, bent toward the poles, on a Mercator chart. Those are the charts where Greenland looks about the size of South America.

Freighterman: Under what conditions is a captain required to be on the bridge?

Captain: That is up to the Captain. Most all are on the bridge to take the con an hour or two before getting to the pilot station when entering port. He should be there when there is any fire or emergency. He should be there at any time when a pilot is aboard. He should also be there when navigating in restricted waters, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, Strait of Messina, Singapore Straits and Strait of Malacca. He should be there in fog or reduced visibility especially in heavy traffic areas. He should be there when the ship is the privileged vessel (the ship that should hold course and speed) when another ship is approaching and will not yield the right of way. You must then take action yourself to avoid collision.

Freighterman: Modern freighters have both X and S band radar. What is the difference?

Captain: X band are radars that operate on a 3 cm wave length, they have good resolution of targets, but have the disadvantage that they show rain showers very well.

S Band radars have a 10 cm. wavelength pulse. They are better in rainy or squally weather, but have lower resolution of targets.

Freighterman: In your opinion, is travel by freighter safer today then when you first went to sea?

Captain: I think that freighters today are better equipped than earlier. You are never uncertain of your position. You always have good communication with the shore and better communication between ships. The reduction in the size of the crew leaves little margin for error. When someone is ill or incapacitated, you don't have the ability to replace him easily. If there is an equipment failure, such as a malfunction of the ships's gyro, not only will the vessel have to be navigated in the traditional fashion with a magnetic compass, but a helmsman will be required to steer the ship. This usually means an Able Bodied Seaman will have to be at the helm at all times. His usual duties either go undone, or they are performed by other crew members, on an overtime bases. Tired employees raise the risk of accident or injury. Either way, the vessel's seaworthiness is compromised.

Freighterman: I have had foreign captains tell me that they were the only person aboard ship who knew how to use a sexton and that this and similar skills are not taught to modern officers. Do you consider that the failure to teach these skills is compensated for by the introduction of modern technology such as radar and global positioning systems?

Captain: I touched on this in an earlier article. On every ship I sailed on, all of the deck officers, even the cadets, could get a position using celestial navigation. It was a big part of the licensing examinations. The modern technology makes people get lazy, and that's dangerous. An airline pilot must be able to fly by the seat of his pants, using the altimeter, ball bank indicator, and magnetic compass only. Electronics can and do break down, and in the air or at sea there's not much you can do about it. So too, a mariner must be able to operate the ship with a magnetic compass, a sextant, and chronometer. If he can't I don't think he should be out there. Modern electronics are wonderful. They are called "aids to navigation" and should be considered aids, not the method. I too have gotten lazy, but the failure of the gyro at sea quickly makes you a believer in getting back to basics.