It’s been cold here on the European Continent, really cold. Each day the wind has pulled the fifty-degree chilliness right out of the North Sea and buffeted the ship with it. Even approaching the English Channel it was overcast, blowing an unexpected gale and in the high forties. I found this surprising since on our last go around to the European ports we call on monthly had been during a balmy Easter weekend.
The high winds, besides chilling you each time a navigation bulb burns out in the middle of the night have made bringing the ships into the locks here in Germany and Belgium a little dicey. Strong tugs and good pilots are the norm fortunately and the majority of the time spent in the locks is waiting for smaller short seas traffic to squeeze in next to us for the ride up or down a few meters.
The reluctance to use more expensive weekend labor, a general trend to save costs at every possible opportunity has reduced the occurrence of quick in and out port calls. Instead we spent the past Sunday idle at the dock along with four other car carriers waiting for a Monday morning cargo start at 0600. The docks have a surprising amount of cargo on them, both automobile and the larger better paying “high and heavy” which all the Ro/Ro companies are scrambling to fill their strength decks with. Excavators, crane trucks, cherry pickers and buses abound. The new automobiles though are collecting pollen on their shiny hoods having been sitting without a car market to go to as brake drums slowly rust. We haven’t had a new automobile loaded in Europe for months.
The idle day allowed us to start on the quarterly lashing gear inventory this morning which requires the accounting for every last car chock, lashing chain, binder bar and all of the 17,000 car straps. With a counter in my hand I spent the better part of the morning thumb clicking the yellow tension straps the longshoremen use to lash down the 6000 cars we could someday load again.
The Captain, always endeavoring in getting his crew enough rest and time to go ashore arranged a bus pickup from the Antwerp Seaman’s Center to take anyone interested into town at the end of the work day. Having an idle day without longshoremen to run me over with their forklifts I couldn’t resist and returned to the City I had visited as a cadet. I was immediately reminded that Belgians have not only love their beer, the best in the world, but are just as fond of their food. Mussels, chocolate, French fries and the Best Belgian waffle ever were soon bound for my mouth as I made my way to the city center. The architecture in Antwerp is also quite remarkable beating Bremerhaven hands down though just the tip of the iceberg for gothic European cities, the majority of which I haven’t yet visited.
Most of the crew took the return bus to the ship at midnight winding through Antwerp’s sprawling port and industrial plants. Grain silos, phenol refineries, container cranes, cracking towers and a nuclear power plant providing the juice for all of this industry lined the Westerschelde River.
Among those who stayed ashore longer, to undoubtedly patronize the experienced staff of Antwerp’s red light district was the engine cadet whom I had the pleasure of removing from the taxicab at six in the morning. Completely incapacitated by the staggers and jags I was forced to dig through his pockets thankfully pulling out a wad of crumpled 20 euro notes to pay off the cabbie. I didn’t feel like having to cover his 60 euro ride myself.
I couldn’t help but give the driver a sizable tip from the cadet’s unspent cash. Not only did he transport a drooling representative of an American service academy back to the ship but he also returned the 19 year old to the correct vessel after the small miracle of not being getting mugged in Antwerp.