Cargo ship travel isn’t a common mode of transport for getting around the world these days, not for passengers at least. Our camper van Baloo had to sail across the Atlantic to be our home on our South American adventure. Rather than let her travel alone, we decided to join her. I know it sounds crazy but we had a hell of an experience as we sailed 14000 kilometres from Belgium to Uruguay. So what is passenger life onboard like? Well, this is how it went for us….
Cargo ship travel: passenger life onboard
When we booked our passage, we knew we’d sail on or around 30th April, give or take 5 days either side. Apparently cargo takes priority on a cargo vessel so departure dates and times revolve around containers, vehicles and freight carriers. A week before we were due to sail, the port agent said, “Friday! Lunch time you must board. Your cabin will be ready and you will sail late Friday night.”
I was excited. It’s over 20 years since I had been properly at sea. I don’t mean sailing on a car ferry from Marseille to Tunisia for 36 hours either. I’m an ex Naval engineer so I know what its like to spend weeks, even months at sea. I didn’t miss it and despite knowing that within 2 days I’d be bored silly, I was excited anyway. Afterall, this was a major step towards our South American adventure.
The first day on a freight ship
Clearing immigration in a sparse office in the middle of Antwerp’s massive cargo port, a short, chubby, less than cheerful customs chappie told us the Grande Amburgo wasn’t due in for at least another 24 hours. He’d continue with the immigration formalities anyway, while explaining how next year (post-Brexit), signing us out of the EU will be a lot more difficult! Rather than engage him on a debate on European politics, I opted for the silent route and smiled. 10 minutes passed and a hand appeared out of that window motioning for us to collect our passports. No sooner had we taken them than the window was quickly slammed shut. I suspect we’d just been expelled from the EU.
Next morning, we entered the security gate of the container port and into a new world of stevedore-shire. Here cargo handling stevedores drive huge fork lifts at breakneck speeds while lifting 40ft containers 5 metres in the air. Others are wannabe rally drivers putting brand new 5 series BMWs through their paces. They race in convoys of 10, sometimes 20 at a time, from the car park starting grids several kilometres away and up the ramps of waiting freight ships. Here Mad Max meets Fast and Furious as they load the empire battleship for departure.
Joining a cargo ship as passengers
Somehow we found our ship without injury to ourselves or Baloo. From the dockside, in the grey drizzle, the rust stained white and yellow ship loomed large above us. We needed to cross a 6 lane motorway of speeding stevedores and container cranes to board the ship on foot. We walked up the ramp, cars and machinery flying past us, to reach the inside of the 56,000 tonne ship. It looked like the inside of a battleship hanger on the Star Wars Death Star; massive, noisy with revving car engines and whirring industrial ventilation fans and the stench of car fumes mixed with ships diesel filled the air. This was a 13 deck carpark, with space for 3600 cars, a few hundred containers and a couple of small passengers.
We find the deck officer. He’s the 3rd mate, a young Italian dressed in blue overalls, white hard hat and dayglow jacket with “crew” printed on the back. He was expecting us and introduced himself as the most important person on the ship. Needless to say, we renamed him. We can’t put his new name into print, so we’ll refer to him only as C. C would look after our passports and yellow fever certificates, organise for Baloo to be loaded and arrange for Roger (our cabin boy) to show us to our cabin.
Despite his importance, I told C I’d drive Baloo onboard and following closely on his heels, parked Baloo safely on deck 6. By the time we’d unloaded our bags, Roger hadn’t appeared so C escorted us to the lift himself. We squeezed into the tiny lift with our bags, pillows, camera gear and a stash of wine and nibbles to get us through some of the voyage. We continued through a small maze of dirty beige corridors, brightened only with huge framed shipbuilders drawings of every deck and a few flickering fluorescent lights. C left us at our cabin door with a key and a look of “Must dash, I’m very important you know!”
The passengers’ cabin
Our cabin was on deck 12 and about the same height above the surface of the sea as a 9 floor building. While small enough to take only a moment to walk around, it was big enough for 2. Furnished with a set of drawers, an empty fridge freezer (we still don’t know why), 2 single beds and a wardrobe reassuringly packed with life jackets, cold water immersion suits and white helmets. The cabin was clean but drab; the bed linen and towels well worn and washed although surprisingly, for the price of the passage, they weren’t ironed. The corner ensuite was a little bigger than Baloo’s but the toilet vacuum flush was awesome.
Then there’s the noise. A continual hum of the ventilation system, generators and banging and thudding as cargo loading continued. And from the closed cabin door opposite ours, Abba’s Dancing Queen blasted out. We later met the cabin’s occupant, a very macho deck fitter whose English prevented us learning anything about him, other than his music preference.
Before we set sail
Sailing was delayed by 24 hours because Stevedores don’t work on Sundays. Well they do but the shipping line didn’t want to pay them double time. It seems an extra day in Antwerp is a cheaper option.
As passengers, we got used to delays and ever changing schedules. We even got used to not being told anything unless we asked. To be honest, we gave up asking in the end apart from when we’d have a sweepstake and ask as many of the crew as possible the same question and see how many different answers we’d get.
Roger the cabin boy
As we unpacked, Roger tapped gently on our open cabin door inviting us to lunch. He tells us being at sea makes you hungry and we ignored the fact we were still tied up alongside Antwerp dock. Roger is the best cabin boy we’ve ever had. At that point, he was also the only one we’d ever had but we ignored that point too. He’s from the Philippines, speaks excellent English and is the only person onboard we could rely on to tell us the truth. If he didn’t know the answer to a question, rather than make one up, he’d tell us he didn’t know. If our wine supply had run dry and we felt thirsty, he’d have a word in the right ear, and a bottle would magically appear.
Roger led us to the officer’s mess for lunch. Our designated passenger’s table was laid with a white cotton cloth, and each place set with 3 plates and a bowl, 3 knives and forks and a small glass. A few of the crew were finishing their lunch, and all we got in response to our excited greetings was a little nod of the head and a grunted “bonjourno”. Roger served us 4 of the strangest courses of food (more on that later) and we sat pretty much in silence to eat. Weird.
C and his custom’s declaration forms
As we finished lunch, C bounded into the mess room, armed with a clipboard and serious face. We were to make a note of our personal belongings and we figured this only meant our electronics rather than the dozen bottles of wine we had stashed away. Filled in and signed under C’s watchful eye, he checked it, nodded and marched off, content his very important job was done.
Over the course of the next 3 days, this palaver happened another 3 times. The same form, filled in with the same details, signed in the same way under the same watchful eye. Maybe as a result of Italian bureaucracy or perhaps the young cadet assigned to do the paperwork wasn’t the sharpest bulbous bow in the fleet.
Onboard safety briefing
Later, the 2nd mate Nelson invited us (more of a command really) to join him in the officer’s lounge for a safety briefing. He demonstrated how to don our bulky orange life jackets but didn’t bother with the immersion suit because he says the Atlantic isn’t too cold. If there’s a fire, we must walk (fast) to the muster station on the 13th deck and mustn’t try to douse the fire with the extinguisher he’d just demonstrated how to use. He also explained that the shipping line’s safety inspector would join us in Hamburg and we could expect a few safety drills.
After another 4 course meal, day one of our cargo ship travel adventure ended. We watched the continual loading of containers before turning in to reflect on our day. We’d found our ship, our names were on our upgraded cabin, we’d been fed twice, educated in safety and told the ship would no longer be calling at any West African ports. Somehow, we managed to drift to sleep to the thuds of cargo moving below decks, slamming cabin doors, the continual hum of the ventilation system and rumble of diesel generators 9 decks below.
Meals onboard a cargo ship
By the end of day 2 on our cargo ship travel adventure, mealtimes became the highlights of the day. Not because of the quality of the gastronomic delights, but because each meal is a surprise, an unexpected medley of never-before-tried food combinations.
The buffet breakfast
Breakfast was always served between 07:00 and 07:45 (until day 25 of the voyage when we gave up getting up so early). A self service buffet of focaccia, bread rolls and jam and as much coffee and tea as we could drink. Sometimes the dairy fairy had arrived with a small pot of yoghurt. Our cups over-floweth on those rare days.
4 course lunches AND dinners
Lunch was always served at 11:00 and dinner at 18:00 and both meals followed the same pattern. 4 courses. The first course was usually a pasta or rice soup, sometimes a medley of ham and pickles. This was followed by a meat dish – a thin slice of steak sometimes served with a vegetable with all nutrients boiled away. Then there’s the comedy course. This could be anything and the menu often didn’t offer any clues. We were served eggs. 2 fried eggs accompanied by an oversized portion of chunky cucumber. One evening, we had a cheese course. A thin slice of cheese appeared all on its own in the middle of plate. And I can’t describe the cauliflower pasta course but it was gopping.
Our best meal of the entire trip was 2 fried eggs and a single slice of streaky bacon. Not for breakfast as you might think but for dinner. At least Tuesday’s are pizza night – even this Italian cook couldn’t go wrong with a margherita pizza.
Lunch and dinner always ended with the best- a piece of fruit. If we’d just visited a port, it was banana or pear otherwise oranges or apples. Most fresh fruit and vegetables are eaten within a day or so after visiting a port, so the rest of the food is tinned, frozen or dry. With so much protein and carbs on the menu, we were never hungry and even avoided scurvy. This wasn’t an Italian menu to stretch ones taste buds and we think a vegetarian would have a harder time than we did. If you’re a vegan, fly.
Beverages on our cargo ship travel adventure
The saving grace? Wine is served during lunch and dinner while at sea. Probably a hangover from Admiral Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar when sailors were given a tot of rum to give them a false sense of bravery before they headed into the fight. In true Italian style, the rum was replaced by 25cl bottles of wine per person; white for lunch, red for dinner. It’s surprising how quickly we became accustomed to our 11am tipple. We worked out that along with a couple of extra bottles, we drank the best part of 45 bottles of wine between us during the time we spent onboard. No wonder we managed an average of 10 hours sleep every day!
Recreation facilities on a cargo ship
We can keep this short as there isn’t much to do onboard. We searched high and low for a wine bar, casino, cinema, moon pool, Michelin star eatery and spa. Bang out of luck on that mission. There are none. Not even an illicit den of iniquity deep in the bowels of the ship.
The officers mess has several boxes of scrabble, monopoly, draughts and fiendishly difficult 1500 piece jigsaws. With the exception of a 500 piece travelling elephants jigsaw donated to us by our nieces, doing jigsaws makes me feel like a resident in a retirement home minus the smell of piss. The puzzles remained in the cupboard.
Someone had kindly provided dual language reading materials to pass the time. Thrilling titles such as “Memorandum of Agreement 1st July 2015 for the renewal of the Italian collective bargaining agreements of the maritime sector.” and my favourite the “Verbale del riessame annual del System di Guestione Qualita – anon -2016”. Who knew how much fun the minutes of the quality management system review could be by day 15 at sea?
The gym and our exercise routine
There was a basic gym with a treadmill and exercise bike, weights and a ping pong table. I looked in once and quickly closed the door. Surprisingly football is discouraged on the upper deck in case you decide to go get the ball when you kick it overboard. There was a table football game in the officers mess though. In the only game I joined in with, I was amazed how strong most sailors wrist action was and how they could flick that ball around with such gusto.
For exercise, we walked every inch of the upper deck. Because the ship wasn’t fully loaded, there were no cars up there so 200 laps everyday and we bagged 10000 steps. During good weather we mixed this up with wildlife spotting. A fleeting glimpse of whales, a few spinner dolphins and a couple of porpoise brighten our morning walks. For several days a flock of massive prehistoric looking albatross used the engine exhaust thermals to glide along with us. Fortunately for us, we didn’t get pooped upon.
Humdrum daily routine of life at sea
There’s no dressing it up; cargo ship travel as a passenger is boring unless you make your own entertainment and fill your day with reading, writing or something. We spent our time eating, sleeping, reading, writing, watching videos and the waves as we trundled along at 30km per hour. Of course, there’s always the exceptional events to shake things up a bit too!
Sight of land
Any sight of land and the entire crew lean over the rails with phone in hand and a local sim card trying to catch up on the latest news from home. With so little else to do, glimpses of land were a welcome change to the daily routine and we’d spend hours near the bridge wing watching our approach to port, scanning the horizon for the pilot boat, watching the pilots climb aboard the moving ship, squeezing the 56,000 tonne ship around a tight corner using bow thrusters and the tug boats. Even when at anchor we’d watch out for the pilot boat, because despite being told we sail at 05:00 tomorrow, it may (and often did) change. The only sure way of knowing was to watch for the main engine exhaust and hope to see the pilot on the bridge.
Safety drills – abandon ship
On the first leg of the voyage between Hamburg and Vigo we had Grimaldi’s safety inspector onboard for the crew’s annual safety drills. Angela made sure he knew we felt it was important we play a key role in the exercises. We were asked to stay in the officers mess as the crew frisked the ship looking for a suspicious package – they should have started in the kitchen!
The best part of course was the fire drill. With a pretend fire on the top deck, the crew got to work on putting it out. We stood watching, clad in our life jackets, hard hats and clutching our immersions suits. Although apparently the Atlantic is too warm to need them. The whole event was completely shambolic. The safety inspector became increasingly frustrated with the crew. The crew became more anxious and the passengers laughed.
They couldn’t douse the pretend fire so the inspector ordered us to abandon ship! How fab! We all piled into the lifeboat hoping Roger was saving the wine. We had great fun although I dare say the crew need a little more practice. Let’s hope we don’t need to do any of these drills for real, else I just might have to take charge. And I do have the right under Chapter 6 life boat leadership section 2, article 1.4 of the Ship’s Officers Handbook, another thrilling read I found onboard.
Engine room, bridge tours and horn honking
The bridge is the main control centre of the ship and a place few seafaring passengers get to see. The officers were happy to show us around and point out all the controls, navigation systems and the best bit – the horn. The bridge officers tested the horn daily and much to Angela’s delight, they allowed her to test it once. Completely giddy it would have been the highlight of the voyage for her had it been more exciting than pressing a button. Like pulling a chain or something. Note to Grimaldi.
The chief engineer invited to me to take a look around the engine room. Fluorescent lighting, grimy green walls, oily, dirty and noisy it was right up my street. At 45°c though, I only stuck around long enough to find out it drinks 2 tonne of diesel every hour. Makes Baloo’s 20mpg seem pretty decent.
The ship broke down!
One lazy afternoon in the middle of the Atlantic as we sat in our cabin reading, the lights flickered and went out. Then the ventilation spluttered and stopped. For the first time since we boarded the Grande Amburgo, the ship fell silent. No generators, no ventilation and no engine. Then a sudden pounding of hastily moving feet outside our cabin door.
With no power, the safest place on a ship is outside on the top deck. We made our way up through corridors lit now only with emergency lighting. The bridge was a hive of activity and we watched as the ship drifted off course, at the mercy of the ocean.
It’s was a strange feeling to be bobbing around with no engines or generators running. The silence of a dead ship is deafening after a few weeks at sea and completely eerie. At least 1000 nautical miles from land, I weighed up how long a seagoing tug would take to rescue us. I nearly put my overalls on to go down to the engine room to help fix the problem. A couple of hours later, the engines started back up, we manoeuvred onto the correct course and continued the voyage. No reassuring words from the crew either.
The engineers were quiet at dinner and didn’t engage in my attempt at breakdown related banter. Perhaps somebody had been less than vigilant when dipping their dipstick.
The almost BBQ
The day we crossed the equator was another almost exciting day. The ship’s captain announced he’d host the crew and passengers on the upper deck for a lunchtime BBQ. The crew laid a table for 30 with the ship’s finest cutlery and tableware. Stainless steel and porcelain for the officers and passengers, plastic and paper for the hardworking crew. Clearly rank has its privileges.
Perhaps this ship’s captain hadn’t crossed the equator before but as most of us could figure without any help, it’s rather hot around the equator at midday. As we gathered on the deck, standing in the little shade offered by the noisy funnel, we began to melt. The captain ordered the crew to relocate the dining area to the officers mess. In the mess room, dance music boomed as passengers, crew and officers sat at their respective tables. Any chance of socialising quickly evaporated. It was like being at a school disco, completely awkward and nobody wanting to make eye contact with anyone else.
The meal served was identical to every other meal we’d had onboard, only the meat had a slightly smoky flavour. Within an hour it was over and everyone disappeared to their own cabins or back to work. We didn’t even get a visit from King Neptune or a certificate for sailing across the equator. Shame on you Grimaldi.
The excitement of a 2 day storm
Our passage had been fairly calm until we were within 500 km of the Brazilian coast. Dark clouds loomed above and the winds picked up until they reached a constant 60mph with even stronger gusts. All this led to big swells and waves as high as 6 metres. For 2 days, the ship pitched and rolled in the South Atlantic. We spent most of the time staggering along corridors, hoping we wouldn’t suffer another breakdown or sleeping.
And just a soon as the storm had started, it abated. Excitement over.
The end of our cargo ship travel adventure
After 30 days, 12 hours 43 mins and 15 secs, we just wanted to get off. The novelty of the first day 14000 kilometres away had worn thin. Any longer and I would have become institutionalised and not wanted to leave the cocoon of the mothership. And so we were released. With a spring in our step we loaded our bags back into Baloo. With a turn of the key we started her up and drove off the ship’s ramp to begin our South American adventure. Now we’ve been off the boat for a couple of weeks, the voyage is beginning to fade into happy memories. One day we’ll tell our grandchildren about our cargo ship travel adventure across the Atlantic Ocean to explore distant lands. And to be fair, it’s an experience we might even do again.
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