A behind the scenes view of the men that make our global economy work
After three months of writing e-mails and making phone calls, I finally got the go to board the cargo ship “BBC Danube”, in the Gulf of Panama. From there on I would accompany the crew for ten days on their voyage up north to Coeymans, New York.
While approaching Panama City on the plane, I caught the first glimpse of my destination. Around 14,000 ships pass through the Panama Canal every year so, despite clouds covering the shore, container ships forming an enormous triangle pointed the way towards the passage.
Two days later, a driver picked me up at my motel. After a 20 minute ride that would best be described as “too fast and too furious,” he passed the industrial harbour and pulled into the “Balboa Yacht Club”, a small private harbor with one long, floating boat bridge. The air was sticky and it would continue to be that for the next couple of days. It was raining and the boat bridge was groaning reluctantly under the swell. I hopped onto a small vessel, driving out into the Gulf of Panama. Water was splashing against my window and obscured the view while we were speeding through a sea of gray monotony. Ten minutes into the ride, the outline of a ship emerged from the rain. My heart started to beat faster when the boat pulled up next to the towering side of the “BBC Danube”. I was already excited before but it wasn’t until now, within arm-length of the floating metal structure, that it felt real and tangible. I rushed outside and climbed the rope ladder up to the first deck.
Inside the ship, I was greeted by Second Officer Davyd, who showed me to my cabin. He sat down with me and took the time to talk me through every detail I needed to know. Security concerns, safety drill schedules and dinner times. He was open to answering any question I may have. Davyd was from the Crimea, Ukraine. In his early thirties, he had an engineering degree, a nautical degree and a marriage under his belt. I asked him about his last year at home and how he experienced the war, but to my surprise, he couldn’t tell me too much about it. It seemed as if the war had passed by without him noticing.
After he left, I unpacked my camera gear and started to make my way around the vessel. It felt desolate. I could hear the rain and see heavy clouds obscuring the sky. Most of the crew members used the time during anchorage to rest in their cabins. While walking around the interior I felt a certain familiarity. The ship was equipped with curtains and picture frames and every table in the Mess Rooms had its own set of sauces and spices on them. Nevertheless, the atmosphere felt strange. The interior was seemingly modeled after a home on land but felt more like an old and well-kept country hostel. The colors of the curtains and tables were slightly odd, nothing felt settled and regardless of the temperature dropping below freezing later during our voyage when we approached New York, the sauna on the lower deck stayed cold. The interior was the attempt to convey ordinariness on a metal structure, floating on the ocean, oftentimes surrounded with nothing more but a wet desert stretching hundreds of miles towards every cardinal direction.
What felt genuine, were the people. The crew was made up of 17 men, mostly from Ukraine and Russia. The two exceptions from the Slavic majority were the German captain and his son who would be on board for a two-month long internship as a machine room engineer and who would already envy me leaving the ship after ten days. After getting used to the abundance of possibilities on land, living on a ship like this comes a shock. The crew cannot leave the ship but the working hours are strictly governed. Everyone on board has to work their job for eight hours. The remaining 16 hours are meant for sleeping, eating, and recreation. However, eight hours of recreation on board can appear tediously long. There are only a few pastimes on a ship that is built for the efficient transportation of goods. Improvised workout sessions, watching movies, reading, writing.
Working on a cargo ship is a repetitive endeavor. During my time on board, I met two men that had to scrub the deck for seemingly eight hours a day, seven days a week. Others would do constant maintenance work like removing rust, painting the hull, changing oil or they would keep an eye on the controls and instruments of the machine room. Even the captain, who seemed to hold the most prestigious position on board, is mostly concerned with filling out forms and writing reports that are needed for the entry into the next port.
The communication between crew members was contained. Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea […]” and it held true on the BBC Danube. Everybody got along but extensive conversations were rare; Which seems natural when working the same repetitive tasks for months on end. Contracts usually range from 2 to as longs as 6 months on the water, only interrupted by rare day trips and a paid email service. When I stepped foot on the vessel in Panama, the crew already lived through 30 days on the Pacific Ocean, only to add 10 more days on the trip to New York before moving on to Great Britain.
A stranger on board apparently brought some fresh air. When I showed interest, everybody was happy to give me a glimpse into their life, either the one on board or the one back home. Chief Officer Maksim took an hour during his early morning shift on the bridge to tell me about zodiac signs and how to use them to navigate. The countless nighttime hours that he spent on the lookout for other ships gave him the ability to seamlessly connect and name the signs while he was letting his gaze wander over the night sky. At home in Russia, he has a wife and a son which he was looking forward to seeing again.
The place that I became a frequent visitor was the kitchen of Cook Volodymyr where he spent most of his waking time preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the 18 people on board. He talked to me about supplies (they were running out), what he was cooking and baking (Borshch, Chebureki, Bread) and about his life in the Ukraine. Back home he also worked as a cook but would earn ten times less than now, which drove him into debt and finally onto this freighter, accepting an unusually long contract that would bind him to the ship for nine months.
Industrial seafarers live a monotonous life. Most of the crew would rather work a different job, everyone misses their family and nobody gets paid well. Still, for many of them, working on a ship was the best opportunity they had.
An estimated 90% of all goods are transported by ship and at this very moment, there are over 1 million seafarers, working on more than 50 thousand commercial ships across the globe.