GALLERY: Life on a bulk carrier

ROBERT Kyle opens a large cardboard box and plucks out a leafy iceberg lettuce. All around are plastic trays of almost-ripe tomatoes, apples, carrots, shelves of cereal, coffee and rice, as well as stainless steel commercial fridges filled with various cuts of red meat and dozens of milk bottles.

Since its arrival at Kooragang 24 hours ago and in his role as chief caterer on board the part BHP, part Japanese-owned bulk carrier Pacific Triangle, Kyle has overseen the loading of three tonnes of food stores – enough to last the 17 crew members four months while the ship visits three ports in Japan, dry dock in the Philippines and then Port Hedland in Western Australia and Port Kembla.

Kyle, a lanky figure who talks quickly, is renowned for his resourcefulness. He knows how to make the glossy lettuce he is holding last 12 weeks; store it in the fridge wrapped in newspaper and replace the paper when it gets wet. ‘‘It’s how our parents stored fresh vegetables,’’ he says, before explaining that it is important to remove the outer leaves and discard them with the damp newspaper.

Next, he demonstrates how he rotates the bright orange plastic trays holding neat rows of tomatoes – some deep red, others still light green – to allow air to circulate, thus stalling the decaying process.

Back in the galley, which could easily pass as a large-scale restaurant kitchen, lunch is served. Slabs of grilled salmon are plated up with chips and mixed vegetables. Dessert is apple strudel and custard. Men of all ages in grimy orange and white boilersuits line up, eager to refuel before the ship departs Kooragang in two hours for its journey to Japan to offload 157,000 tonnes of Hunter coal.

This roster, or ‘‘swing’’, as those in the industry call it, is scheduled to last four months. Instead of celebrating Christmas with loved ones, the crew will be in the Philippines while the Pacific Triangle is in dry dock in Subic Bay. It’s little wonder that homely meals matter in these circumstances.

This will be third mate James Oliver’s first swing on a ‘‘bulkie’’ and his longest stint at sea. He is missing ‘‘a wedding, Coldplay, my birthday, Christmas, New Year’s’’. There is a hint of regret and anxiety in the 26-year-old’s voice. His previous job was on board seismic research vessels off Western Australia, where he worked a ‘‘five weeks on, five off’’ roster.

‘‘It’s a bit daunting even though I’ve got the ticket [qualification] and I’ve been going to sea for a few years,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s a completely different job to what I’m used to; the size, the way you tie up the ship, the operation on the bridge, manoeuvreability – it’s all different.’’

Oliver’s parents first met on the cruise ship Oriana – his British-born father Paul was in the merchant navy before then and afterwards worked at Sydney Ferries – and he reckons there is some inherited connection to his chosen line of work. Historically, many sailors followed their fathers to sea filled with ideas of adventure and camaraderie, though in Australia this tradition has been steadily eroded by economic pressures and bureaucracy among shipping authorities and companies.

Pacific Triangle is one of the few bulk carriers operating with a predominantly Australian crew; overseas labour is cheaper. Gone, too, are large crews. Where once there were as many as 60 men per ship, now there are no more than 20, inspiring one senior officer to call them ‘‘ghost ships’’.

Weekender has been given a rare glimpse of the working life of contemporary seafarers whose role harks back millennia – ‘‘Since Noah had sails,’’ jokes Pacific Triangle’s master Michael Bodley – and remains steeped in tradition.

They glide so quietly and effortlessly into Newcastle Harbour that it took the dramatic Pasha Bulker incident in 2007 for many people to appreciate the size of a bulk carrier. Standing on Pacific Triangle’s bridge 40metres above the water line and looking down on the enormous gaping hatches filling with coal is a surreal experience. The ship is as wide as an Olympic swimming pool and almost 300metres long. The deck area is about 3  acres.

But if the still, sea-green harbour surrounding the black and red steel behemoth wasn’t visible, I could be visiting any large factory. There is no sense of floating on water, and climbing the narrow stairs between the five levels reinforces this. Internally, Pacific Triangle – named after its key route from the east coast of Australia to Japan and then to western Australia – appears to be part nondescript office and part hospital, with its lino floors and uniform corridors lined with doors and exit signs. It is easy to get lost.

Michael Bodley – or ‘‘the old man’’ as the crew jokingly call him – sits in his office tapping away at a keyboard preparing for the ship’s departure at 14.30.  John Mellencamp is blasting on the radio and the 55-year-old is busy fulfilling an ever-increasing number of bureaucratic demands. Like many other seamen, the Melburnian has a wry sense of humour and a dislike of paperwork. He describes the Australian Maritime College in Launceston where today’s trainees complete their course work as the ‘‘college of creative basket weaving’’ and derides protocol that dictates the wearing of a life jacket simply to walk up the gang plank.

Bodley completed most of his training on the job as a teenager and through Newcastle Technical College. 

‘‘We all grew up at the Star Hotel,’’ he laughs, ‘‘before going to sea became a fun-exclusion society.’’

In the days before the ‘‘ghost ships’’, working on a bulk carrier meant joining a floating village. Contact with family was limited to letters sent ahead to far-flung ports and scratchy, expensive phone calls made at those same ports. It was inevitable that strong friendships were forged. 

‘‘It was a good and bad thing,’’ recalls retired seaman Peter Hay of the isolation. ‘‘It was bad because you couldn’t contact your family easily, but good because the office couldn’t easily get in contact with you.’’

British-born Hay retired to Newcastle last year and recently received an award for piloting 1000 ships on the Great Barrier Reef. The 72-year-old started his career as a cadet at 15, following in the footsteps of his father Wilfred who joined the naval reserve and rose to become lieutenant commander of his own ship.

During his career, Hay criss-crossed the globe before joining the Australian reef pilots 20 years ago. His lengthy swings – some lasting up to eight months in the days before containers transformed shipping – are marked on a black and white world map hanging in his Islington study and include Japan, South America, Africa and the west coast of North America.

In those days, overseas travel was still costly and tourism was small scale. 

‘‘Apart from other sailors we had places largely to ourselves,’’ says Hay. ‘‘You had to learn to speak a bit of the local lingo and eat their food and drink their grog because that’s all there was.’’

Hay can still remember eating his first slice of pizza at 17 in Genoa, Italy, during his maiden trip. 

‘‘It was just mind-boggling,’’ he recalls, ‘‘because there were no takeaway pizzas in England or anything like that. It was very exotic. England in the 1950s was pretty dead ... beige just about sums it up. By the time I was 18, I’d been around the world for the first time and I got back to little old Newcastle [in the United Kingdom] and thought, hell, get me out of here.’’

Hay reckons most seafarers are, ‘‘or were’’, romantics at heart and not particularly suited to office jobs or domesticity. 

‘‘It’s a way of life.’’

James Pynt agrees. The 24-year-old third engineer completed his traineeship last year, which was sponsored by shipping company Teekay, which manages Pacific Triangle.

 ‘‘I can’t stand sitting behind a desk and I wanted to do marine biology but didn’t get the marks. I started working on small boats in Sydney Harbour, and then one of the guys said I should do it properly and study.’’

His fiancee Hayley is not thrilled about his first four-month swing. 

‘‘She’s none too happy,’’ he says, in between bites of a bacon and sausage sandwich. ‘‘I will step out of it and start a family and return to small boats again where you go home at the end of the day. Not sure when.’’

Horror stories  of nightmarish conditions, human rights abuses, dramatic sinkings and neglectful, mercenary management abound in international shipping. A 2011 report in London’s Telegraph newspaper described modern seafarers as ‘‘prisoners with a salary’’ and noted that in 2009, 37 ships sank – some without a trace.

The report detailed the sinking of the cargo freighter Danny FII, which was carrying livestock and 83 people as it approached the Lebanese port of Tripoli in bad weather. The captain went down with his ship and half the crew. The incident did not make headlines. 

‘‘Consider the reaction if 37 airliners crashed every year,’’ wrote journalist Rose George.

Australian crews are heavily unionised and their conditions cannot be compared to those of international seamen, but the element of danger remains. 

‘‘Ships are not unsinkable,’’ says Bodley, ‘‘especially bulkies, which are notorious for disappearing. We’ll be weighing about 240,000 tonnes when we leave here and they have a propensity to put their nose under a big wave. If you break a hatch lid, the front fills up and the weight of the water in there will break the bulkhead down. Not so much with coal, but with iron ore and things where there’s a lot of empty space in the hold, they go down and they go down fast; it only takes seconds because you’ve got so much weight,’’ he adds, imitating the sinking with his right hand angled downwards.

Does he worry about something going wrong? 

‘‘Yeah, but not too much. You can’t,’’ he laughs. ‘‘You just ride it out.’’

One of the most dramatic moments in Bodley’s long, largely incident-free career was the infamous 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race which claimed the lives of six sailors. In 70-knot winds and mountainous, ‘‘100-foot waves’’, Bodley and his crew on the bulk carrier Iron Monarch were sent out from Port Kembla to assist stranded competitors. 

‘‘That was pretty big,’’ he says without a hint of melodrama. ‘‘We took a battering.’’

There have also been typhoons off Japan and even a volcanic eruption in the Philippines. Chief engineer Peter Salter was working on Pacific Triangle in 1991 when it was in dry dock in Subic Bay and Mount Pinatubo dramatically erupted. 

‘‘There was 10 inches of ash on deck and as far as the eye could see,’’ he remembers. ‘‘It was night for two days. It was incredible. It took 200 Filipinos 15 days to shovel the ash off the ship.’’

Salter has also been on board when upturned fishing vessels have been spotted and vividly remembers one incredible rescue. 

‘‘We had a lookout who had extremely good eyes and he spotted a light when we left Taiwan, a couple of days out. He told the officer on watch who rang the old man and he came up and got me out of bed. Two farmers had gone from one island to another in a homemade inboard engine and the cog shaft had gone. They’d been rowing for two days. We rescued them; that was amazing.’’

The ship’s bosun, Frank Bills, has seen waves crashing over the deck in big seas. ‘‘You get a little worried sometimes, but you don’t get scared,’’ he says. ‘‘We had a problem with a couple of hatches when we were in a typhoon off Japan and the first couple started taking on water, which is very serious. There’s a lot of stress on the vessel in heavy seas.’’

The 52-year-old is sitting in the ‘‘filthy smoke room’’, also known as the TV room, enjoying a quick break. There is a large flat-screen TV, brown vinyl lounges and soft drinks in the fridge. Beer can also be bought. A handful of inoffensive lads’ magazines are on the table and a nearby bookshelf is lined with action DVDs. It reeks of cigarettes. The non-smoking room is next door but its pristine state indicates that it doesn’t get used much.  There’s also a gym, sauna, small pool and even a guitar on board.

A radio attached to the front of Bills’s orange boilersuit – crew wear orange and officers wear white as a nod to an age-old class distinction – crackles intermittently into action. There is a lot going on. Bills, who hails from Karuah, is responsible for the running of the deck and the keen fisherman relishes being at sea despite the long separations from his wife and two adult children (he once did a double swing and was away for seven months). He managed to get home last night, but had to be back on board this morning. 

His ‘‘thing’’ is photographing sunsets and he has 2000 images stored on his laptop (the crew have internet access close to shore and during the stint in dry dock a refit will enable offshore access too). 

According to Bills, the best time to get the perfect snapshot is just after the sun has set, or when there’s smoke on the horizon. 

‘‘I’ve seen that many colours,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s always changing and you pick up differences every time.’’

Bills is looking to retire at 55. He’s saddened by the steady decline in Australian seafarer numbers. 

‘‘It’s no longer a tradition like it used to be. We’re hoping to keep a viable fleet for Australian seafarers but it’s difficult to compete with the foreign labour. I’m not saying they’re any worse or better, they’re just cheaper.

‘‘We pride ourselves on our training and skills and our safety record. If it wasn’t for the AMU [Australian Maritime Union], at the end of the day we probably wouldn’t still be here.’’

Says Bodley matter-of-factly: ‘‘We’re too expensive, it’s a commercial reality. They [the shipping company] can buy seven Filipinos for one Aussie. The future is declining all the time. Companies like BHP still sponsor trainees, but it’s expensive.

‘‘In the early days, you were an indentured apprentice and it was four years – three years’ sea time and six months at the technical college. Now they’ve cut it back to two years in the college and a year’s sea time.’’

And the money is good. At 26, third mate James Oliver is earning about $100,000 and bought his first house last year on the Central Coast. He is predominantly in charge of the 8am to 12pm and 8pm to 12am watches on the bridge. Navigation gear might be high-tech but a pair of binoculars and paying attention are still essential. Oliver is also responsible for safety equipment, including lifeboats and fire extinguishers, and is a designated medical officer.

Once at sea, the ship becomes a self-contained operation. Help could be more than 24 hours away. And this is the main reason why the  nautical hierarchy is maintained. 

Entering Pacific Triangle’s enormous five-floor engine room is like walking into an industrial cathedral. There are countless pipes of all sizes lining the towering roof and an enormous engine at the centre of it all. It is noisy and hot.

‘‘We do all our own electrical, sewerage and engine propulsion,’’ says chief engineer Peter Salter, who started out as a fitter and machinist in western Sydney factories. ‘‘You ring up the fire department, that’s us; unblock your sewer, that’s us; you want someone to fix your washing machine? That’s us. Imagine running a small plant that looks after a city, and that’s what it’s like.’’

There are five men in the engineering department plus a trainee. Three are named James, so the running joke is calling each of them in order – ‘‘First James, Second James ...’’

Replace Salter’s white boilersuit with a shirt and tie and he could easily pass as a businessman with his close-cropped hair and stylish reading glasses. When I ask how he stays fit at sea, he leads me to a set of 30 steep, narrow stairs. We climb one floor – it is like being on a ladder – and return. In the 30-degree glasshouse heat, I am puffed. ‘‘That’s how,’’ he says. 

The nitty-gritty statistics of keeping Pacific Triangle moving are mind-boggling: 610,000 litres of fuel are used each day. The engine operates with 20,200 horsepower at 81 RPM and the piston has a diameter of 70centimetres. When things go wrong, Salter can find himself perched high above the engine unclogging pipes – and even having to climb into the engine. It is not for the  faint-hearted.

It strikes me that in spite of enormous technological advances in our everyday lives, 95per cent of the world’s freight is transported by hulking steel ships such as Pacific Triangle (2000 bulkies visit Newcastle Harbour each year). We haven’t really come that far since the ancient trade routes. After its upcoming fit-out in dry dock, the crew will be able to chat to loved-ones via Skype and Google till their hearts’ content.  But in the storeroom, lettuce is being wrapped in newspaper and, on the bridge, stranded fishing boats are detected by an officer with a set of sharp, well-trained eyes.

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