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A Journal on Board a Cargo Vessel: Unveiling the Maritime Symphony

This is my chronicle from my experience on board a cargo vessel, where the crew were a mix of Russian and Ukrainian seamen. During this dark time for humanity, I thought I should share this story of these two nationalities working together in unison, peacefully.

The Captain of the vessel by photographer George Tatakis
The Captain of the vessel

The Chronicle on Board a Cargo Vessel from Gibraltar to Suez.

Boarding the Cargo Vessel (22 - 23 Jan)

This would be my first experience on a merchant ship. The agent took me from the airport to take me to the border with Gibraltar. At that point, I realised that Gibraltar belongs to England and not to Spain. Everything there is reminiscent of England, which seemed to me a paradox since it was a Mediterranean location and it made me think of what Greece would look like if governed by an organised country like England. The excitement, of course, was as with all new things. After a while, I would decide that it would not suit her.

Unexpected Delays and Enchanting Encounters

The taxi that took me from the Gibraltar border to my surprise drove to the hotel. I had expected to go straight to the ship. The driver reassured me that the boat had not yet arrived. I later found out that the ship had arrived in Gibraltar, but waited its turn to anchorage. Here it would stop for refuelling, as most ships that pass through here do. This is one of the city's main revenue, along with online gambling and tourism.

Eventually, I had to wait a day and a half before boarding, which I used to discover this fascinating British city. It reminded me a lot of the time I lived in Great Britain, so I felt pretty comfortable and did some pub crawling in the evening, with "Lord Nelson" being the first, where I enjoyed my favourite pint of draught Guinness. I walked around the city since everything was close by.

The Rock of Gibraltar by photographer George Tatakis
The Rock of Gibraltar

In the afternoon of the second day, after I had just returned to the room, the phone rang. It was the receptionist who told me that the taxi was waiting for me. It came as a surprise to me because I was expecting a notice from the agency that they were about to come and pick me up. Luckily I was in the room so I hurriedly picked things up and went down to the taxi. The driver was upset and complained that he had been waiting for twenty minutes. He exaggerated. It just took me five. He just managed to make me feel stressed, for which there was no reason since there was no boat on the pier to pick me up when I arrived.

Some guys who were loading pallets with our provisioning told me to wait next to a large piece of concrete where a boat would come to pick me up. They asked if I was the superintendent of to board. "I don't know" I replied "about superintendent; maybe super photographer", and we laughed.

Aboard the Vessel: Challenges and Camaraderie

It was dark already and it was raining. I found refuge in some oil containers standing against the wind that was blowing. My photographic zeal, of course, but also my anxiety about not seeing the boat coming and missing a good shot, soaked me wet. A new guy who would embark with me to check on the refuelling process showed up. He explained to me that two boats would come, one for us, since his job was urgent, and another for the pallets. The first to come was the one for pallets.

Mr. X in his raincoat waiting at the port, by photographer George Tatakis
Mr. X in his raincoat waiting at the port

I've been on board similar boats in the past, but this one was much bigger and I found it challenging to jump on it. What worried me the most was the rain because everything was slippery. I shared my worry with the man - I never found out his name- and he told me the general rule: "You have to wait for the wave to lift the boat towards yourself and then you jump. If you don't manage the first time, don't rush, wait for the next wave."

With a quick jump, I found myself on the boat. It was already dark and along the way, we could see many merchant boats around us. I asked Mr X if he knew which one was ours and he said no. "But," he continued, "don't worry because they know," pointing to the boat crew. The captain and another guy who was texting on his phone. After a while, however, we reached the boat. I could tell from afar because I had seen a photo of it, but I confirmed when I read the aft: “L…”. Next to it was the bunker that would supply us with oil, also Greek: “NAXOS”.

Towards the vessel at nightfall, by photographer George Tatakis
Towards the vessel at nightfall

Mr X was illuminating with his flashlight, as we circled the ship around, the levels of both of them and was putting the numbers down in his log. Then I saw it: a seven-metre pilot ladder hanging from the boat. I was terrified. I just remember asking Mr X: "What, seriously?" He replied by just saying “yes”, without paying much attention to me. My heart was beating loudly before I even stretched my hand to catch the ladder. Then I began to bring to my mind as many logical thoughts as I could to reassure myself:

“So many people do this every day”

“Since you're here now you should do it”

“Someone has designed this system properly to be safe for everybody”

So I jump, I get off the wet boat to the ladder and start climbing. I am neither looking down, because I've already heard the boat leave me hanging in the void, nor up, so I don't see how much further I have to climb. I am only looking at the rope I have in front of me clenched in my fists with all my might. Carrying the bag with my equipment on my back and wet hands, all previous sensible thoughts are slowly fading away and have now been replaced with others: “On the next step I'll slip and fall, I will lose my equipment and I’ve no idea how they are going to bring me back onboard”.

Irrational ideation and terror had overwhelmed me. All I was thinking about was holding the rope tight and climbing the stairs one by one.

When I finally got up, I was greeted by two crew members, who I don't even remember who they were, I am not even certain if it was two of them (!) and after I signed on the manifest, they took me to the captain. I was still numb and was following them mechanically. The captain was very friendly, informed me that the chief officer would take me to my cabin shortly after and asked if I needed anything or if I wanted to have dinner. I told him I was waiting for my heart to return to its place and then we would see. I explained that for the first time, I went up in a merchant ship with the pilot ladder and he sympathised, by doing the movement with his hands, that is, the heart beating loudly out of one’s chest.

Soon the chief officer came in and drove me to my cabin which is very spacious since it is the cabin they keep for the owner. He then took me to the mess room where I could eat. I found this room interesting. Two large tables, on which, since I was there outside the established dinner time, there were plates, covered with a membrane so that those who did not eat when dinner was served, could eat at any time they wanted. There was meat and potatoes, soup, fruit and salad.

After dinner and after pouring myself some coffee, I thought about going back to my cabin, since the crew was busy refuelling and didn't want to be in the way, after all, I still didn't know anyone. At that moment, Anthony, a tall slim guy, with his hair in Beatles style from Ukraine - all the crew were Ukrainians and Russians - came in and suggested that I go with him to the bridge because I would be bored sitting there by myself. So I followed him. As we went up the stairs I found out that he was the second officer and had thought of many shoots we could make. He was also a photographer in the past. So I told him I would assign him my assistant's job and given the chance I would give him some photography tips. He liked the idea and even told me that he would be my friend on the trip and that he would help me as much as he could, but I also had to take some nice photos of him. I assured him that he would replace his Facebook profile picture and he was excited.

Life on Deck: A Symphony of Experiences

The Majesty of the Vessel

The wheelhouse was impressive. From there you could see the grandeur of the boat: seven cargo holds, full of soybeans. If I were to toss a stone with all my strength from the bridge, I don't think I would be able to get it to reach the third hold. They loaded the beans in New Orleans and were transporting them to Pakistan. The total capacity of the ship is eighty-five thousand tons. We were now carrying seventy-two thousand. Anton, the third officer, let me know. Since these two have the same name, I thought I could refer to them as Anton the second and Anton the third. But because this way they would sound like kings, I'll be referring to the second as Anthony and the third as Anton.

After exploring the bridge, I sat in Anthony's place and finished my coffee. They were all swamped so I didn't have much opportunity to talk to them. It doesn't matter, it's still too soon. Tomorrow they will have been used to my presence and they will be more relaxed I thought. After all, I had already discovered some places and it seems like I have made my first friend.

The captain told me that we would sail away sometime after midnight. So I bid them goodnight and returned to my cabin. The first sleeping experience was not the best. Having turned off the main engine due to refuelling, the cabin was extremely cold. After some time I ended up wearing all the clothes I had in my suitcase and was dressed up as an astronaut. So now I couldn't sleep because it was no longer possible to close my arms. Refuelling ended after three in the morning and an hour later I finally fell asleep.

I was thinking that I wanted to make a portrait of the captain against the imposing rock of Gibraltar, but I couldn't do it, since we were leaving at night. Does not matter. There are a lot of places on the ship and we will also cross the Suez Canal. After all, in art, as I understand it, you never really get to where you were planning to go. But in the end, if you let work itself guide you, you are up for a better reward.

The cargo vessel floating across the Mediterranean, by photographer George Tatakis
The cargo vessel floating across the Mediterranean

Crew Dynamics and Shared Moments

DAY 3 (24 - 25 Jan)

I am taking my morning coffee on the deck outside the bridge and enjoying a fresh bowl in my pipe. I already have a cup, with my name on it. Anthony made me a “Georgios” label yesterday and pasted it on a white cup like the ones you see at the hotel breakfast buffet.

“Here. You are now officially a seaman”,

he told me. I am gazing at the stern waters and it looks to me as if I am travelling on a passenger ship to the Aegean for some beautiful island in Greece. “The Mediterranean” Anthony replied when I commented on what a beautiful day it was today.

I had gone to the wheelhouse to make a portrait of Anton in a room I liked, where the electrical panels sit, but unfortunately, his shift had changed and he had to be on the deck. But I decided to stay for a while and enjoy the serenity of the sea and sunshine. The beauty of it all brought to my mind something I was reading a while ago, from Van Gogh's letters to his brother Teo: "We have not come into this life to laugh" ... "I don't need to live any better than anyone else. There is no point in living better than now. "

In the morning I took some pictures with the captain on deck. We had an appointment on the bridge at seven to catch the sunrise. However, we had to wait until almost eight because although the sun did its job and rose behind Algeria in front of us, there were enough clouds in the sky so we had to wait a little longer until our scene was sufficiently lit. Captain Evgeny had worn his “captain-ish” clothes like I had asked him to and grabbed the largest pair of binoculars he could find.

The captain on the deck, holding his binoculars, by photographer George Tatakis
The captain on the deck, holding his binoculars

Capturing Moments in Transit

The place at the fore, where we took the pictures, was shown to me by Vyacheslav (chief officer) yesterday during our tour of the ship. We took pictures with the captain in four different locations. Three at the fore and one more at the deck above the bridge. I hope I get at least one image out of them the way I like it. I edit the pictures and post-process them every evening in my cabin and yesterday I had three that I liked. Although the second day was mostly about tours, I managed to make three portraits on the bridge. The captain, Anthony holding the sextant, and Vyacheslav. However, I saw many places around the ship, understood the crew distribution and spent several hours with the first and second engineers. The engine room is really impressive and there are so many spots for photos. Seven people work there.

At first, I had some doubts about this space as no daylight came from anywhere, but all the mechanics are such a surreal backdrop, and even fluorescent lighting enhances that atmosphere. There will be my next stop today.

Anthony using the sextant on the deck, by photographer George Tatakis
Anthony using the sextant on the deck

Artistic Endeavors Amidst Maritime Realities

DAY 4 (JAN 26)

Yesterday we were sailing beneath Sicily and at night I got some reception on my phone, which briefly brought me in touch with the world. I made a few phone calls and even posted a picture of the captain on my social networks. He thought he looked older in this one, but I thought it made him look more like a captain as far as captains go in my mind. I explained to him at dinner that photos do not always show what we see, but that the photographer struggles to capture what he is feeling. “Surrealism”, said the chief engineer who was sitting next to him. Of course, I was describing impressionism, but since surrealism is also one of my favourite qualities in a photo, I answered “correct”. After all, if they were going to help me make surreal photos, even better.

I showed some of the photos I had taken these days to the captain, who was looking at them with apathy, and at the end, he said, “I don't understand, they are just photos.” At the same time, the chief next to him said “Very good” with admiration. - “We were also with my wife,” the captain continued, “at a painting exhibition once.” - “Did you like it?” I asked.

- “Nah”

- “That's why you don't care about photography”

- “You think?”

- “Do you like opera?”

- “No”

So I explained to him that he is simply not a friend of art. Art appreciation is something like whiskey I told him. The first time you try it tastes terrible, but the more you train your palate, the more you learn to appreciate it. Art requires training.

- “Can you train it?”

- “Of course”

- “Well they tried to train me. But it looks like I can’t be trained,” he finally said, laughing.

I reassured him and told him not to worry because there is so much bad in everything around us, bad art, bad food, etc. The biggest part of the public is not trained to appreciate art. This is of course the reason there is so much garbage floating around and people patting each other’s backs with compassion. But I didn't say that last one.

I made three more portraits yesterday with which I was pleased. The first one was Anton who gave me the impression all these days that he was more hesitant to take a photo, perhaps because he was shy, though that might have been just my idea. He had his sleeves up and I noticed that he had an interesting tattoo on his left arm. When I asked him to pose in the room with the electrical panels on the bridge he began to take his sleeves down. “No, no,” I told him, “I like tattoos!” So I took a photo of him looking almost like a crook.

Anton in the panels' room of the bridge by photographer George Tatakis
Anton in the panels' room of the bridge

A few hours later, as I drank my coffee on the bridge, I noticed two of the deck crew doing chores. One even wore a white shirt around his head, protective goggles and a helmet. It seemed to me like a very interesting picture, so I wanted to get down to take pictures of him. I got permission from the captain and got off. So I managed to get two more portraits, one of him and one of the one working with him, which I asked to pose at a couple of places. The two images I liked were one of him standing in front of the nine-tonne spare anchor and the other one standing on the helipad.

During the rest of the afternoon, we took some pictures on the bridge with Anthony since he had an interest in the subject, being a photographer himself in the past. He had photographed some weddings in his home country, Ukraine and later photographed at various clubs during festivals such as that of Kazantip. Another two or three images came out that were quite satisfactory.

Doing chores on deck using protective gear by photographer George Tatakis
Doing chores on deck using protective gear

Galleys, Engine Room, Hobbies, and a starry night

DAY 5 (JAN 27)

Today I started with my daily morning coffee habit on the bridge’s deck and then went down to the cook and stayed with him in the kitchen. He could speak a little Greek so he said “Kalosirthes stin kouzeena” (Welcome to the kitchen) after I explained to him that I was there to take some photos. Vyacheslav had told me that he had been waiting for me to take pictures and that he had changed into his clean apron yesterday for that. He kept his excitement to me, but as soon as we were done, he asked me to send the photos to him so that he could show them to his wife.

The same was asked of me by the captain when I took his photographs. Again I was reminded of something I read in my book of Van Gogh's letters: that sailors value those who make good portraits because they want them for their wives back on the shore.

I plan to spend my afternoon with the deck crew if I like the light and the sky since most of the pictures will be outdoors. During the afternoon of the third day, I also made portraits of the engine room crew. In the end, as I had presumed during the repérage, they came out very interesting. Alexandr (second engineer) walked me around the engine room and I took pictures of him and the rest of the crew. I left the chief engineer for last, who didn't want to have his picture taken, but eventually, he stood, because I think he started to enjoy my company.

His most interesting photo is the one standing in front of the control panel, with his uniform slightly open so that his St. Nicholas’ pendant hanging on his chest showed through. “We're not that different,” he had told me the first day I met him, showing me this pendant and the respective icon hanging on the wall. We discussed the different traditions we have around the year and made us look alike. It is interesting how traditions define who we are.

The cook holding a chunk of meat in the galley by photographer George Tatakis
The cook holding a chunk of meat in the galley
The Chief Engineer by the main panel in the Engine room by photographer George Tatakis
The Chief Engineer by the main panel in the Engine room

Yesterday I had an additional idea for the project, which is another proof of how important it is to take your time in every job you do. Anthony told me that he likes painting. He had nothing to do with the sport before, but after sleeping with a girl painter, he got into it. So now he has his easel, canvases and colours in his cabin and paints in his spare time. So we agreed to take the time to make some pictures.

The cabins are illuminated very nicely by a unique porthole. I thought that even if the sun was shining into the cabin directly while we were shooting, we could cover the porthole with a white sheet and calm it down.

So I began to observe similar cases on the ship that could become photographic subjects. For example, I noticed a boxing bag near Muster Station, the point of concentration in case of emergency. After a few inquiries, I learned that Volodymyr (oiler) is boxing. Here's another possibly interesting image. I’ve also found out that most of the crew was having their hair cut onboard with the help of someone else. Who knows how many other interesting habits would surface if one stayed onboard for a month, for example? Or for more?

Another portrait I made today was that of the cook’s assistant (Messman). “To Kamarotaki”, the cook said smiling in Greek as he passed by in front of us. He was a very interesting blond shy young man and I asked him to take a few poses in the messroom (restaurant).

Then I took some pictures with Anthony in his cabin while painting and even convinced him to wear his immersion suit, found in every cabin for emergencies. I knew that they wear it from time to time when doing the relevant readiness drills so it would not have been difficult for him. We made a couple of pictures like this, which had the element of surrealism that I always like in my pictures and look for. I was comfortable enough with Anthony to ask for poses since we had become friends. It looks as if he kept his promise. We had talked about women already a few times and in my opinion, when two men have talked about women, they become friends.

He suggested that I visit the bridge during the night before I go to sleep and that after about fifteen minutes when my eyes would become familiar with the darkness, I would enjoy the starry sky. I had never gone on the bridge at night before. So I found it a good idea.

Immediately afterwards I had arranged with Volodymyr to pick up his boxing gloves and take some photos by the sack on the deck. So I went down to the engine room and asked the chief engineer to let him join me. As soon as he saw me in the engine room he asked me if I wanted him to pour me some coffee and hang out with him. I told him that sadly more people were waiting for me to make their photos so we would do this another time. We took a few pictures with Volodymyr, and then I quickly went to my next meeting, where I also took some pictures with two deck crew members. A nice picture with the bosun, holding a water hose roll and one with the OS Denys on the stern. The sun had just set so the light was very pleasant.

Anthony in his cabin wearing the immersion suit by photographer George Tatakis
Anthony in his cabin wearing the immersion suit
Bosun on deck holding a water hose by photographer George Tatakis
Bosun on deck holding a water hose

At nine at night, I went to the bridge. I previously tried to understand what Anthony had said to me in my cabin but to no avail. All I could see was the red crescent moon and Venus. Maybe one or two stars as well.

But things were quite different on the bridge. The ship at night is completely dark outside so that those who have a shift at navigation can see better. Even the bridge at its front door has a trap switch so that when you open it, the light of the stairway goes off. The navigation area is now separated from the back office which is illuminated, with a heavy velvet curtain to prevent light from passing through.

Indeed, as soon as I walked to the front of the curtain, I couldn't even see Anton, who was on duty at that time. To get on the deck, I had to palpate the keel. Outside I could now see a few more stars than what I could see from my porthole. But gradually more and more started to make their appearance. The sky was starting to become interesting so I thought I should pack a bowl of the pipe and stay a little longer. In a few minutes, the spectacle was magnificent. I could now clearly see our galaxy and even the whole ship's hull. You could no longer find the slightest touch of heaven that was not dressed in stars.

My only similar experience was at the Psiloritis Observatory above Ideon Andron in Anogia, Crete. “Our eyes are a wonderful instrument”, I told Anton, as soon as he stepped outside to smoke with me. I explained to him that we take human vision as a reference point for the lenses’ aperture grading and he seemed interested, or so at least kindly let me believe.

We talked about his interests, which are hunting and fishing when he is at least on land. I was trying to discover some interesting photography-friendly habits like Anthony's. “Do you know Anthony paints in his cabin?” I asked him.

“He's trying to paint”, he said smiling

“Even so”.

Seeing all these stars with such clarity, it seemed natural to me that the old seamen could find their place and direction by observing them. It's like having a map constantly above your head. Something a city man like myself hardly understands.

“Can you tell now where we're going, looking at the stars?” I asked.

“No, but I can find out. We have table books for that. You need to know the date and time. Then you can find your position and consequently your direction.”

I remembered that Anthony had explained it to me when he showed me the function of the sextant. That is how you can find your position with just a few nautical mile errors. So I made the connection. If you make two measurements over time, you will be able to calculate your direction as well as your speed.

We talked a bit more about his studies and some of his training experiences, such as when he spent a week onboard a nuclear icebreaker. Then we spoke a bit about his hometown in Russia on the shores of river Volga and afterwards, I bid goodnight and returned to my cabin.

Night starry sky as seen from bridge by photographer George Tatakis
Night starry sky as seen from bridge

Bonding with the seamen

DAY 6 (JAN 28)

At first, I was worried about the number of days I would spend onboard that they would make me feel confined. I had never spent so much time at sea, only used to summer trips which, if they lasted more than twelve hours, seemed endless. Thus I had no idea what to expect. Eventually, the days went by well, and surely if my trip were to last another fifteen days I would have had no problem at all. That may be because this time I am not interested in the destination itself so I am not anxious to get anywhere specific. That is probably what makes travelling by passenger ship boring.

Isn't that how everything works in our lives? If you work for example with the sole purpose of earning your salary at the end of the month, your job may seem unbearable. On the contrary, if you work because you enjoy doing wha