17 days at sea – What does it mean for a crew?

Captain Piotr Orzolek is master of our “Tsingtao Express”. The vessel is sailing in the IOS (Indian Ocean) service and sometimes spends 17 days at sea without berthing in a port. We asked him what kinds of challenges are presented by such a long passage.

You sail on the only Hapag-Lloyd service that includes a 17- day stretch at sea. What is the key challenge of that?

Given the large number of services that Hapag-Lloyd has, I can’t tell you whether 17 days is the longest sea passage we have. A few years ago, when I was sailing in the EC3 service, we had a stretch lasting 20-21 days without a port on the way from Pusan to the Panama Canal. But even 20 days doesn’t sound very extreme to me. Thanks to the good speeds they can sail at, container ships generally cover all routes much faster than tankers or bulk carriers. So, relatively speaking, there’s no reason to complain!

That’s why I wouldn’t talk about a 17-day stretch as a challenge. But, of course, there are certain operational issues that need to be carefully analyzed and properly organized in advance. For example, there has to be enough fuel on board to operate the ship until the next bunker port, and that includes fuel for both the main engine and the auxiliary machinery. All the necessary provisions and stores also need to be ordered and delivered to the vessel before such a long passage. But fresh water isn’t such an urgent issue, as we can produce our own water from sea water while underway.

Captain Piotr Orzolek is master of our “Tsingtao Express”

Is it stressful to have so much time between port calls?

To be honest, calling at ports these days is generally a rather stressful event. Difficult approaches, congestion, stressful pilotage and berthing – all of these factors create added tension and stress. With a tight schedule for the entire crew, it means more work and not enough proper rest. It means extra working hours for our engineers, too, as this is the only time that they can perform important maintenance work on the main engine. What’s more, as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, ports are no longer a nice place to be. Port stays are very busy and brief, no one can take shore leave, and there are problems with crew changes. In other words, there are more and more downsides and fewer and fewer upsides. On the other hand, being back to the sea for such a long time finally creates an opportunity to settle into our daily routines. When we have long passages like this, we finally have a chance to relax a bit and to concentrate on the regular and effective maintenance of deck areas. What’s more, regular working hours and daily routines foster the kind of relaxed atmosphere that is welcomed by every crew member. Everyone has a chance to spend some time as they would like to. Watching movies, exercising in the gym, playing games on their laptops, or surfing the internet – those are just a few of the ways that we like to spend our private time.

How do you keep the crew in a good mood?

Once we are at sea for two to three weeks, we eventually get a chance to organize a kicker (table soccer) tournament for all crew members or a table tennis “Ocean Cup”. If we have a few musically talented crew members, the ship’s band can practice its songs, and all singers can enjoy singing karaoke during the evening hours. From time to time, a BBQ party can improve the mood – with good steak and beer followed by a suckling pig, our specialty on board.

Do you have fresh fruits and vegetables on such long passages?

Before a long passage, organizing enough provisions and stores to safely complete the passage is part of proper preparation. Ships are equipped with dedicated cold chambers for meat, fish, fruits and vegetables. So, with the proper temperature settings, vegetables and fruits can stay reasonably fresh for a couple of weeks without any problem. Just in case, we also have frozen and tinned products on hand. And the key element in all of this is the cook. On a ship, a good chef really becomes a VIP. Preparing tasty meals is one of the most important things that can maintain and lift people’s spirits on board. In fact, having good and varied food is one of the last few pleasures that seafarers can enjoy in these difficult coronavirus times.

What do you personally like about the IOS service? What makes it special to you?

I personally like services with long passages. The time goes by fast, there is less time pressure, and having regular working hours gives you more time to monitor the ship’s status and to organize all the necessary details in a more relaxed manner. And every “sea wolf” will agree that a ship is only safe at sea. Of course, some services seem to be better mainly due to the kinds of ports they call at. Some regions are more demanding and more prone to trouble, and some are less so. Some of them tend to present more serious weather issues that need to be handled more carefully. And others sail through areas with a lot of traffic, which entails more challenges from a nautical point of view. So, there is a wide range of service types, and there could always be a better one.

How do you feel when you finally see land and a port again after so many days at sea?

Every time you have a long sea passage, you are definitely more eager and optimistic when you are finally approaching a port. And, at least at the beginning, even a port call with a very tight schedule doesn’t seem so discouraging and potentially exhausting. But if it is a port in which we will have a crew change, then it is warmly welcomed and there is a lot of joy and anticipation among the crew.

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