Memories from my first voyage on the School Ship Albatros

It was the Autumn of 2008, I was in my third year of studies at the Romanian Naval Academy. Those wishing to go on the Albatros school ship (the only school ship of higher maritime education system in Romania) had registered long before and now were waiting for their turn to embark. The School Ship “Albatros”, was an ancient relic of the once great Romanian merchant fleet. It now sailed at the edge of legality only through “friendly” ports. No one risked entering a port in the West due to it’s many problems related to the technical condition and the certificates status. It was however understandable. This was a cargo ship built in 1977 under the name of “Dej”, already over 30 years old age.

Although it was technologically obsolete, and what you were doing there had little to do with what you do on a modern ship, many students still wanted to embark on it, being a good way to put some experience on their seaman’s book. The management of the Academy also wanted to put as many students on it as it could, being a safe method to check who has seasickness and who is able to withstand the conditions on board, thus being able to make cadet recommendations to large companies.

One day, one of the teachers enters the classroom and tells us that the following students on the list will leave on the Albatros school ship in a few days, so start packing our bags. Colleagues who have already been on the ship advise us to bring along our own bed sheets, and also bring as much water as possible on board, because there is a serious problem with the fresh water supply. The most pessimistic ones recommended us to bring canned food as well. The last series that was on board, had the misfortune to stay more than the contract and had a long wait to enter the port. Food supplies were at their limit. In the last days they only eat boiled potatoes with pickles.

Nava Scoala Albatros

After a few days, those selected to leave were lined up in the morning with their luggage on the plateau in front of the Academy. The Academy bus showed up quickly and the driver informs us that we will make a stop at the Hypermarket to pick up supplies and recommends us all to buy water, at least a 10 liters jar each…preferably two. It seems that the students from the last series were right.

After about an hour, we were at the military berth of the port of Constanta, where a boat was waiting to take us to the ship. The School Ship Albatros was anchored in the inner harbor of the port of Constanta. Shortly after we left the quay, the boat starting rolling due to waves. One of our colleagues had started to turn yellow in the face. They asked him if he wanted to go back, but being brave, he said he would resist. Later this bravery would cost him, he should have accepted the offer then.

After arriving alongside the ship, we took turns climbing the pilot’s ladder, while the crew and colleagues who had already reached the top picked up by rope their luggage and the supplies on deck. Climbing for the first time on a rather worn pilot ladder with a heavy backpack in the back was an experience in itself, but at least once on deck we got rid of the swaying of the boat and our colleague started to feel better.

The first task on board: help carry the supplies from the main deck to the galley, then we can take our luggage and occupy the cabins. It seems that we were lucky: we arrived on board with the new stock of supplies: fresh and frozen meat, fresh vegetables, fruits and even a few boxes of beer.

Once we finished with the supplies, we headed to the cabins and colleagues started to divide into groups. There were four in each cabin. Those who stayed four in the dormitory room, organised themselves in the same way in the cabins, the rest according to the degree of friendship or just get whatever’s available. Colleagues from the last series gave us a tip: the cabins in the center are the largest, so I went straight to one of them and threw my luggage in the middle to be seen that someone was already there. Those who came after and wanted a cabin for 4 went on. So, somehow after all the scramble, I ended up staying in one of the big cabins in the center with only one late colleague who was looking for a free bunk. Two people in a cabin like the one in the picture below may not seem like much, but compared to the cabins at the end of the corridor, which were affected by the curvature of the ship, it was really something.

cabin on Albatros
cadet cabin on school ship Albatros

As you can see in the pictures, as you entered the cabin, there were 2 bunk beds on the left, 2 on the right, and in the middle 2 portholes, a small sink, a closet tied with string so as not to slam the doors when the ship was rolling, a small desk and a chair. There is no toilet in the cabin, only shared ones at the end of the corridor. Here we have special instructions: do not throw toilet paper or any other solid object in the toilet. The pipes are in an advanced state of degradation and may God protect the one who has to unclog them.

One deck above we have the galley in the center and on each side a mess room connected to a recreation room: respectively for the crew on the port side and the officers on the starboard side. The conditions are of course superior at the officers side. Next up is a deck where the officers’ cabins are located and at deck 4 we have the navigation bridge. We are quickly each given a life jacket and shown the direction to the lifeboat. I guess that was about it for the drill.

But enough with the tour of the ship, we are called at the mess room by the Bosun for duty assignments. Five teams of four students are formed, 3 teams will do watch on the Bridge (one team on each watch), 1 team will do galley and mess room duties (e.g. peeling potatoes, washing dishes, preparing the mess room, help bake the bed, serving officers and other things like that), and a team does deck work, stuff like chipping, painting, washing the deck and other chores like that (and unclogging the toilets if you’re unlucky). Every four days the teams rotate and change tasks.

We raise the anchor and start heading towards the port of Iskenderun, Turkey. There we are to discharge our cargo of Ammonium Nitrate that was already on board. After leaving the port of Constanta and dropping the pilot, the team of 4 students on the Bridge is quickly instructed on how to hold the wheel and the steer the ship. The ship does not have autopilot (or if it does, it doesn’t work anymore) so the 4 students on the watch will keep the ship’s course for an hour each. Water drips on the wheel so we have a handy towel nearby. It’s really nothing special and we all learned this very quickly.

The Bridge of the ship is very old, but recent upgrades can be seen. We have a fairly new radar and a modern GMDSS radio console. The rest looks exactly like in the 70’s when it was first installed. At least we had plenty opportunities to plot the ship’s position on the paper chart maps using different methods we learned in school. Nowadays many ships don’t even have paper chart maps.

Timona nava / Ship’s wheel
Control Masina Nava/ Ship’s Engine controls

In the evening we are treated to quite a festive meal, we are happy and enjoy it now, later we might not get to anymore. The next morning we are at anchorage area, near the Northern entrance of the Bosphorus strait, Istanbul is waiting for us. The Captain is very skilled so we don’t need a pilot to cross it. At the Black Sea entrance to the strait there are hundreds of anchored ships waiting their turn to enter. Traffic on the strait is slow. Ships are crossing only in one direction at a time due to the construction of a huge underground railway tunnel that today connects the European part with the Asian part of the city.

We do not wait for long and soon we start moving and are greeted by the shores of the huge Turkish metropolis. I had seen Istanbul before, but not from this angle. The landscapes are beautiful, and the Bosphorus passes by all the city’s attractions and under 2 huge suspension bridges. The small navigable canal is divided between huge ships, small ships like ours and countless boats, yachts, and ferries that connect the two parts of the city.

As soon as we passed Istanbul, we slowed down a bit to pick our order from the floating bazaar. It’s basically a delivery service where you order in advance and a boat comes and delivers everything you want at very very good prices. We got Cigarettes, Efes beer, some spirits, chips and any other item that was on the list. Payment only Cash in American Dollars. Needless to say there was a party on board the following evening.

We came out of the Black Sea and now we steamed slowly on a beautiful Blue calm Mediterranean Sea between lovely Greek islands. The weather has improved considerably, it’s warm and nice now. Now it’s our turn to work on the deck. Here you mop the deck, chip around rusty spots, but don’t chip too hard: you might end up on the other side of the fragile metal deck. Also pay attention to where you step, some sections of the hatch covers are quite perforated, only a painted cardboard supported by plywood maintains the appearance.

Greek islands

On board, a rather pleasant routine has installed, which unfortunately does not exist on modern ships. Nowadays ships are moving fast, you have a minimal crew, frequent ports and maneuvers and a chaotic and busy task schedule. Here on the school ship Albatros however, you have a daily regular work time, you sleep at night, wake up in the morning, you have constant meals times, and after 8 hours of work you meet up with the numerous crew and colleagues at the recreation room. Everyone sits here with no shirt, with the windows open because there is no air conditioning, and watch a movie , play some some checkers, poker or just sit and chat about how the day went. It’s a nice friendly atmosphere. I understand why the old sailors are nostalgic after those times.

careu echipaj / crew’s recreation room
careu echipaj / crew’s recreation room

After another week, the School Ship Albatros arrives in the easternmost port of the Mediterranean, respectively at Iskenderun. Although we are very close to the border with Syria, the landscape and atmosphere feel more like Greece. The town is nestled between the mountains and the sea and is surprisingly modern and developed.

The port works slowly. Initially they started with 2 cranes, but one kind of tended to catch fire so they were left with just one. Only one team is left on board to watch the gangway, the rest of us go out to town almost every day. Turkish food is good, plenty walking around the city, the sea promenade is beautiful, hookah and tea were never missing in the evening. The one thing that was missing on the table though was beer. This was Eastern Turkey after all.

We stayed in Iskenderun almost two weeks, we were already bored. We finally left the port and our next destination was back home in Constanta. The shipowner hopes to secure a new charter contract on the way back, but it seems that he was not lucky. The trip back passed relatively quickly. The enthusiasm was almost gone and people wanted to go home. On the way back we caught a more aggressive sea and on some nights we were rolled and shaken quite badly. I understand now why it’s very important to secure absolutely everything in the cabin. Even a small battery that rolls like crazy in the drawer can drive you crazy at night. The colleague with seasickness had a lot to suffer, he could only eat a slice of toast, once a day. We all have the headaches, but they are bearable. But in some days you feel like the ordeal is never ending and just wish it to stop already. Even the most basic tasks and thoughts become an extraordinary challenge when the ship is rolling heavily. I wish for none to have to deal with this.

The Albatros School ship arrives in Constanta empty and no future voyage was secured. We are being berthed directly at the military berth, so it was pretty clear that the ship would not go anywhere in the near future. After six and a half weeks, I disembarked with my first stamp on the Seaman’s book and with many stories for the other colleagues.

We later found out that we were the last series of students to sail on the Albatros school ship. After we got off, it made one or two more voyages without students, carrying military equipment for the Romanian Army in Iraq, via Kuwait. Afterwards, she was permanently docked in the military berth in Constanta and has been lying there ever since.

Too bad that no other ship could be secured to help the sea cadets from Romania, the experience was a great help. Not only could no other school ship be secured, but so far no maritime higher education institution in Romania has insured a contract to send cadets to large companies because…. we all know how things are in Romania. It’s really a shame. Now every cadet is on his own looking for voyage to start his career. Only the memories, photos and stories remain.

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