Not All Passenger Ships Are Floating Palaces

Unplug your life onboard a container ship

Leaving Miami, heading for France.

On the eve of my “crossing the pond” travel adventure, I could barely contain myself. There’s a clue about what I was up to in that opening sentence: I was going from Miami to Le Havre on a container ship.

The cracks came thick and fast. Will they put you in an empty container? Will you sleep in the back of a car? Are you working your passage?

My anticipation of what was in store (bad pun) was running high. Now, despite a couple of glitches, it’s a form of transport on which I’m hooked. A prime reason is because there’s no “single supplement” nonsense. All passengers pay the same fare. Also, it’s a way of getting away from it all while traveling in an unusual way, which gives a fascinating insight into how goods, that we all depend on, get from A to B.

Container ships are limited to a handful of passengers. Maritime law mandates that more than 10 and a ship’s doctor is required. I was looking forward to traveling solo on a working ship. With nothing to distract me for 12 days but an e-reader, magazines, a vast ocean to be perused, and my thoughts. The only danger was that among the other passengers there might be someone who bored me to tears. And vice versa, of course. As it turned out there was were only two, a couple. We enjoyed our time together, around the dining table three times a day. And just as happy to spend time alone.

So there I was, with two other passengers, seven Ukrainian officers, 17 Filipino crew, and 4,000 containers.

The attraction of “cruising” on a container is that’s it’s anything but a floating palace. No crush of passengers around the buffet; no lectures or shows; no laid-on entertainment, except a ping-pong table and a dart-board; no multiple cocktail bars, though you will find a makeshift bar to prop up.

We’ve all seen the skyscraper superstructure toward the stern. And wondered, what goes on in there? It houses the bridge, the officers’ mess, the crews’ mess, their separate recreation rooms, the laundry, the stores, the galley, and the cabins.

My cabin, on the seven level of the 10-story, elevator-served “tower,” was terrific. Although a single – most doubles have a separate bedroom – it had lashings of space and was three times the size of a regular cruiseship cabin (excuse me, state room); a very comfortable “captain’s bed,” four by six feet, with six-inch sides to prevent rolling out of bed in a storm; goodsized en suite shower; ample closet, shelves, drawers; a fridge; desk; table; and very comfy sofa for lounging in front of the huge porthole, which I kept wide open all the time when the sun was streaming in.

I had a wonderful view of the sea, over the tops of the containers, which, among other goods were carrying bamboo flooring from the Far East, US beef, and, wait for this, human blood picked up in Texas. Who knew?

Ridiculously, I couldn’t find out about it or any of the other goods being carried. This was because of one of the aforementioned glitches, the reluctance of the officers to chat. I was unlucky with the captain and his colleagues. They were less than sociable. In fact it was pretty clear from their monosyllabic responses that they would have preferred not to have passengers. But do not be put off by my experience. I know it was highly unusual because my good friends and longtime Hill residents Karl and Carrol Kindel have roamed the world on container ships. And have always returned with great stories of their time with the officers.

As for the eating arrangements, the system was simple. You ate what was provided, at a stipulated time, in the officers’ mess. The food was good. Beef, pork, chicken, fish, steamed vegetables, tasty soups, good salads, for lunch and dinner. With bacon, eggs, salami, cheeses, cereals at breakfast. The supplied wine was passable. And I soon found my way around the kitchen and discovered where to find a teatime or midnight snack.

The crew were more than welcoming when I asked if I could eat with them so I could sample authentic Filipino food. Unlike the officers they were great company, talkative, inquisitive. They laughed like crazy as I cringed at the gross smell of the shrimp paste they forced on me. Then beamed as I discovered how good it tasted when added to bland noodles. Along with my traveling companions, I enjoyed several fun evenings with the crew as they showed off their karaoke-talents, while plying us with their “verboten” whiskey and rum.

But while the food was fine – and here is the other glitch – the ship ran out of stuff. But they had enough melons on board to sink the proverbial battleship – as I found out when it was served as dessert at every meal, bar the first dinner, when a wickedly good chocolate pudding was dished up. Never saw anything like that again, though there was ice cream one night, which I suspect came from a secret stash that was not meant for the passengers. It was produced after a particularly tetchy exchange that went on something of the lines of, “I can’t believe you have nothing sweet on this ship but bloody melon.” 

For the last couple of days, the only meat left was chicken and cold cuts. They even ran out of beer and wine. I finally discovered what was going on: the ship, after Le Havre, was going straight into drydock. They hadn’t bothered taking on any supplies in Miami – knowing they had three passengers, each paying $1,500 for their passage. So here’s the number-one tip for anyone thinking of container ship travel: make sure that your ship is not en route to the drydock.                     

The one question I got after my trip was, What did you do all day? If you are not happy with your own company or if you crave nonstop entertainment and “things to do,” don’t risk it. Of course there are lots of things to keep you occupied, like walking the deck; reading; sleeping; eating; doing a lot of nothing and spending fascinating time on the bridge. As for the latter, its attraction was huge. A great place to hang out, having a coffee, rifling the officers’ cookie jar, asking all those questions you’ve often wondered about when it comes to steering 41,899 tons through the ocean. Happily, on the Jamaica, there was a naval cadet who was eager to talk. 

Forget about filling your time by hitting social media and letting everyone in your life know how you’re coping. Apart from emergencies there is no satellite connection for passengers. No internet or TV. Your cabin will have a set with a DVD player. But no reception. Even my shortwave radio, because of all the steel, was useless. There was a drawer full of DVDs, but they were all so scratched and messed-up they couldn’t be played. Pack a few of your own. Happily I found a patio lounger tucked away, in a sun-trap, on one of the tiny decks that surround each level of the tower, where I passed many hours, happy, reading, gazing out to sea, snoozing.

The late, great author Alex Haley traveled frequently by freighter when writing. He summed up the experience perfectly: “Once you're at sea for a couple of days, time becomes meaningless. ‘What day is this?’ becomes a frequent query and the days tend to become identified by their characteristics of weather and sea, or by some special event, such as ‘The day after we saw the giant school of green turtles ...’”

I kept my eyes skimmed, with binoculars and camera at the ready, waiting for that glimpse of whale, dolphin, flying fish. But nothing. Not because the sea was rough and choppy and keeping the sea life underwater. The Atlantic was boringly calm all the way across. The only excitement was the odd sighting of another container ship. The first one, three days out, sent me into such a waving frenzy you’d have thought I wanted to be rescued.

Far from it. For my next container voyage I’ll chose a longer trip, one that makes several stops so I can witness the exacting logistics of unloading and loading, as well as visit ports that cruiseships often bypass. Not to mention stock up on those goodies the ship has run out of.

A leading agency for booking container ship travel is www.freightercruises.com. Ask about regular sailings from Philadelphia. Unless you travel both ways by ship, fly on the only airlines offering one-way fares to and from Europe: WOW Air, https://wowair.com, and Iceland Air, www.icelandair.com. For long-haul, such as Australia or China, try https://www.cheapoair.com.        


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