Hong Kong is one of the biggest world harbours. As such, it is one of the huge transiting places for container ships. On the way, these ships need to refuel. It was thus that I had the opportunity of sharing the life of the crew of a refueling ship for a few hours, during one of their shifts.

The life of this ship is shared between refuelling the ships which transit through Hong Kong and taking in oil to fill its tanks. There are two crews of 5 people who share the grueling 12-hrs shifts.

Captain at the helm
As two o’clock ring, the captain gives the departure signal and heads into the sea

As we got closer to the container ship we had to refuel, the crew took its positions.

Crew in position
Crew in position as the refueling ship nears its client.

A strenuous work

While interspersed with long periods of inaction, the work aboard the refueling ship can also take its toll, because of the long periods of work. The crew ensures continuous shifts between filling its tanks and refueling, which go up to several hours, with just two or three hours to rest.

As we were nearing the container ship, the workers started hoisting the heavy buoy to separate both ships.

Preparing for boarding
The crew prepares a buoy to isolate from the ship they are about to refuel.

Despite their hard work, all the men of the crew were extremely welcoming for the photographers and very helpful in guiding us.

Refueling a ship

This day, we were to fuel a Japanese container ship, the “Hyundai Harmony“, with Panama flag. Initially, this all started with having to moor both ships together, to avoid any issue during the delicate refueling operations.

Loaded rope
A crewman of the “Hyundai Harmony” throws a loaded rope to the refueling ship.

This also involved crews of both ships throwing loaded ropes to reach the other ship and pull the heavier ropes.

teamwork to moor ships
The crew of the Hyundai Harmony, pulling on a cable to moor both ships together

The crew of the Hyundai Harmony then started pulling the ropes to secure both vessels together.

On the refuelling ship, Two heavy motors started pulling a very old and fraught rope and brought the two vessels together.

The mooring operations on the refuelling ship: two heavy engines pull the mooring ropes
Rope on the ship
Mooring rope on the ship

After mooring alongside the ship, several of the crew members of the refuelling ship boarded the “Hyundai Harmony” to help them to connect the hoses for fuel resupply.

Crew preparing hose
A crew member prepares the hose for connection onboard the container ship.

This also gave way to some exchanges near to the connection pipes. Interestingly, the Hyundai Harmony was using maritime diesel for propulsion in China, and heavy fuel for propulsion out of China. It also tells how regulating maritime energy consumption might help to solve the pollution problems which keep affecting our planet.

Crew exchanging
The Chinese and Filipino crew of both vessels exchange around one of the diesel entry vents.

Once the business end of the transaction initiated, we started exchanging with the (very friendly) Filipino crew. They soon warmed up to us, and offered us some coke (with actually a Vietnamese package!)

A big family

The beautiful part of that trip was that the welcoming nature of seamen. We were quickly integrated in the group and were even invited to share the dinner of the crew of the refueling ship.

Sharing a meal in the mess
Sharing a meal in the mess

The ship’s mess was really a men’s room, complete with pinup on the wall.

Pinup on the wall
Pinup on the wall of the refueling ship’s mess

To give an idea of the ship, I did film a walkthrough, starting with the first mate’s quarters.

Walking through a refuelling ship.

Despite their hard work, the crew also knew to smile, and this allowed me to get this lovely portrait of a member of the crew.

Crew member
A member of the crew of the refueling ship

The moments of happiness were also present among the Filipino crew who joked playfully among them.

Filipino crew
Filipino crew of the refueling ship

Soon, and after some hesitation, as there was no proper gangway to reach the other ship, we decided to head to the container ship and see closer our new friends.

A common practice, yet a whiff of danger

Both crews jumped very easily from one ship to another, the frequency of the maneuver probably inoculating them to the inherent danger, but for my friend and me, it was the first attempt. We however benefited from the friendly advice of one of the crew members who gave us some tips on how to cross the most safely possible. As the sea was calm and the ships were quite close, the danger was limited, except for the grease present everywhere on this fuel ship, which made metallic surfaces quite slippery.

Crossing between ships seen by GoPro

In the end, we managed to set foot on the other side. On our request, the crew accepted to accompany up topsails, to the bridge of the Hyundai Harmony.

Climbing up on the Hyundai Harmony

We took a selfie at the top.

Selfie on the top bridge
Selfie on the top bridge of the Hyundai Harmony

Drone views of the refueling: taking off from a ship, a challenge for the compass!

This refueling operation was an occasion for me of testing takeoff and landing on a reduced space, namely a ship. For a drone pilot, taking off from a ship spells great trouble, as everything is metallic… So the compass becomes just crazy. The key is to master the “hand launch” (which can be pretty easy, if you go through the route of the automated launch). The key here, being to use the on-screen “launch instruction” rather than the remote control. Indeed, when using the on-screen launch program, the drone automatically rises to 1 m 20 above its launch point (your hand). This minimizes risks of getting hit by the propellers, but you should clearly raise your hand well above your head.

While I took also a number of shots in horizontal perspective, I believe the portrait mode of the Mavic Pro allowed to get the best impression of the length of the container ship.

Container ship by drone
A view by drone of the container ship “Hyundai Harmony”

Other shots shop the refuelling ship in operation next to the container ship.

Refuelling operations
Refuelling operations on the Hyundai Harmony.

Returning to port

After the refuellng was completed, the tanker ship unmoored and started heading to refill its tanks with more fuel for the next shipment.

A crane operator lifts a buoy
A crane operator lifting back the pipes into the ship

One the pipes were back on board, it was time to bring back up the heavy buoy that avoided our ship creating friction with the container ship. The interesting part was that they did this while on the move. I decided to use a tripod and long exposure to show the movement, while keeping the ship in focus.

Moving away
The refueling ship moves away from the container ship

We could have remained with the crew until 3 AM, the time at which the ship’s tanks would be filled again. However, anxious of getting some rest, we opted instead to hitch a ride on a fast boat which was carrying one of the HK technicians sent to assist the Hyundai Harmony. But this was not before taking a last parting shot of the ship.

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