Recently I have been working as a baggage handler at the cruise terminals in Southampton, it is really manual muscle work as opposed to brain work. I have also traveled as a passenger on aircraft and ships and may never view my luggage in quite the same way. The views in this post are my own and reflect no official policy in force.
I have worked 7 shifts already and my muscles keep on reminding me that this is hard graft. However, I do get a vicarious thrill out of it for a number of reasons. The most important being that I am near ships. Standing at Town Quay wielding a camera is great, but there is something even more special when you stand at the quayside and watch a large ship berthing. The vessel is so close that you could almost reach out and touch her. You can hear the noise of her engines and bow thrusters, and see the berthing crews standing at the hawsepipes with the lines ready to come ashore.
Once the vessel is alongside a well oiled machine takes over. The airbridge is attached, the crew and services gangway is raised, shelldoors open and platforms are extended, forklifts move hither and thither moving conveyors, trolleys, bridges, cages, and all manner of things in-between. On the night before the passengers luggage has been moved to central points on board from where it gets moved by conveyor or cage onto the quayside and then into the baggage hall where it is laid out in some sort of logical (and often illogical sequence). It is a frenzied period of activity which seems mocked by the quiet serenity of the ship alongside.
The passengers are many decks above the dockside level, and often peer down at all this organised chaos. I have stood in their position myself so know how it feels, although when I was cruising things were a bit more disorganised.
By the time the passengers have started disembarking we have sorted the luggage and moved onto other tasks, usually portering or trolley recovery. Given how most ships carry in excess of 1000 passengers, there could be anything between 1500 and 5000 items of luggage moving between ship, baggage hall, and passenger. It can been chaotic as passengers look for their luggage, but as time passes the hall becomes less crowded and some sort of normality starts coming about. (On 8 August I worked Ventura, for’ard conveyor, and counted in 1900 + items of luggage. There were was another conveyor working aft)
Of course while we are scurrying about like ants on shore, on board the ship things are happening too. The vessel must be fueled, and stored, and cabins prepared for the next round of inbound passengers. Every ship photographers bugbear will attach itself alongside and start loading fuel and offloading garbage, crew will paint and wash windows, and some crew members will go ashore to shop or look around the city.
There is a lull at this point, and we reconfigure the system to handle inbound passengers. My favourite terminal has conveyors that lead into the baggage hall, and inbound luggage is stacked next to the conveyor entrance where it will be loaded once the embarkation starts. From there it will be moved onto a cage and transferred onto the ship, either via a conveyor or cage. On board ship it will be sorted and distributed to decks and cabins. This is a hectic time because the ship has to sail, and cannot be held up while we load bags, and, as has happened before, the priority changes as sailing time gets closer.
A well managed embarkation will ensure that passengers arrive in a steady flow as opposed to huge amounts at once. We will work constantly while around us passengers move from their transportation to the queue and finally onto the vessel. It is hoped that by the time the vessel sails their luggage will be at their cabin, but often that is not the case, and I expect some passengers get their luggage long after the ship has sailed. At some point we will see the pile getting smaller, and the queues shorter. Coaches stop arriving, taxi’s become less, and we start closing conveyors. The cage loaders will start seeing gaps in the queue too, and it takes longer to find 25 bags to fill a cage. Then we get the signal to pack up and sign off.
The terminal becomes a ghost town apart from the odd label blowing in the wind or the empty soft drink tins that line the area where we loaded. The baggage hall is now being filled with the detritus of baggage handling and the porters dollies start to fill their storage area once again. The ship, now full of passengers, starts to take on the chaotic role, but it will soon become a haven of peace as everybody settles down to their new home for the duration of the cruise.
We are also on our way home, in my case it is a long walk home and then a bath and supper. Or, in some cases, a dash down to Mayflower Park to see a ship sail. From my photographic vantage point I will watch to see the lines being dropped and then taken in, and see that first puff of smoke from the funnel. And if we are lucky the vessel will blow her horn, and I will hear the safety announcements, which often sound like a sermon on board some of the vessels.
Then the ship will start to move, an independent floating city that will twinkle with light, and the sounds of music. She will pass all us shore bound photographers and our cameras will click away, trying to capture that perfect shot.
Then she will be past, and on her way down Southampton Water, and the Solent, and whatever destination she has after that. Occasionally one of the ferries will try get in on the act, but we are used to that.
Then it is time for me to go home, and I will have to process more pics and add them to my collection. I recall how in the days of film we would have to wait at least a week to see the results of our efforts, today I can edit images almost immediately.
And that was a look at my day as a baggage handler. However there are a few things I would like to add, from the perspective of somebody moving luggage. It’s really only of relevance to people taking a cruise, or somebody moving their luggage for them.
You will be shocked as to how many people don’t take many sensible precautions with their luggage. The tag that goes on your bag is supposed to refer to where your luggage is going. On board ship there are many places: Fore, Aft, Midships and any cabin and deck in-between. These tags do go missing, and so your luggage could end up somewhere it shouldn’t or in limbo. When we sort luggage we look for the fore/aft/mid designation and it gets shunted to a cage or pallet for that designation. If there is no tag it usually ends up midships. If your cabin/deck is not on that luggage then somebody has to try to find a list of cabin numbers and figure out just where you are.
Which brings me to your name. Please add your name onto your luggage, somewhere. Preferably 2 different places. the more robust the label is, the more chance it will have of getting to you intact. Ah, and the bags that survive the best are those that are strongly built. Many bags we see are really shoddy and do not stand up to the punishment of handling. The bags realistically move from conveyor to conveyor and then onto the ship. They are picked up by hand, and they have other bags stacked on top of them. Giant bags that weigh more than we do just don’t make the grade because often that giant bag is not meant to hold the kitchen sink and dishwasher.
Wheelie bags are great because they have many grabbing points and handles. A non wheelie bag only has one handle. Invariably wheelie bags are placed wheels upwards on the conveyor because the wheels tend to make moving the bag on rollers very difficult. The bags generally are placed flat on the conveyors and not upright. These hard cased bags seem to stand up to the punishment better, but from our perspective they tend to be bulky and heavy. You would be surprised to see how many bruises I have on my shins already from moving luggage.
Suit carriers are a major headache because they get stuck in the machinery. Many have hooks that will get entangled in something. Try to avoid those or carry them on yourself. Oh, and please don’t load your suitcase down with unprotected bottles of alcohol, wrap those bottles well and then put them in a plastic bag. Bottles will get broken, your clothes could end up smelling like an off-license. Small fiddly locks will come off, as will those ID straps that people festoon their bags with. Tags will come off, and the marker flower attached to your handle may come off too. If you must make your bag easy to see please be practical about it.
I know we often joke about bright pink or luminous green bags, they stand out, and they are the ones easily found by their owners, although explaining to somebody that your puce wheelie bag is missing will bog down when you try to describe what colour puce is. On many occasions we see bags that are not secured properly. We don’t have the time to sort that out, after all it is your responsibility. An average ship will have in excess of 1500 pieces of luggage to be loaded and offloaded. Some ships may have as many as 5000 items. The loading window is small, and sometimes the first to arrive is the last to get their bags, that’s because they get stored on board for final sorting and delivery by the crew. It does happen that your first bag on board is at the furthest point where the sorting is being done. We have no control over that aspect at all. Enjoy your trip, and remember, we will be waiting for you when you get off.
© DRW 2013-2022. Images recreated 08/04/2016