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Freighter Travel

...The Sea is the Entertainment

By Nancy J. Longwell

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Saint Lucia. Dinner for the second seating is at 7:30, but don’t be late because it’s Limbo Night—right after dinner on the fantail deck. Also, we will be announcing the winner of our bingo tournament.”

If this is not your idea of going to sea, then maybe you should consider freighter travel.

Freighter travel offers the safety of a large vessel while maintaining a certain nautical purity. The sea itself becomes the entertainment, and the small number of passengers creates an intimacy not found on cruise ships. It can also be a chance for solitude for those who wish it.

Freighters have been carrying passengers since the days of the 3-masted clipper ships. The ships typically had a spacious cabin adjacent to the captain’s quarters to accommodate the owner when he chose to go along on a voyage. When not being used by the owner, the cabins were often booked by passengers.

This practice not only helped subsidize the trip, it also served as a civilizing influence on the crew and helped keep morale high.

The tradition continues today. Almost every freighter has several posh cabins for the occasional use by company executives or by paying passengers.

Since a doctor is required aboard vessels carrying more than 12 passengers, 12 is the limit. Passengers usually dine with the ship’s officers and occasionally with the crew as well. We learned that most freighter travelers do it routinely. We even discovered that—in a curious new variation on the gypsy lifestyle—there are folks who actually live on freighters, changing ships after each voyage and staying in hotels in seaports until they can sail off to a new destination. The typical cost of freighter travel is about $85-$100 per day, making this a cheap, exciting way to live.

With little more than this information, we booked a trip and boarded our British freighter at LeHarve, France in early 2000. Our cabin was a clean, spacious, 2-room suite with warm paneling and two large windows that faced the bow.

From here we watched while the ship loaded a fleet of 40 Mercedes trucks bound for New Zealand and a twin-engine Otter airplane to be unloaded at our first port of call in Tahiti.

The trip to Tahiti was a 29-day unbroken passage that took us across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and halfway across the Pacific. Our days were spent reading, writing, exploring every inch of the vessel, and eating some surprisingly good food. To our amazement, the days never seemed long enough.

After Tahiti, and for the next three months, our transits between ports were never longer than a week, and our time in port lasted from two days to a week. The long port calls were the essence of our adventure. This was what we had come to see—Western Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, New Zealand, The Solomon Islands, New Britain, Papua New Guinea, and Sumatra.

And adventure there was! We made port in Fiji just at the time of the outbreak of their brief civil war. We spent our nights in exotic South Seas bars along a street on the waterfront in the company of our ship’s crew, who watched over us like bodyguards. As we sailed from port, “shoot to kill” orders were issued against anyone violating a 6 p.m. curfew on that same waterfront street.

Off the coast of Fiji, DreamWorks Studio, which was shooting the film Cast Away, leased our ship for a day (ours is the vessel that finds the nearly-dead Tom Hanks at sea).

While the ship loaded cargo at four different ports in Papua New Guinea we had more than two weeks to explore the interior of the huge island. In the company of an Australian expat who owned a 4WD vehicle, we crossed the Owen Stanley Mountains to visit remote villages.

In the Java Sea, we sailed close to an erupting undersea volcano. Later we learned that the steam clouds and black lava shooting high out of the water had made the evening news for several days back in the U.S.

The day before we docked at Panjang on Sumatra, the island was hit by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake. The epicenter was only 40 miles from the seaport; consequently, land travel here was not an option.

The passage from Sumatra to Singapore and on through the Strait of Malacca is still “pirate waters.” Our captain ordered the ship’s firehoses lashed to the side railings at regular intervals for use as water cannons if necessary.

The night before we entered the Strait of Malacca our ship’s communication system picked up reports from three freighters being attacked and boarded in the very passage we were about to transit. Like the cavalry coming to the rescue, two Malaysian Naval gunboats came out to accompany our ship from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

We reached the Indian Ocean just in time for monsoon season. The ship’s track then led up through the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal, across the length of the Mediterranean Sea and through the Strait of Gibraltar, then due north along the coast of Portugal and finally into the North Sea where our final destination was Hamburg, Germany.

The 30,000-nautical-mile, 4-month voyage took us to 20 different countries. We are told that our particular trip was not at all extraordinary. Sister ships repeat this same itinerary on a monthly basis, carrying durable goods from Europe to the South Pacific and returning with loads of copra, coconut oil, coffee, and exotic hardwoods. The shipping line that we sailed with is one of three that offer around-the-world freighter passenger service. For those with abundant free time and a sense of adventure, freighter travel is something to consider.

Freighter Travel Info

For those who hesitate to book their own trip directly with the shipping company, itinerary information and full-service booking can be can be obtained from Maris Freighter and Specialty Cruises.

NANCY LONGWELL writes from Golden, CO.

 
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