A day on the APL Danube

I was thinking about the first time I boarded a cargo ship at the Port of New York and New Jersey. I was 17 years old and working as a dock receipt clerk for MOL in Lower Manhattan. One summer evening in 1964, the sales department threw a party for customers on the vessel, Harunasan Maru, docked at 39th Street in Brooklyn. The ship, a 12,000-DWT breakbulk vessel that was quite formidable for its time, would be considered a dinosaur compared with the gargantuan container ships of today. I strolled around the ship wondering how something made of all this steel could stay afloat. Now, some 53 years later I was about to embark on a ship that was just a little bigger — the APL Danube!!!

I’d been sitting in my office at Voxx International Corp in the spring of 2017, reflecting on the great career that I had in the import-export industry. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was time to retire. Physically, I felt that I could continue working, but 54 years was enough of doing anything in the business world, especially international logistics. Now having made that decision, I started wondering what I could do to make my retirement unique in some way. Then it dawned on me! A trip on a container ship would be as unusual as it gets. Besides, it was sort of a bucket list item anyway, so why not now? I began to formulate a plan for how I would put it into action.

Almost as soon as I began planning, I ran into obstacles. I realized that I would be hard pressed to spare 10 to 15 days going on Asia-Pacific or Atlantic Europe routes, so I had to find a trip with less transit time. I thought three days from New York to Norfolk might work, but since all the vessels were foreign flag, the Jones Act came into mind, which quickly eliminated that idea.

Pat Moffett (right) with APL Danube Captain Krunoslav Vukusic. Photo credit: Pat Moffett.

From Canada to the US

The next best option was ocean services coming to port from Canada to the United States, and therefore pass muster under the Jones Act. I immediately found a new service by CMA CGM that went from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to New York in two days and well within the time frame that I needed. Voxx International was a customer of CMA CGM, so I contacted our salesman to see how I could purchase a ticket.          

He gave me a contact in CMA’s office in Marseille, France, that handled passengers.  I emailed that office and after filling out numerous forms (insurance coverage, medical insurance, customs declarations, etc.), I was able to purchase my ticket for two nights at sea at €140 per night ($164 per night). I wanted to leave on the CMA CGM Magellan sailing from Halifax on September 20, but received word there would be both a vessel and departure change. The irony was that I would now sail on another CMA vessel — this time, the APL Danube. I worked for APL in the 1970s, when it was called American President Lines. 

Just as my flight landed in Halifax, I received an email from Miyuki Boehm, operations manager for APL’s Agent Norton Lilly. She informed me that she would be my guide through Canada Customs at the terminal until I was picked up by a security vehicle. Miyuki gave me a copy of the operations schedule, so I could follow and arrive at the vessel on time, which read as follows:

APL Danube.  Good day, Master, and all.

Based on the cargo plan advised by Halterm, schedule is as follows (all in local time):

September 24th, 2017

O600 LT …Pilot on board, dock vessel on arrival.

***vessel to dock starboard side to Pier 41 Halterm with 2 tugs

***APL DANUBE: Please have the gangway & nets ready to install to avoid delay in starting cargo ops.

0800 LT… Commence cargo ops with 4 cranes (approx. 1,200 moves)

1200LT… Meal break

1300LT… Resume cargo ops with 4 cranes.

2200LT… ETD (estimate only) depart with 2 tugs.

**No other container vessels scheduled @ Halterm on Sept. 24th

**Visitors: Norton Lilly agent, Miyuki Boehm

**Sign on passenger X 1 Mr. Patrick Moffett (US Citizen)

I was glad to have made the list.

On the evening of my departure, I made my way to Halterm, where I met Miyuki. She processed my paperwork through Canada Customs. The master of the APL Danube, Captain Krunoslav Vukusic, came down to the main gate in a security vehicle to welcome me. As we drove closer to the Danube I could now see the enormity of the ship. It was 984 feet long, 157 feet wide and capable of carrying just over 9,000 TEU. Built in 2014, she was considered one of the smaller container ships in the fleet compared with such vessels as the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin with a maximum capacity of 18,000 TEU.     

I wanted to stay out of everybody’s way while the vessel was loading, so I went to sleep early to be ready for my only full day at sea on this magnificent ship. The next day I was treated to a complete education on vessel operations. I learned navigational charts, radar, reefer container control, engine, and power plant dynamics, fire crew emergencies, and special security procedures in case any unwanted watercraft approached the vessel. I think I learned enough that day at sea to qualify as a junior maritime cadet. 

That evening I had dinner with Capt Vukusic and discussed how the ocean cargo world had changed since I started in the industry some 54 years ago — an interesting talk indeed. The master also informed me that the Danube would enter shallow water during the night and the winds would increase, causing the vessel to rock somewhat, but nothing to be concerned about. 

Not on the high sea, but it’s still the sea

I fell into a sound sleep, but around 2:00 a.m. I felt the vessel starting to rock. Although it was expected, when it got rougher, I felt myself rolling from side to side, bouncing off the 5-inch Formica trim that surrounded the mattress to keep sleeping passengers from falling out of the bunk. I couldn’t help thinking of the bumper guards that my wife bought when the kids were young to keep them from hurting themselves inside the crib. I could have used a set that night.

I was up on the bridge early the next morning, binoculars in hand and ready for the final day. I jumped into one of the tall chairs giving me a front row seat for the arrival in New York. The Danube was idling in dense fog waiting for the pilot to arrive who would take command of the vessel. Capt Vukusic directed my attention to the radar where I could see a blip on the screen indicating the pilot launch was pulling alongside the Danube.  Within a couple of minutes Captain Dominic Vitolo entered the bridge and implemented the master/pilot exchange protocol, which allowed the pilot to officially take charge of the ship.

The APL Danube began to move up the Ambrose Channel for the 18-mile trip to the port. When we were about two miles from the harbor, the fog lifted and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge came into full view, always a sight to behold. Shortly after passing the bridge, Capt Vitolo called out his first directive:

“Twenty degrees port.” The helmsman moved the steering mechanism to the left, putting the vessel on the narrow channel called the Kill Van Kull and almost on a direct line with the Danube’s final stop — the APM Terminal in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey.    

After traveling only a short distance up the kill, I noticed two Moran tugboats pulling up on each side of the Danube and taking up their position to guide the vessel up to the terminal. A minute later, another man, already talking on his portable radio as he entered the bridge, took charge. This turned out to be Captain Frank Reinbold, the docking pilot who worked for Moran. Frankly, until that very moment, I didn’t know that position existed.     

Clearing the raised Bayonne Bridge ... and US Customs

As we continued up the channel I noticed the Bayonne Bridge was dead ahead. The bridge spanned the Kill Van Kull between Staten Island and New Jersey and became a key figure in the success of the port to accommodate the Panamax vessels — but there was a problem! The Bayonne Bridge only had a 151-foot navigational clearance, well short of the 215 feet required to handle vessels the size of the APL Danube.

In an engineering marvel, the bridge was raised 64 feet and ultimately saved the Port of New York and New Jersey from losing market share on the Atlantic container traffic.          

It wasn’t long after we went under the bridge that the AP Moller terminal came into view. Capt Reinbold gave a few directives to the tugboats over his portable radio and docked the APL Danube with the ease it takes to parallel park a compact car.

I thanked everyone on the bridge for making my two-day voyage from Canada — a trip of a lifetime. Capt. Vukusic then escorted me down to the main deck to clear customs. There was a long line of crew members that also needed clearance, but as a passenger I was moved to the head of the line. There were two officers from US Customs and Border Protection that gave me a that “Where did he come from?” look. As I handed them my passport, one officer couldn’t help but ask, “Mr. Moffett did you visit any other countries on this trip before Canada?”

“No officer, I just flew up to Halifax from New York, got on this ship and came back.”

Now the officer was more baffled. “Can you just tell me why you did that?” he asked.

“I just retired from a half century in the import-export business and I wanted to do something special to close out my career, so I thought a trip on a container ship would fit the bill,” I said.

The officer stamped my passport and shook his head little and said, “Well Mr. Moffett, I guess you pulled it off. Welcome back to the United States."

I went down the gangway and got into the waiting security vehicle that would take me off the terminal. As the car pulled away, I looked out the back window at the APL Danube and said to myself, “Now that’s a major item off my bucket list!”

Contact Pat Moffett at pmoffett@voxxintl.com.

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