Labour of love

After 16 years of working with IMPA, COO Stephen Alexander earned his sea legs summer of 2011, courtesy of the Lauritzen Kosan gas tanker division of Denmark’s J.Lauritzen group – and was soon seduced by the skill and passion of the Filipino crew…

July 25 2011
I’ve arrived in Helsinki and I’m met by a taxi driver arranged by the ship’s agent. We travel for about an hour and a half until we reach the port of Hamina. It’s quite a desolate place with no one around. The port is surrounded by beautiful coastline and the sun is still bright.

After signing in and showing my passport at the port office, I get a first glance of Henrietta Kosan. She stands alone. It sounds stupid but I almost feel a sense of romance as we approach. I’m in awe of what looks like a floating factory alive with industry. I’m also impressed with how immaculate the ship is – although four years old, it looks new. The imposing bridge spans the full width of the ship and I begin to smell the machinery oils and diesel. It’s atmospheric.

Captain Dexter Castillo Cabarrubias arrives shortly after and immediately sets my agenda. I’m introduced to first officer Rodolfo Aguilar and chief engineer Danilo Chavez Felix. Very soon they all put me at ease when I explain that I am from IMPA and we discuss the Marine Stores Guide. I’m delighted that they all seem aware of the guide and it is important for them.

‘The walls are decorated with very neatly organised certificates, plans and notices and I begin to realise this is a highly technical vessel with very skilled people operating it’

The room in which we meet is nothing like I imagined. Again it’s immaculate. There are no switches or gauges to control the cargo, it’s all done by computer. The walls are decorated with very neatly organised certificates, plans and notices and I begin to realise this is a highly technical vessel with very skilled people operating it.

The captain continues with introductions and explanations and I’m given a hard hat and coveralls. His English is perfect and he speaks clearly and concisely. I can tell by the way the others listen intently to him that he’s well respected.

After a while I’m shown into the crew mess, which is very comfortable with a large TV screen and hi-fi system. There are a few guys sitting around, laughing and playing cards. I take my chance to make a good start with the crew and join them in the game. It’s one I barely remember but I ask for assistance and ten minutes later we are laughing and joking together.

Another member of the crew advises me that dinner is ready. A delicious chicken stew with rice, cheese and bacon toasted sandwiches and fresh sliced tomatoes are waiting for me and I begin to smile to myself. I’ve told my wife I’m on a roughneck sea voyage and it’s more like a four-star star hotel! This is further borne out when I am shown my cabin, situated next to the captain, with a desk, sofa, fridge and toilet/shower room. Third officer Bernardo Procorato, who I now know to call ‘Booboy’, is keen to point out where the life jacket and immersion suits are located.

I take a tour around the ship with the first officer. Again his English is first class as he explains how he can control the flow and cooling of the gas. We are carrying butane gas from Hamina to Stenungsund and it’s being loaded as we talk, whilst simultaneously cooled for greater capacity.

July 26 2011
It was a mixed night in terms of sleep with new sounds and sirens to deal with but it’s 4.15am and my own alarm starts. I’m up and showered within minutes. While waiting in the mess I read some of the notices on the walls – mostly they are concerned with safety and there are also notices explaining how the company is acting in this area. Later I take my seat for a breakfast of bacon, eggs, rice, toast, porridge and fresh juice. It won’t be long now for the moment I’ve been waiting for…. setting sail.

We are joined by the captain and no more than five minutes later he receives a call to say the pilot has arrived. It’s 07.34. The pilot instructs removal of the lines. Very slowly Henrietta Kosan moves out towards the open water. We are on our way and I’m very excited. The captain comes over and shakes my hand congratulating me on making my maiden voyage. It’s a nice touch.

We are now in the middle of the Gulf of Finland, surrounded by water with no sight of land, just other ships of various size and function. Weather conditions are perfect and we are cracking away at around 17 knots. Booboy takes a lot of pride in his safety knowledge and this afternoon I am scheduled to go over all the fire and safety procedures. We start with the escape vessel. It must be 70 feet from the sea level and he can see that I’m looking worried, but he explains with a smile that he has regularly done this as part of routine drills, adding: ‘Your stomach reaches your mouth and you can’t breathe…’

Some of this evening was spent in the company of the captain. I really like this guy. He’s ambitious, intelligent, very thoughtful and he’s made captain at just 34. We looked through the planned maintenance system. I particularly like the KPI set-up, which identifies individual performance percentages on the completion of jobs.

Whilst I’m dishing out the compliments, the chief cook is first class. Tonight’s beef stew and lots of other things was superb – I had thirds so I’m going to head home three or four kilos heavier if I’m not careful!

July 27 2011
This morning I’m on deck understanding how the multitude of compressors, valves, pipes and pumps on this floating power plant all work to deliver our butane in the required state.

We took the cargo on board at 17.4 degrees and it needs to be cooled to zero as requested by the receiving plant. As we will be completing our voyage sooner than the cooling period, it means that we will be anchored for some hours before docking and delivery.

The chief mate, an experienced seafarer who has been at sea for 30 years, takes me to the forecastle deck. I can’t resist the opportunity to step up and take in the moment. It’s a beautiful day and there is nothing in sight but ocean and sky. At this point you can’t hear the engine, only the waves, and it’s a fabulous feeling. Rodi says that in the Pacific he has done the same thing but the ocean is like a mirror, completely clear and calm, and the two shades of blue are all you can see. I’m transfixed for 15 minutes. Over lunch the captain tells me how dolphins like to play by jumping over the gigantic bulbous bow. He says if you clap them they will respond with further tricks…

One of the things I’ve been most waiting for was to visit the engine room. I’m something of a petrol head and I’m keen to learn more about the machines that are driving this 7,465 tonne ship. I’ve been on ship before and prepared myself for a warm environment, but the engine room is, of course, air conditioned like so many other parts of Henrietta. The chief engineer explains it is capable of being an Unmanned Machinery Space.

Tonight I’m on the bridge, which is an exciting place to be at night – with lots of lights and the radar equipment, it seems to come to life. I’m becoming good friends with the captain, who shows me some pictures of his beautiful wife and twin sons and where they take their holiday in the Philippines. We talk a lot about life and his ambitions for his family and make a plan for me to visit with my crew back at home.

There’s some tricky navigation ahead in the Sound that separates Zealand in Denmark from the province of Scania in southern Sweden. At just four kilometres wide at the narrowest point, it’s one of three Danish straits that connect the Baltic to the Atlantic Ocean. It also happens to be one of the busiest waterways in the world and has shallow waters in places. Difficult sailing conditions such as these demand a specialised pilot with local training and one boards via pilot boat at 20.50. For the next three challenging hours the bridge is active with five officers and the pilot in attendance as we pass other ships that are only a few metres away. At one point the pilot asks the third mate to shine a light on to a stray yacht that is close by and not showing any lights.

July 28 2011
I’m outside as the journey takes us past Copenhagen. I remember my organiser for this trip, JL’s VP procurement Henrik Steffensen, said with ‘tongue in cheek’ that he would look out for me as we pass Copenhagen so I’m looking…what I see is a beautiful evening as the sun sets.

I get to bed around 3.45am but sleep well and wake at 7.30. I look outside and we’re now the closest to land we have been in three days, in the inner roads outside Stenungsund. Booboy is looking for me as we are about to drop anchor. He leads me through the power plant as we head for the forecastle. The engine is beautiful, occupying several floors in pride of place in the factory. I pass the enormous turbocharger to where all the pistons and fuel pumps are glistening in highly polished stainless steel. I’m snapping away with my camera, the smooth but heavy thumping vibrates throughout me, and I’m conscious there’s a big smile on my face.

July 29 2011
I’m woken at 6.00am. Henrietta’s cargo has reached the target temperature overnight and we are ready to lift anchor and set sail once more. Rodi tells me how once, when he was lifting the anchor on a ship in Italy, a large octopus of about five kilos was lovingly attached. No-one wanted to go near the thing until someone else pointed out that such an animal is quite a feast, so it quickly became that day’s meal.

July 30 2011
The captain gathers the available crew for a quick snapshot as a memento of the voyage. I’m on board until later this afternoon and fly home at 19.35 from Gothenburg. From the very moment I joined the vessel at Hamina, the captain has been committed to giving me the fullest understanding of Henrietta’s operation and the night before we docked was no exception. Henrietta is in the ‘crème de la crème’ category of fully refrigerated gas tankers capable of carrying ethylene. Carrying such cargo is a complex task and makes Henrietta a prized asset – at any time she may be carrying many millions of dollars worth of cargo that is in a permanently changing state and has to be carefully and scientifically managed.

The Captain spent some time explaining one of the most interesting and complicated processes I’ve ever heard about, known as ‘purging’, which he explained as ‘changing the atmosphere from one environment to another’ in order to swap cargo types. It’s a very interesting debate – especially as I’m able to swerve requests to sing on the crew mess Karaoke machine!

The time has come for me to leave Henrietta. It’s rather emotional. I respect and trust her. She has given me an unforgettable experience and I’ve enjoyed every moment. I’m immensely grateful to Captain Cabarrubias and all the officers and crew. I now count the captain as a friend and hope we will meet again soon. He walks with me from the ship.

As I stand alone I take a final look at Henrietta. I’m looking forward to getting home but I feel sad to leave her. The captain knows this – he told me it’s worse after five months. Connections have been made during this voyage.