Sailing large: Life on board a mega-ship

Gigantic container ship steams to U.S. from China
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Story highlights

  • The CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin is the largest ship ever to dock in the U.S.
  • It weights 240,000 tones when fully loaded and stands over 60 meters tall

On board the Benjamin Franklin (CNN)The first thing you notice about the Benjamin Franklin is just how big it is -- overwhelmingly big.

I've been on many boats before -- deep-sea fishing vessels, large ocean-going yachts, even a cruise ship -- but they all pale in comparison with this mega ship.
This enormous container ship is as long as the 102-story Empire State building is tall -- excluding the antennas.
It weighs 240,000 tons when fully loaded and stands over 60 meters (197 feet) high. But you can't really appreciate all that until you're standing next to it.
It looms over you like a giant blue skyscraper someone mistakenly dropped into the water.
Where's Matt? Rivers stands beside the Benjamin Franklin mega-ship.

A steep climb

French shipping company CMA CGM had invited us on board the Benjamin Franklin to sail for a few days along the South China coast. It was the beginning of a journey that would ultimately take the ship to the port of Los Angeles -- the largest container ship to ever dock in the U.S.
The existing infrastructure in America's ports isn't yet equipped to handle ships of this size or capacity and it took two weeks just to prepare the logistics for unloading.
Walking up the gangway onto the ship is not for the faint of heart. It sways back and forth, occasionally clanging against the hull. An unnervingly transparent net is all that stands between you and the churning waters far below.
The gangway on this 60 meter tall ship is not for the faint-hearted.

Sleeping onboard

The ship's chief mate, Paval Botica, a middle-aged Croatian man with a broad smile, long hair, and a weathered face meets us as we board and goes over the safety instructions. The gist? Don't get in the way and don't do anything dumb.
We then headed to where we would be sleeping. I pictured a series of bunk beds, metallic and uncomfortable, lined up in symmetrical rows.
Just like in the movies, I'd find a cool place to hide my cigarettes and flask of Irish whiskey, and we could play cards in between live shots. Instead, I was shown to a private room bigger than my first apartment. And my second apartment for that matter.
It had a couch, a full-size bed, a private bathroom, and a stocked mini-fridge -- soft drinks only, as this is a dry ship. My shower even had lavender-scented bath soap.
Next stop was a tour of the ship, which proved to take much longer than I'd expected. It's almost 400 meters long, and filled with more passageways that one can explore in a single trip.
The bridge, located at the very top of the ship, looks exactly like the one in the Tom Hanks movie, "Captain Phillips."
The captain, Velibor Krpan, controls the ship from the expansive bridge.

That's some engine 

The captain himself is Velibor Krpan, also a Croatian, who oversees a crew of just two-dozen men, mostly Filipinos and some other Eastern Europeans. He proudly suggests we go check out the engine room -- this ship is his baby and he wants to show it off.
The engine room doesn't disappoint. It's 80,000 horsepower-worth of gleaming, screaming metal, with enough thrust to power the ship through rough seas at a clean 22.5 knots.
The 80,000 horsepower engine room of the Benjamin Franklin.
But by far the most impressive aspect of the entire ship is just how much cargo it can hold. At full capacity, the ship can take 18,000 containers. End to end, they would stretch for 109 kilometers (68 miles). On board, they are all you can see.

Blowing off steam

Later on that night we ate dinner in the officers' quarters. I was expecting hardtack plus limes to ward off scurvy, but we were served skirt steak, roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables. It was hearty, filling and delicious. Cook Dorado Ramel Sanguyo, a Filipino with a kind smile and the torso of a bodybuilder, told me they hadn't had a re-supply in 33 days, and said the food is usually much better. Who knew?
Largest container ship to dock in U.S. sets sail
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The following day, we asked the chief mate to show us how the crew blows off steam.
He took us to the ship's gym on "A" deck. There's a heavy bag, a treadmill, some weights, and a few other gym-type objects. There's also a sauna -- and a ping pong table. So we picked up a couple of paddles and played a bit. 
The crew work in four-month rotations -- four months at sea, two months back at home. The chief mate was scheduled to go home in a few weeks, but didn't seem bothered by being at sea for so long.
"You've got to be a bit crazy to do a job like this," he said. "But it's my dream job. I get to travel all over the world and see things I never would have otherwise and meet people with fascinating stories."
After two nights on board the Benjamin Franklin, we ended our journey in the port of Nansha, southern China. But the crew still has a long way to go. The vessel calls at Hong Kong and Shenzhen before traveling across the Pacific to Long Beach, Los Angeles, where it will be officially inaugurated on February 19.