For the past 3 years I have been trying to organise a trip down the east coast of Australia onboard the cargo ship Grasmere Maersk. Captain Mark Baller and I have been trying to co-ordinate a time when it would suit the both of us. Finally we worked out that January would the month to go. I had the choice of either flying to Fremantle and sailing back to Melbourne or flying to Brisbane and returning to Melbourne via Sydney, I chose the latter.
The Grasmere Maersk is a UK registered vessel comprising of an English Captain, Ukrainian Senior officers and Filipino Junior officers and ratings. A total of 20 crew keep the vessel sailing, though when the Grasmere was built in Sth Korea in 2000, it had to accommodate for a crew of 30. The vessel can carry about 4300 containers though the usual amount is about 2500 - 3000 TEU.

The m/v Grasmere Maersk

The vessel's rotation is Melbourne, Fremantle, Tanjung Pelapas, Singapore, Fremantle, Melbourne, Port Botany (Sydney), Brisbane, Yokohama, Osaka, Busan, Qingdao, Yangshan, Ningbo, Brisbane, Port Botany & again back to Melbourne. The Grasmere Maersk gets to visit Melbourne around once a month. Of all the ports in Asia the crew really only get ashore at Osaka but the prices are astronomical. The other Asian ports are either too far away from anywhere or the time is so short that it is impossible to go ashore. In Australia the vessel averages about 17 hours in Fremantle, 30 hours in Melbourne, 30 hours in Port Botany & 20 hours in Brisbane. Both Brisbane and Port Botany are miles from anywhere however a bus from the Seafarer Centres conducts pick-ups though at a strict timetable. All of the crew either work a 12 hour shift or 6 hours on and 6 hours off so time ashore can be very minimal for many of them.

Chief Cook Rabi and Mess Boy preparing dinner

Out of all of the ports in Australia, Melbourne is the crews' favourite stop. With the city centre not far away and buses that operate from both Stella Maris & Mission to Seafarers that will pick up crew when requested, Melbourne is a favourite for all. For this reason the majority of the crew look forward to visiting Melbourne. I say the majority and not ALL of the crew as, having spent more time in Melbourne; it is the ideal port to have any engine maintenance and repairs carried out. So unfortunately, for some, Melbourne is a port for working and not relaxing like the rest of the crew.

Chief Engineer Sergei with 3rd Engineer Edgardo Manapat

My cabin was on the third deck, comprising of a bedroom, sitting room and en-suite toilet & shower. The room was very spacious, a double bed and wardrobe plus a TV and computer in the sitting room. The mess room was two decks below and the bridge was 5 decks above. Luckily the Grasmere has an internal elevator, or I think I would never have made it to the bridge as often as I did.
Meals were served 3 times a day, 8.00am, midday and 6.00pm in the evening. After that, the Cook & mess man finish duty and you have to help yourself if you are still feeling hungry. A good selection of salads, cold meats and hot dishes are served up where everyone helps themselves to what they want to eat. There are two mess rooms onboard, one for the crew and one for the officers & Captain. The officers are expected to wear their uniform shirt at dinner times. Otherwise dress is casual. Dirty shoes and overalls are not allowed in the mess room.

Deck Cadet Joemar, Bosun Richard Malagum & Chief Mate Dyma

Wandering about the vessel had a strange feeling. It was like being on a ghost ship. Except for meal times you hardly ever saw the crew. You could hear their voices but never see who was speaking. The guys were either deep in the bowels of the ship working or sleeping in their cabins. The Grasmere Maersk also has Wi-Fi onboard so often the crew could quietly lock themselves into their cabins and spend their free time communicating with family and friends back at home. On a few occasions I met some of the crew in their lounge room watching TV or comparing wives and girlfriends on their tablets and laptops. I am sure if Facebook ever closed down there would be about 90 million Filipinos with nothing to do on their laptops.

Officers mess room

Going ashore in Sydney was an interesting procedure. Like Melbourne you have to wait for the port bus to pick you up and take you to the security gate where you would sign out and then have to wait for the Mission bus to come and collect you. Unlike Melbourne, the Mission buses in Sydney work to a strict timetable, so if you miss the pickup you find yourself having to wait another couple of hours for the next bus or paying about $45 to get a taxi into the city. Same happens for returning to the vessel. The ITF club is within walking distance of the port but doesn?t open til later in the afternoon. The Mission to Seafarers has recently moved from the city to Millers Point, resulting in a 40 minute bus trip from the port to the centre. You had no time to mess about; as if you missed the 5.00pm return bus you had to wait until 7.30pm for the next.

Waiting for the Mission bus in Sydney

The Grasmere Maersk also has a shorter time in Sydney with cargo operations so time ashore can also be dictated by what time the vessel arrives in Sydney and what time it must depart. We were leaving that evening so we had to get back on the 5.00pm bus. With shopping lists in hand and a faulty apple laptop to be returned, the 5 guys who managed to get time ashore looked like they were from an episode of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I only needed to buy some shavers and cream; however it still wasn't the easiest of tasks to complete in a different city. Arriving at the Mission about 1.30pm the guys purchased a few phone cards before we headed off to find our way to the city centre.

View from the bridge looking forward

Two more days of sailing and a few 360 degree turns to test out the steering and we finally spotted the entrance to Port Philip Bay. Even though the berths at East Swanson were empty and we were free to dock at 2.30am the Captain declined and we stayed in anchorage for the night. Port of Melbourne gives you a day's grace for anchorage before an hourly rate of $250 sets in. Berthing a vessel at 2.30 in the morning is not the kindest of tasks that you can give to your crew. Everyone has to be awake and at their posts when a vessel is coming in to berth. For us, 9.00am seemed a more respectable time so once the pilot had come onboard we slowly made our way up the bay until we reached the mouth of the Yarra River.
Not understanding why we were doing pirouettes at sea a few days earlier I could now see why they had to be sure that nothing would go wrong when bringing the Grasmere Maersk into berth at the Patrick's Terminal at East Swanson. The vessel has to sail halfway past the entrance to Swanson Dock, and then slowly reverse backwards whilst the rear of the vessel is turning. Having another ship already at berth made it that much more precise as we had to position ourselves behind the vessel already in dock.

Port Philip Bay with Melbourne CBD in the background

Dressed in his white shorts and captain's shirt, Mark did what he does best and positioned the vessel into its exact spot without any incident. Home at last. A worthwhile trip, it gave me a perspective of what it is like being a seafarer on a vessel as well as in a new city (I had not been to Sydney for about 15 years)
Thanks to Captain Mark, to Maersk Shipping, to Inchcape Agents in Brisbane and Melbourne and lastly thanks to all of the crew who made my trip worthwhile.