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Life aboard the MV Rheinbridge

Section Two – pages 9-17. Journal entries in italics, otherwise these are memories.

Elevator call buttons showing deck names

Other than that, how they addressed each other was something I more or less missed. At least once I heard the captain call the Chief Officer, Chief, but this wasn’t until I had finally memorized several first names (on the 3rd or 4th day). I hope they were not offended by this familiarity; no one seemed to be, especially when I applied the name to the correct person.


Deck Tour

It took me a few days for my adrenaline to drop, and to gain some sense of the very simple layout of the ship, but I will explain it here for you now.



The superstructure is the part of the ship that sticks up above the hull. On the 18-year-old Rhein Bridge, the superstructure has a relatively small footprint but stands 6 stories above the hull, The smoke stack and radar booms extend higher. On an ocean liner the superstructure covers virtually all of a ship’s deck. On the classic freighter it covered a much smaller proportion of the deck in the center of the ship with a post and booms at either end for lifting cargo out of the holds. Containerships let shore-mounted cranes do all this lifting and the deck is covered with a simple 3 dimensional array of containers. The superstructure on the Rhein Bridge stands at about three-quarters of the way back from the bow. It is the width of the ship. A simple design, the center hallway runs across the width of the ship and an elevator takes you up and down most of its approximately 10 “floors”. (There is also a small wing attached to the port side of the superstructure.)


The mess (dining room) and the cabins (the rooms these men call home) all face the front of the ship. Rooms off the other side of this hallway would all face the stern. But most of them are not really rooms at all, just storage closets. One large closet was a library. It had shelves holding some magazines and a collection of books, many of them short books designed for young men with low reading skills. All the reading materials I saw were in English.


As I was saying, Aniceto took me down to the First Cabin Deck. This is the main deck, the deck at the top of the hull, and therefore it is outdoors. We walked its entire length, a loop around the ship. The containers are stacked 4 layers above this deck, obliterating the view from all front or back windows in the superstructure below the Fifth Cabin Deck.  Hence, my cabin, on the fifth cabin deck, had a front facing window with a fine view (of containers and ocean). The Captain and Chief Engineer have corner cabins on this same deck. Chief Engineer’s cabin is on the port side; the Captain’s is an entire suite, on the starboard side. They each have unobstructed views forward as well as to the side of the ship.


All other officers and crew have similar cabins on the fourth cabin deck or below, so, unless they have corner cabins, (at one end of the hallway or the other) they don’t get to see anything except a wall of containers out their windows. These are opening windows by the way. A series of large twisting bolts, much like those on the hatches, could be used to open them, but I suspect it is rarely done. The superstructure is air conditioned throughout.


The Containers

Back to the deck tour. I was required to wear a hard hat on this tour. The containers are bolted down with a series of diagonal turnbuckles that use really big hardware. One of the jobs of the seamen is to regularly check for tie down pieces that have loosened due to the engine vibration. There are slot canyons between the rows of stacked containers to provide access for this job. Later I saw a safety reminder in Columbia Shipmanagement’s daily newspaper  regarding use of hard hats while outdoors. They were reporting that an officer on one of their ships had recently escaped injury as one of these pieces of hardware had come loose and fallen within inches of him. Columbia Shipmanagment Company is the German-owned operator of the Rheinbridge and its sister ships. (This daily paper is apparently issued from Germany, in English, received via email and printed shipboard on A4-sized paper)


Containers were not only stacked on the deck beside us, but the array extended right over our heads to line up with the ship’s exterior hull. Fortunately, I wasn’t really aware of the triple-high stack over our heads at the time; I noticed only that it was a covered passageway Aniceto and I walked along as we looped the ship’s perimeter. A covered passageway with a view.




Later I realized the hold (the storage area below the deck in front of the superstructure) also must have been full of containers. (Aft of the superstructure, the engine room consumed all the below deck space.) Ozren says he doesn’t really know much about what is inside most of these, but from insurance settlements it is apparent the cargo value can run to the millions of dollars per container. Picture how many iPods or cameras might fit into one.


Crew & Equipment

We walked aft first where there was a layer of wide open deck (though still below stacks of containers) and the engine noise dominated everything. Many windlasses filled with rope were ready for tying the ship to a wharf. The ropes were six inches in diameter and the coils as tall as me and more. Each coil probably a minimum of 6 feet high by 8 feet across. The noise drove us away and up the other side of the ship. I met the ship’s electrician, a young man repairing a light fixture. Later we passed a group of seaman scraping paint in preparation for more, and then the room labeled “paint store” where many stacks of 5 gallon cans lay in wait for them.


As we walked forward I saw that the rib-reinforced hull is apparently about 16 feet taller here than elsewhere. Then, as we entered the most forward part of the bow, I saw this part of the hull is extended another sixteen feet higher yet. The chain lockers are round tanks sitting on (or extending through?) this deck. We went up a stairway to a small forward elevated deck where the anchor winches are. This little bit of deck has no containers hovering over it. Shafts 3 feet in diameter pierce the front of the hull at an angle and the anchor chains run through them. A spare anchor is strapped upright to a nearby wall; the weight stamped on its side is 8775K. At the time I noted that the stamped characters are about 2 1/2 inches tall and as I measure my photo and calculate, I see it must be about 16 feet tall. Resting on the upper deck it reaches almost to the top of the upper bow extension. Aniceto standing beside this massive anchor would have been a good picture…had I thought to take it.


Emergency equipment

Safety equipment is everywhere. Firemen’s suits, labeled Chemical Suits, are ready to be stepped into. Canisters the size of oil barrels hold life rafts. Picture instructions with English text show how you clip it to the ship, then throw it into the water. It inflates automatically. Fully loaded with mariners presumably, it gets pulled down beneath the sea as the ship sinks, but then will break free and float to the surface. Boarding one would be an act of faith, but in distress at sea, I have observed that kind of faith is easy to come by.


There are EEBD boxes -- Emergency Escape Breathing Devices in smaller print -- the illustration is of a gas mask. The Escape Door is labeled; arrows point to the big red-orange lifeboats. Most labeling is in Japanese as well as English. Hatch handles are labeled with arrows that point to O or S, for open and shut, I presume. Up front here I see the simple traditional red-orange life ring: Rhein Bridge - Panama. (A Japanese built and owned ship, operated by Germans, and registered in Panama!)


There are also immersion suits, just in case you’re on your own when the end comes. The illustrations for their use make them look bulky and warm. It is not just that death comes rapidly in any water much cooler than body temperature°, but help comes very slowly as the vast expanse is traversed and then searched.


While the EEBD boxes are seen almost everywhere on board, most of this equipment I have seen is on the main deck, under the shelter of the upper bow deck. It is here that various oil spill cleanup materials are also kept.


Back inside the superstructure

Back inside the superstructure we walked past the infirmary (that place I wasn’t sick enough to need) which was locked up tight, so I never got to see in. On the floor above it, Aniceto showed me the high-ceiled gymnasium with a tall wall of windows that look out across the sea. This is on the Public Deck and in a small port-side wing of the superstructure. It contains only a ping pong table (tied in place to the floor), a dart board, and some weight lifting benches. But after some snooping I found closet full of musical equipment and other odds and ends. Outside this wall of windows is one of the two large red-orange and seriously enclosed, lifeboats.


Nearby was the laundry room the crew used. A handful of washing machines and dryers gathered from round the world, they were clearly purchased in whatever port the ship had been in when the previous one failed, and their operating instructions presented a variety of languages and styles. This room, above all others, showed this ship to be occupied by a bunch of men, and working men at that. Oily overalls draped freely amidst a clatter trap of laundry machines and an unswept floor. Of all the rooms totally available to me, it was the only room I chose not to explore. I laughed at myself for averting my eyes whenever I walked by it on my way to the gym. I think I was afraid I might go in and try to clean it.


I saw the carpenter’s shop and other rooms where there was evidence of work going on. There was an officer’s lounge with couches, a TV, and an electronic piano keyboard; and a more casual crew lounge. Up by the bridge was a rather elegant conference room with a dozen upholstered chairs around a long table. It had big paintings on the walls and a kimono-dressed doll (a geisha?) in a glass case.


There is also a huge crane that is used to carry supplies and equipment aboard the ship. I have a picture of it, but can’t remember where I was on the ship when Aniceto showed it to me, and now can’t even imagine where it could be located. Probably it was directly aft of the superstructure.

After seeing all the outside marvels, and these many interior rooms of the superstructure, Aniceto offered to take me to where I had been brought aboard. This was only yesterday, but seems like a week ago. He took me down one more level to the Mid Deck, also known as Upper Deck. This is the muster station, where we would all gather in case of an emergency.


Into the Hull

In short order we were walking around the perimeter of the ship again. Only this time we were a level below our previous route and inside a protected hallway – the place you want to be if you need to travel the length of the ship in rough weather. I saw doors to the side thruster compartment, and into the cavities of the double hull and the hatches of various styles that seal them off. And then down to the little room where I was brought aboard. Its hydraulic doors were shut tight, the wooden embarkation ladder coiled up overhead, the sling I sat in now stashed into the corner; from outside the ship it would now look much the same as any other part of the hull.

Aniceto enjoyed giving me this tour. He was friendly and seemed happy to wait while I gawked and took pictures. It was he who thought to take my camera away from me long enough that I could have a picture of myself going up one of the ladders used the day before. I do wish I had been thinking enough to take his picture next to the spare anchor.


I had asked Aniceto about going into the engine room before we started on this tour, and he told me that the Engineer said no, because I would need ear protection and better shoes. But then, as the tour ended, he opened a doorway to a catwalk above the engine and we snuck in briefly to hear and see a second tantalizing sample, confirming that yesterday’s experience was not an hallucination.


Wednesday, August 24

2:15 pm


I took about 70 pictures in my one and a quarter hour tour.[And made a few drawings in my journal that might sometime illustrate this story.]


Lunch, dinner, breakfast, and now lunch again. Look at all those meals, one right after another, in a pattern! Such a change after our sporadic meals on the sailboat. The food is good and overabundant. I need to be careful to not eat so much.


The motor vibrates through the ship. It vibrates my bed and body, but did not keep me from a perfect night’s sleep. I wish I’d brought my bed pillow from the sailboat though; I have a crick in my neck from this large foam pillow. I must think I’m a princess to complain about such a small thing.


I sent an email message to Joe this morning using the captain’s email account. I had hoped to go to, but a security code seems to be needed to get onto the internet so I haven’t tried beyond the initial attempt.

I wrote a maybe-publishable version of why not to do what I did. The second half -- landing in heaven -- is still to be written.


On the Bridge again

It costs $20,000 per day for fuel for this ship. And roughly $5000 per day for crew and food operating expenses. Cargo is valued at many hundreds of millions of dollars. The captain tells me the loss of several containers by another ship a couple of years ago was valued at $200 million.


Ozren says he is responsible for the $4800 daily operating expenses via the German operating company (Columbia), and the Japanese owners (K-line) arrange and pay for the fuel. He says this fuel price is about a year old, and that it certainly costs more now.


Manuel, the Second Officer, on the bridge. The instrument panels shown in the photo above get screened off from the front windows at night by the green and gray curtains on the right.

I stayed up late (9:30 pm) talking to Ozren on the bridge in the lighted area. A curtain is drawn at night to separate off the windows that span the entire front of the ship. This part of the bridge is kept dark and even then takes 2 – 5 minutes for my eyes to adjust enough to see the horizon and then the stars.


The lights that shine out onto the water all around the ship are not visible from the bridge. Otherwise they would ruin the watch’s night vision, and make it impossible to see any other ships’ lights. These illuminating lights are called Pirate Lights. I saw them labeled on a board of switches on the bridge earlier today. I hoped at first it was the L and R confusion Asians are often accused of, and that it was a case of mislabeled Pilot lights. But no, they really are to discourage pirates; when it is dark, pirates can sneak on board more readily. There is also a map, up here on the bridge, of the Eastern Hemisphere that outlines War Zones and areas where pirates are more likely to be encountered.


10:43 pm

I just set my clock ahead one hour; we are traveling east.


Thursday, August 25


This morning I missed breakfast and went up to the bridge to find coffee and a cookie. After a while Captain Pajkuric came up and was happy to ask me more questions. “How come the US has never had a woman President? What about Hilary Clinton?”  When I told him I thought her chances were slim, he asked why it is that America, a land that prides itself on equal rights for women, has never had a woman president. Especially since so many other countries around the world, even Moslem and Hindu countries, have had female heads of state. He went on to ask what I thought Ted Kennedy’s chances were for the Presidency, and then named a half dozen other politicians he thought might be good candidates and wanted my opinion on.


He truly seems to want to hear about America from my point of view. He asked how much it costs to feed a family of four per month, saying in Croatia the statistics say about $1000 per month. I told him I think it is (or would be) for me about $400, though I allowed that I was sure many people spent much more, and that it wouldn’t surprise me that government statistics, as measured in the amount of food stamps a poor family of four might receive, could be as much as $1000 per month. (I have since found it is closer to $200.) Likewise, he said, he thought the Croatian government estimate was much higher than reality too.


We agreed how much a family spends on food costs depends on how much prepared foods you buy. Not exactly an astounding observation, but more evidence that we all have a lot in common – including a full array of prepared foods. This is not something we had in common with the good folks we met in Romania in 1993.