May 18th

The day came much more quickly than I had expected, in the back of my mind was the prevailing thought that it just would not happen. I had already given in to the reality that the trip was not going to be possible. There are many reasons that I thought it not possible; leaving Farmer Road while so many projects need to be completed, the ever present concerns over money, being away for 22 days and the most distressing, the oral surgery that requires such care.

My mouth was sore, a week removed from reconstructive surgery that required the rebuilding of my palette and front buckle. The surgeon, who is world class labeled the surgery a 9 out of 10. Now just a week removed the swelling had reduced but the discomfort and the concern of pain, effective healing and potential problems while out at sea were daunting. My mind told me no, my desire told me yes. My surgeon told me yes, my family told me yes. My mind told me no.

So in some sort of deep place I was actually trying to find a rational reason to call it off. I repeated to myself that there is a fine line between being adventurous and being foolish. Somehow this seemed to lean toward the latter.

I packed in the way that I do and that is so familiar. However this time it was all about medicine and treatments and first aid. Really a ridiculous and almost unbelievable behavior for me. I usually take some band aids, some aspirin and some sunscreen. Now I had medications, pills, all sorts of items to address the mouth that looked more horrible than perhaps it actually was. I was not in control of the emotions and I kept telling myself that I could have a problem, the sutures would come out, the surgery would fail, the adjacent teeth would fall out……..a drama of grand proportion in my head. The entire time my tongue kept probing and searching for a problem, something that would justify just turning around and going back home, to abandon the crazy idea of sailing across the Pacific Ocean.

My Dad arrived at 0700 and off we went to the airport, me stressing about traffic, timing, eating, not eating, money, you name it. This stress had become a theme for me over the last 6 months and the real reason all those near to me pushed me to follow through on the trip. They wanted me to take a time out, to let go of the stress and the worry that I had obviously been displaying and manifesting. There were lots of reasons it got so bad, not to be limited to a daily memoir but certainly to be worked through and reconsidered during a 20 day ocean sailing.

I flew from San Diego to San Francisco without a hitch. Then came the seven hour delay in San Francisco with a bad airplane. The entire day was spent trying to keep my mind off my mouth, I did not even want to look at it. Once we took off for Hong Kong, seven hours late, I feel fast asleep on the plane. Unusual for me but clearly a sign of my heightened stress level. When I awoke I went to the restroom and inspected the mouth. Inspection in an airplane restroom is not recommended. The lighting is antiseptic; bright, harsh and somehow seems to show each flaw no matter the scale. So the look was ghastly and the front tooth had become loose. I thought I would never be able to do this.

We landed 15 hours later in Hong Kong, at 0130. Of course all services were closed and I was forced to take a $50 cab to the hotel rather than the usual $12 train. I am tired, sore, a bout of panic and then angry over spending what small amount of money I brought on a taxi.

I took some pictures of my mouth, texted my wife Dianna that I did not think I could do this and then called my surgeon. They all told me to relax, I was going to be fine. Just don’t bite anything and keep it clean. I had to be talked off the ledge……another oddity for me. The oddities seem to be accumulating with me.

I was not comforted but rather felt that no one understood the severity of this impending decision. I was headed for a container ship in 2 days. To be on the open ocean for 20 days. There is no medical help out there. What if? So my mind was still telling me to go home, not go on an adventure I had been planning for years and so looking forward to. How could I enjoy it if I was simply trying to survive it?

I fell asleep in Hong Kong. At least I had a great view.

May 20th

Yes, you lose a day when you travel so far on an airplane. The time difference is 15 hours and with a 14 hour flight you always lose the day. So Friday, May 19 is lost. I will get it back, but not like the 300 times I flew across the ocean and it is immediately returned. Now I will get it back an hour or two at a time as we cross the ocean and gain timezones and datelines. In a methodical and slow process. This seems strange to me.

Today was a day to breathe, come to terms. I went shopping, actually I went to provision. My list included a step down convertor to power all my items; computer, shaver, phone, ipod, etc. The ship runs a 220AC and that would fry my dainty American electrics. I also needed an adaptor for the outlets, EU style two prong round. I picked up a camera cord for the camera my son loaned me so I can upload images to my computer, that is if I can figure out all those steps.

Then I went to the drug store. Cotton balls, peroxide, mouthwash, tooth brush…..ugh. Shaving cream and laundry powder made it feel almost like a normal drug store visit but I was still very concerned and thinking I was buying all this stuff only to take it home with me when I called it all off.

I decided to eat Yoshinoya. Easy to eat and no real biting. It was good. I also stopped at a Hong Kong bakery, which are very good and had some mango pudding and a cream coconut roll. I was feeling almost good. Not normal but almost good. I still took aspirin to take the edge off my mouth and make me less concerned about it.

I took the Star Ferry across the harbor and it opened my eyes to the fact I was actually in Hong Kong and should soak it in……..so I strolled for a bit, bought a Starbucks and told myself it was all going to be OK.

I made initial contact with the agent in Yantian, the port I will sail from. Yantian is an hour and a half from Hong Kong and requires a train trip , a border crossing and a taxi ride to the harbor. The agent advised the vessel was delayed and would not depart until the 22nd, at 2300 local time. This was not in the plan. Now I had to stay an additional night. Money I had not budgeted or planned on. What else was going to go wrong? I wondered. I then felt like I should go home.

I slept well.

May 21st

Today I awoke to a very nice harbor view and ventured down to the hotel lounge for breakfast. I can tell you that the Marriot Courtyard over here is an entirely different experience than back home. The hotel is first class. Big room, great service, wonderful lounge with free breakfast and drinks all day.

However, with the delay of the boat for a day, I need to change hotels and find a cheaper place to stay. The weekend rates are over here now and the rate is increasing 50%, the business man gouge is in full play.

I spent the morning scouting area hotels and calculating my trip over the border. I have a large bag that is heavy so ease of movement on trains, subways and taxis plays an important role in the decision.

Rather than stay on the island and try to navigate the move from there, I found a decent hotel in You Ma Tai for about $75 a night and it is steps from the subway. Tomorrow afternoon I need to take a subway, transfer to a train, do the border crossing and then take a 20 mile cab ride to the harbor so shortening the trip a bit seemed like the right thing to do.

I walked a bit and thought about the trip.

This is one of those trips that most people just don’t understand. I mean why would you take 20 days out of your busy life to sit on a container ship? No entertainment, no excursions, no real way to pass the time other than read, write, sit and take in the sea. This is no cruise ship. The cost is actually not even reasonable. At $90 a day I could have flown over, stayed a week in a four star hotel and flown back for less money. However, this is not about money. This is about fulfilling a desire I have held for many, many years.

I have always been one to take the road less travelled. I like backroads, I like the two laners. I like seeing things that are not easily seen. I have always been this way and as I get older my taste for more distant sights is increasing. I have had it with the cities. I have become somewhat of a castaway up in the mountains and I really enjoy it.

My family is fully aware of this back road approach, I put them through it enough times with trailer trips and vacation outings that were always a bit off the beaten path. This one is for me. My family is also familiar with my fishing trips over the last 30 years, 5 days, 8 days, 10 days, 16 days. I don’t think they ever really understood those either but they did appreciate that I always returned refreshed, renewed, vitalized and somewhat recharged. I can only hope this trip returns the same benefits, for I need them more than I probably ever have right now.

Tonight I will sleep. A lot. I will anticipate walking the gangway up to the ship in the small hours of the morning in the dark. I know that place and I like it. I will become excited and place the negativity behind me, if I can.

Tomorrow it becomes a “no turning back” moment.

May 22nd

I woke up in the dark, not unusual but this was really the dark. I glanced at the clock and it was 0300. That is too early, even for me. Back home I am usually up between 0530 and 0600. I like the grey light just before the dawn, it is one of my favorite parts of the day. It seems as if the world is waking up and the nocturnal life is surrendering their space to the light.

I must have fell asleep early, because there was no more sleep to be had. I don’t turn on the TV when I am in Asia. I may have watched it less than 10 times in 30 years. No hockey games, what is the point? Although Sumo does captivate me and Japanese baseball games are a hoot. I tried to go back to sleep but the jet lag had taken hold. The third day. That has always been when I fall, on the third day. It is far worse traveling back to the USA but as I have reduced the number of trips to Asia I am beginning to suffer the jet lag on the third day there as well. Not sure if it is age, the infrequency or just that I am burning out?

I went to McDonald’s (the only place open at 0300) and had a coffee and some pancakes. Today the vessel is due to arrive.

I received a call from the port agent that the vessel was due to berth at 2300. Dang that is late. I could board around 0200 on the next morning, Tuesday. Not good. That means more juggling of schedules. I really cannot stay in HK another day and staying at a hotel at the harbor is sketchy at best. Harbors are harbors wherever they may be and they contain the same unsavory characters and shady goings on around the world. So, I decided to kill the day as best I could just by people watching and drinking Latte in the lobby. That did not last long. I decided to head out to China at 1500 and take the plunge.

I spoke to the agent and he said I could kill time at their office, so that sounded way better than sleeping with one eye open in a waterfront hotel. He even said I could sleep on the couch.

Subway, train, arrival at Lo Wu. I have old memories of Lo Wu before the handover of Hong Kong. The insanely long lines, the stairwells turned into urinals, the bare light bulbs and the mildewed walls. The Lo Wu crossing was the only way into China here in the 80’s and it was of worthy of cinematic justice. What a horrible place it was. It has improved, although the old remnants of the past are clear to those who were there back then, myself included.

The big difference is the computers, scanners and digital technology. What would have taken 2 hours back then now took about 15 minutes.

I walked out into the old square which is now an incredible shopping mall and central meeting place with restaurants and bars. The Shangri La hotel sits at the east end of the square and the place is well patrolled by the police. I remember teenage soldiers with Russian automatic weapons………..the place is much more civilized. I liked it. I bought a Pepsi and soaked some of it in with old memories flooding back into my memory. Shenzhen is where I saw a bicycle rider with a full size Coke vending machine on the rear rack and it is also the first place I saw a full slaughtered pig laid across the rear rack on its way to some roadside snack stand. I don’t think we will see that kind of thing here any longer. Need to go deeper into China to find it now. Shenzhen is a sprawling madhouse of activity and it still retains its wild west persona, a place where anything is possible. I think of Bladerunner every time I am there.

A hustler grabbed my bag and started dragging it off telling me he had a taxi. We talked about where I was headed and he offered to take me for $300RMB. That is a HUGE amount of money in China, something like $50. I told him in Chinese that the price was too high and I did not have that much (even though I did). He immediately lowered to $220RMB. I am an old hand in China, this guy broke all the rules. He was a private car, not a taxi, he reduced the price much too quickly and then started to get heated with me about it. I ditched him and went down to the taxi stand. The line was long and when I did get to the front most of the drivers refused to take my fare. Old white guy. They don’t like white guys, let alone an old one with a big bag.

I finally got a cab and took the drive out to the office of the agent at the harbor. The fare was $51RMB. My instincts were right. That felt good. Somehow when you spend years running around Asia, the rats are easy to smell.

I arrived at the office at about 1700. The boat is not due to dock for another 6 hours and I cannot get on it for another 8 hours, but I am here. I found it, navigated my way and walked into the office to the surprise of the entire staff. Old guy.

I camped out in their little conference room, exactly the type of conference room one would expect at a budget freight broker in China. Broken arms on the chairs, holes in the cushions despite the 10 year old plastic still on them and a huge map of China on the wall. This was going to be home for the next 8 hours. I was set on not spending another night in a hotel.

I went through the obligatory greetings and green tea ritual……I am good at this part of Chinese culture. We hit it off just fine.

At 1830, I went down to the cafeteria they have at the harbor much to the surprise of everyone who was also eating dinner there. I ordered in Chinese since they had my favorites; Ma Po Tofu, Gung Pao Chi, Bai fan and a coke (curla in Chinese). Now several of the workers and more than several of the diners wanted to test their English on me………….I was accepted at once. That felt nice and reminded me just how much they appreciate the smallest amount of humility and grace. The food was delicious and it set me back $2USD even with the Coke. Just amazing.

I am sitting it out in the office. The agent will return for me just after midnight and escort me through the formalities and immigration clearance and then on to the boat to present my actual stack of documents that need to be reviewed and approved by the captain. I can then be assigned quarters and place my things in what will be my place for the next three weeks.

I won’t make it until midnight, that couch has my name on it. I just hope they wake me up.

May 23rd

I boarded last night at about 0200, the small hours. The Chinese immigration and customs guys did what Chinese officials seem to always do with a foreigner (and more so, an American) and made me open all my possessions, delay the paperwork and generally make my life under their control for the limited time they could. Of course, I was the only thing going on for them at 0200 so this made them all the more certain to exercise their control and authority.

I had to make it up the gangway on my own, it is a requirement that you be responsible for your own gear. I actually like that and I have said more than once while traveling that if you bring it you should be able to carry it. There seems to be these little Asian people who bring bags with them that are bigger than they are. They always struggle to stow them and move them about. So, in the end this made me pleased. The gangway was not what you would think of as a classic gangway. It was a very narrow stairway that was lashed to the side of the boat and then lashed to the dock. The width was about 14 inches and the stairs were aluminum. The angle was steep, I mean really steep. To make it even more challenging, it was raining. Man, I should have brought a lighter bag.

I made it up that unsecured gangway without incident other than grease on my arms and shirt from pitching into the lashing while climbing the stairs. I need to remember that this is a working ship and that there is working going on.

I was greeted by a super nice seaman and he showed me to my cabin, the paperwork to be completed in the morning. The cabin is huge, nicely appointed and very private with a bathroom, sitting room, desk area and a double bunk. Windows face forward with an impressive view of the containers being loaded. The cabin is on the “passenger deck” which is Deck F, just below the bridge and 54 meters above the deck. Across the hall is a “recreation room” which is really a TV, table and chairs and a couple sitting areas. This would be where passengers could play cards, puzzles, sit and share time. On this voyage, there is one other passenger, a Canadian who took the ship from Vancouver and will be getting off in Ningbo. That means I will be the only passenger on the trip for 17 days after he departs.

The officers are all French, this company is a French company. The officer count is 13. The deck crew are almost all from the Ukraine. There are 2 Indian guys. The deck crew is 18 for a total headcount of 31, plus me. This morning I met the head of the Ukraine division of the company who is on board to review how they are working together. The French have only been with the Ukraine crew for about 6 months. Prior to that most of the crews were Filipino or and sometimes other Asian countries. It is pretty interesting, this cross cultural blending. The French speak French to one another, the Ukrainians speak their native language to one another but when they interact it is all in English. Some of them are perfectly proficient, others are not. There is a distinct division of the cultures and it comes through quickly that this is a period of adjustment for them all. I like my first impressions and feel very comfortable here. I am somewhat isolated, essentially on a deck by myself but it will be good therapy for sure.

I am watching containers being loaded and this is a perspective that I think anyone who ever shipped a container should be able to witness. When you see a container at the loading dock it looks big, when you approach the ship, it looks massive.

The containers go from below the waterline to 7 high on the deck. There are about 10,000 of them. The loading is amazing and although appears chaotic, it is really is a ballet of huge boxes being stacked in a highly organized and exceptionally efficient system. It is noisy with huge heavy boxes being set on one another and cranes moving them about with precision and speed. The scale of it all is impressive. I am really looking forward to discovering how they plan it; which containers go where, by location, destination, etc. The amount of loading and unloading is mind boggling. There is some serious planning and system implementation going on here. I hope I can learn about it.

As the containers are loaded and when they reach a deck level, a steel “floor” is placed above them at deck level. These are massive steel plates that are set into the hull with a resounding clunk and bang. The force shakes the superstructure that is the house. I can only imagine the feeling on deck and also the noise on deck. This has been going on nonstop since about 0300 and it is now 1100. There are four cranes working at different stations on the dock constantly moving containers so the scale is really something I had no idea about.

About the galley. The chef is French and the food has a flair that is on the European side for sure. Breakfast was bread, cereal, coffee and fruit. Continental if you will. Lunch was clearly the big meal of the day with a wonderful spread; an avocado half, French bread, spaghetti with a terrific meat sauce and a crème caramel for dessert. Dinner is a button up affair and a more social time with wine, cheese and fruit, a seafood pasta salad and roast pork. As a passenger, I enjoy the officers mess but sit at a separate table from the officers. I am told that on Sundays, which are special, I may receive an invitation to sit at the officers table.

We got underway today and are sailing north to Xiamen at about 16 knots. The wind is at our stern and the ride is almost imperceptible. I did receive an orientation and a safety seminar, along with a written exam afterwards. I was also exposed to the deck areas I may access which are few. Basically the railings and stairwells around the house are accessible. If I want to see the rest of the ship I will need to make a request and be escorted. I will to this. I will also request to tour the engine room which I know will be an incredible experience.

First day out and I am feeling more at ease, starting to get into “voyage” mode like I do when we sail on fishing trips. I know the first few days are best spent at a slow pace in discovery and rest rather than trying to do too much. I think this will be slow and rather uneventful trip but I do expect it to deliver on the therapeutic level much more than the excitement level.

I will sleep well. I need that. Last night was a 3 hour night for me after the boarding and getting to bed late.

May 24th

First day sailing was very smooth and calm, cruising about 10-12 knots to Xiamen. No wind, no swell, grey skies with low visibility. I am writing now at 0800 just after breakfast which offered a nice surprise of oatmeal with honey, bread with Nutella and coffee.

We are due to arrive at Xiamen at 1600 today, there are quite a few vessels around us as we slowly proceed up the coast. I can see many small boats that appear to be local fisherman and crabbers. They are eerily reminiscent of Mexican pangas. Single fisherman in a skiff with an outboard, some of these have a center console but most are rather spartan and basic.

Weather is warm in the mid 80’s and stereotypical tropic humidity that is ever present in this part of the world. Shorts are the order of the day even though it is grey and looks cool, the deceptive nature of the view from inside is quickly dashed the instant you step on deck. Speaking of deck, there is a deck chair within my access but it is quite dirty, stained from stack dust and general dirt in the air. It needs a good rinse down and cleaning which I may just undertake soon.

I am dealing with the mouth ok. It is not perfect and still reminds me of the carnage in there from time to time but I think it is improving based on the fact that I feel no need to medicate or pay too much attention to it. What it becomes is what it will become. Can I be in relaxing calm so soon?

I set up an internet access but it is very slow and forces me to use simple HTML, the plan is data based so sending pictures and big files might not happen. The good news is I can check mail and get messages.

The day went by quickly as we berthed in Xiamen about 1600 and loaded/unloaded. The crew is busy during these stops and we are asked to stay inside. I don’t like that.

We had a meal of tuna steaks with an eggplant in curry. I really liked it. We sat after and a few of the officers wanted to talk about Trump. Crap, being an American is really challenging with that nimrod as our President. They seem amused by it all. It was nice to have conversation.

When the ship was ready to push back and be piloted out of the harbor I woke up and watched that dance. It is interesting to be on a vessel that is over 1000 feet long. I have been on the sea many times and for long journeys but almost always on a boat of 100 feet. Manuvering this beast is a big job.

I will return to the bunk and wake up for breakfast, you do not want to miss a meal. This is primarily due to the ship store being locked up. When we entered China, 3 days ago, they needed to declare everything that was in the ship store. Exact counts. This must remain until we depart China. Another 3 days from now. So for 6 days the ship store is closed and we cannot buy anything. I would love a Coke. I have a problem with Coke; I like it. It has been 3 days since I had one and it will be another 3. I am sure Dianna will be pleased that my intake of water has increased beyond measure. I would also like a chocolate bar or two to have in my cabin. With the store being locked the only food there is to enjoy comes at meal time. There is roughly a one hour window for each meal so I have been learning to take some fruit or cheese with me after mealtime. I had a couple Mandarins and some Laughing Cow cheese to take back after dinner. I asked the French guys about the Laughing Cow cheese since compared to the beautiful cheeses we have with dinner, this is a strange addition. They confessed that in France this laughing cow cheese is mainly for children. I like it spread on the bread that we have with each meal and yes, they are French baguettes.