Freighter Travel, Ship Yourself Around the World. By Donna Salter

The skyline of Singapore falls off slightly and appears as a grey blur to our left.  I’m confused!  We’ve already been here.  There is a lot of action on the bridge as the Captain steers through not only a slew of islands and freighters, but tiny fishing and sports boats. 

At one point a fisherman is right in front of the bow, as we plow forward.  The horn is blown once, twice, three times, but the fisherman doesn’t move, so there is a bit of a commotion as a course adjustment is made to avoid him.  The captain leaves the center for the port side of the T-shaped bridge and stares over the side to make sure we haven’t hit him and that he hasn’t been swamped in our wake.  He then sprints to the starboard side and checks forward and aft.  He gives a thumbs up and all I can think is that he must have better trained eyes than mine, because this freighter running over a one man paddle powered fishing boat would be equivalent to a long-haul truck running over a tiny Hotwheel car, or what we used to call Dinky toys.  

Bridge Time

Airplanes are taking off and landing just beyond the city at Changi Airport, the airport I’d arrived at five days earlier to begin my cruise aboard this freighter.  We have already travelled up to Port Klang, near Kuala Lumpur, we’ve unloaded and reloaded and now we are passing on our way back.  Once we clear the Singapore Strait we will lumber south, beginning a journey that will eventually take us to Australia. The ocean is calm and the weather fair, I think I will like this journey.

I have always liked water: oceans, lakes, mud puddles. If I’m near water I’m happy.  I sailed across the Atlantic on a small ketch in my twenties, I’ve taken river and ocean cruises, and ferries were a way of life growing up on the British Columbia coast. 

I have kayaked Halong Bay and canoed in the Berkshires, but my interest in travelling on a freighter started after I heard a radio story about the guy who invented container shipping, which essentially changed world commerce.   It became an obsession once I’d seen the movie Captain Phillips, and that was when I put it on the bucket list.

After 4 days aboard this French vessel, I have adjusted to the rhythm of the ship.  Most of my day revolves around meal times, where ample helpings of pretty decent French food is served, always with a half bottle of wine, except at breakfast.  The menu is posted daily in the elevator.  The lunch menu on the left side and the dinner menu on the right side of a sheet of paper, between the two menus is a picture of scantily clad or naked girl with large breasts, just in case the men on board are thinking about something other than food.  It looks like a pin up from a locker, not too many women are ever on this ship.

At breakfast there are occasionally fresh hot croissants, and daily there are fresh baked baguettes. Lunch is the larger meal, but all of the meals are meant to satisfy working men, so there is always plenty of food. I have a pleasant cabin that initially had a view, but since Kuala Lumpur is now a wall of ‘boxes’ as they call the containers.  The two boxes in front of my window are refrigeration units that click on periodically, creating a noise like a car idling. 

Beside them is orange life raft for delivery, which I can just see the water over.  I keep my windows open unless the boxes are humming and if the weather is not too warm or muggy.  There is a queen-sized bed, a desk, a seating area with a couch and a large wardrobe, which contains in addition to my luggage, safety gear and a hardhat. There is a private bathroom.  French is the spoken language and while I make an effort, I’m hopelessly lost in most of the conversations.

After a few days in traffic, the ocean has opened up now and I start to explore the boat.  The captain has advised me that I can go anywhere as long as I wear appropriate safety gear, and I do.  I do not know the first name of the captain, on my first day I introduced myself to the crew as I met them.  I gave my name, they each gave their names, but when it came to the captain, he simply said, “I am Captain.”

I discover that the foredeck is the quietest place on the boat and it feels like a cathedral. I feel tiny up here. I climb up the ladder and peer over the bow at the bulb of the ship, hoping to catch a glimpse of dolphins.   I am just so amazed at the scale of everything: the ropes, the chains, the height.  It feels strange wandering on deck, I want to hold on to something, even though it is perfectly safe. On U deck, you are very close to the water, which is rushing by at speed.  It’s dizzying. I rarely see anyone else, the crew work three shifts and when they are on shift they are either in the engine room or on the bridge, and when off shift catching some sleep.  When the boat is running smoothly, they have little to do, it is loading and unloading, when they really have to work.  Occasionally, I’ll see someone painting or welding, but it’s easy to find your own space on a boat this big.

We crawl along the coast of Sumatra on the starboard side for a long while. We see some trawlers, some tiny fishing boats and the occasional oil platform patrolled by these ominous unmarked slate grey boats, with heavy guns and turrets manned by men in black with face masks.  Then just as the full moon rises, the last bit of land disappears on our starboard side.  According to the chart we are between the islands of Sumatra and Borneo/Kalimantan, and the captain tells me we must stay 15 miles offshore.  It has been a long, hot day.  I’m thinking of taking a swim. 

The swimming pool is on E deck, just down the hall from my cabin, and during one of my forays outside, I notice it has been now been filled. I walk out to test the water, it’s a small deep pool, so you can’t really swim, you’d get in four strokes and have to turn around, it’s more for cooling off.  Two cadets and one officer are already there, they’ve been in the hot engine room all day. They don’t see me, but I watch as they rough house and take turns throwing each other in and doing cannonballs from the side. I leave them to their fun.    

There is internet on the boat, but when I log in it is not working properly and the captain has told me to stop by to discuss it. His cabin is on F deck.  It is very large and is also his office.  We discuss the internet and he takes me to the Chief Engineer Louis, who knows about Macs. We try to get it to work, but end up talking about his job instead. We set up an appointment for a tour of the engine room. Frankly I don’t miss the internet, so I don’t bother to pursue it further.  I’m enjoying reading and writing and eating.  For the first time in a long time, I sit down and finish a book in one afternoon.  I sit on the deck in the sun or go up to the bridge and peer through binoculars.  I see a massive whale blowing in the distance and follow its course.  I read through Pirate Reports and weather warnings that come through the fax.  At five PM, the captain announces that we are far enough offshore that the duty free shop will open at 6:15 pm, just before dinner.

The duty free shop is on A Deck, where the food and other provisions are stored, the lowest deck on the boat above U deck, where you enter the boat via gangplank.  By the time I get there, most of the crew are jostling for space, writing down their orders on small slips of paper.  Most are still wearing work jumpsuits and it feels very much like a prison commissary.  I do not have a lot of American money with me, which is the accepted currency for passengers. At the end of the day the prices are so cheap, that I could buy everything I wanted and still have change. All the European guys (the officers) have beards and most of them are coming away with flats of Tiger Beer, litres of rum and cartons of cigarettes. The rest of the crew is mostly Filipino, they are buying Coconut water and Head and Shoulders Shampoo. They don’t buy booze, because they send their money home.  It’s rare to see the whole crew together. I feel so weird being the only woman in this sea of men. I have visited the onboard gym, it looked and smelled like a Gold’s gym from the 1960’s.  There are 32 male crew and me, I am the only passenger.

After dinner I go up to the bridge, just as we are coming into the Sunda Strait. This is an important shipping channel, notoriously difficult to navigate, because of the currents and traffic.  It is also the main ferry route between the islands of Java and Sumatra. I can tell the watchmen are nervous.  The captain comes up just as it is starting to get hairy.  A Chinese fishing boat is crossing directly in front of us and the captain is on the radio with it.  Loic, one of the young cadets in training has a pair of binoculars fixed to his face and is scanning the water for small vessels as the captain is calmly giving instructions.  The helmsman repeats the orders and steers 4 degrees hard to starboard and the second helmsman confirms. 

There are boats of all sizes everywhere. Another order, confirmation and manoeuver.  I realise that I am holding my breath and force myself to breath. How are we going to do this?  It is a tense situation, the Chinese guy motoring forward, across our path and the freighter to starboard, then to port, then to starboard again.  Everyone is cool, save cadet Loic, who has the binoculars glued to a tiny fishing boat and whose foot is thrumming on the floor.  We are threading a 73, 000 ton vessel through a needle. I see a ferry leaving the dock from the port side. The captain is calm, everyone does their job and are polite and professional.  When we finally get through there is a collective sigh of relief as we adjust our course to normal and then everyone has a good laugh. 

“That was fun!” I say.  The crew looks up, they had forgotten I was there.

“That Chinese trawler was breaking marine law.  I’m filing a complaint!” the captain says sharply.  The rest of the crew is smiling, happy apparently to be on the other side.

By the next morning, we are in the open sea and the captain seems more relaxed.  He sees me at breakfast and tells me we will have a champagne party that night. He apologises for not being more available for questions.  The ship, is overseen by the captain, who has previously done all of the jobs on board.  Under him is the First Mate, who runs the domestic side of the ship, taking on stores, arranging staff etc. The Chief Engineer is in charge of the technical side of running the ship. There are second engineers, second mates, and technical specialists.  Then there is the general crew.  The cadets are officers in training and go to school, when they are not at sea. Being at sea is their practicum, they are excited and enthusiastic, this is their first trip away from home and their first trip to Australia.

The crew is international. Louis, the Chief Engineer’s family was originally from Saigon, they were boat people at the end of the Vietnam War and settled in France where he was born.  He loathes all things Asian, especially his parents for their focus on academics.  He mentions this every chance he gets. Thomas, the First Mate, is from Guadalupe.  He’s a friendly guy and is a dead ringer for Lionel Richie.  He is the guy I go to if I have a stupid question, like how the laundry works, because he is charming and respectful and tells a good joke.  Captain, he’s a mystery.

At the champagne party we are served Moet Champagne and butter drenched shrimp appetizers.  Everyone is dressed in their formal white uniforms.  One of the sailors is playing, Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ on the guitar and Thomas and I start singing. Then Louis takes over on an electric keyboard and plays something poppy, with delicate hands and the precision of a little girl. It’s clear his Asian parents hoping for a prodigy, gave him lessons.  Captain has recently taken up the keyboard and when it’s his turn he clumsily plunks along like someone who has never had a lesson. When the champagne runs out we switch to scotch and everyone is a little drunk. I played foosball with the cadets and they look at me like I’m a rare bird, because I even know what it is, let alone how to play it.  Hey, I have sons their age.  It’s like 1964 here on this testosterone ship.  At the end of the night, the crew agrees that I need a cabin upgrade with a view.  They harass the Captain until he agrees and we all have a toast.  I won’t hold my breath.

When I wake in the morning the wind is blowing like hell and the noise is amazing.  It whistles through the boxes and the boat is bobbing enough to put you off your step.  I go up to the bridge and there are white caps on the ocean.  Everyone is a bit hung over and the motion is making everyone a bit green. The captain is on the phone with France, we are trying to outrun a storm and headquarters has noticed that we’re burning through fuel.  They are plotting our passage and captain is explaining. This is where you can lose boxes, if you don’t get out of the weather.  I ask if he’s ever lost one and he says no, then knocks on the wooden desk.  I am a bit seasick up here, so I walk the decks, hoping that the fresh air will help. It doesn’t. 

I meet the Chief Engineer for my engine room tour at 2 PM. The engine room is not a room but a massive multi-storied cavern with an almost palpable heartbeat. It’s like being inside an engine. It is very interesting and as a closet engineer I am very enthusiastic.  I ask Louis a lot of questions, but it is so noisy that we have to wear earplugs and answers are impossible. The propeller itself runs through the center, the size of a large cedar tree, rotating for the length of the ship. The pistons are the size of cars.  I see the two cadets, but the Filipino and other crew, is all but invisible.

When I get back to my room the captain calls me on my room phone to invite me to look at cabins on the F deck. I’m surprised he remembers. I am given a choice between the owner’s cabin with two beds or a cabin much like my own only higher.  I choose the one with the big bed.  The captain begins inspecting drawers and cleaning the place up.  Then he calls Ronald, the steward and asks him to come up and fix the room, even though there is nothing wrong with the room.  I feel bad, because it is almost dinnertime and Ronald is always busy and has already cleaned my room on E-Deck.  Ronald serves me breakfast, lunch and dinner.  He gets me things, tea cups, cork screws, an extra pillow.  He cleans all the staterooms.  He’s a friendly guy and insists I talk to every member of his family on Face Time, when it is his daughter’s birthday.  I do not speak Tagalog and they do not speak English, no matter they are excited to meet me, his international friend.  They wave and blow kisses and giggle.

There is not much difference in the room itself, but I can see the ocean over the top of the last layer of boxes and the wind whistling through the canyons between the boxes is less pronounced, but there is a lot of banging and creaking. I like this because it just sounds freighterish.  I manage the move during the beginning of dinner when everyone is in the galley and the elevator is free.  The room is much brighter, and this obviously occupied by someone who smoked less, because it doesn’t have the yellowed walls and ceiling.  Fire is a problem on boats, so smoking is only allowed in cabins and almost everyone smokes.

My new cabin is only one floor down from the bridge. The motion is more pronounced in my new quarters and this night the boat seems to be heaving to and fro.  I go up to the bridge, to see what is going on.  You can see nothing at this time of night if the moon is not out, not that there is anything to see.  Land is now long gone It turns out that the heaving was actually course correction, they are giving driving lessons to the below decks crew.  They are only allowed to steer 2 degrees off course and then back, but it is fun.  You have to go to school to be an officer, most of the crew will never have that opportunity, but it is great to see that each of the crew is given the opportunity to feel and steer the ship. I go out onto one side of the T of the bridge deck.

The night is black, but the stars are brilliant, and it’s magnificently clear, without any light pollution.  The Milky Way slashes across the sky in an arc, like the hand of God has splashed pale white across the indigo black and dappled it with diamonds.  This is one of the best things I have seen, this is one of the best things I’ve ever done!  I suck in the clear sea air and sit and enjoy the view.

I sleep so well that I sleep through breakfast.  Ronald brings me a croissant with jam.  I feel like an idiot, like he doesn’t have enough to do. Tonight is the night of the barbeque and the galley is buzzing with activity, so I get out of their way quickly.  Everyone is busy. After lunch I sit on a deck chair and read.  

By the time I get to the foredeck, most of the crew are already there.  The captain is futzing with the Karaoke machine and setting up the screen on the white wall of the ship. Louis is adjusting and testing the sound system and clusters of young men stand around drinking.   

The Europeans are pounding back beer, the officers have wine and the Filipinos are drinking orange soda. There are also two Africans, one from Gambia and another from Kenya and several Indians.  They are quiet, like me, they have few compatriots. I feel a little out of place, I’m not sure why, but probably because I’m the only woman.  Everyone is so polite and careful around me, but this is a crew barbeque, I want them all to have fun and pay no attention to me.

The smell of roasting meat drifts out from several oil drum grills.  The tables are laid with red paper tablecloths.  The chef carves one of two suckling pigs and gradually the men start peeling away from their clusters and filling their plates.  Ronald, always aiming to please, offers to fix me up a plate, because he sees I am a little timid.  Of course he makes sure that I have the Asian delicacies that he would choose for himself, which I will have to eat around. He’s pleased to have gotten rare things and I don’t have the heart to tell him that I have no interest in the things he considers delicacies. 

He places my plate directly across from where the captain will sit at the middle of the center table.  One of the pig’s head sits as a centerpiece.  Gradually everyone is seated and when the captain sees me staring at the head with a combination of fascination and disgust, he motions for someone to remove it.  I think the junior watchmen must be the designated drivers during these shindigs, because the booze is flowing freely.  There is a line up at the big platter of shrimp, people are filling skewers and putting them on the grill themselves. There is a ton of food and people are going back and piling up their plates.  When Ronald starts clearing the tables, the captain gives a toast and thanks everyone for all their hard work. Then the fun starts.

Louis starts off the Karaoke and really can’t sing, but wants to, so what he lacks in talent he makes up for in volume.  The captain is being charming and tells me a bit about his life, his children, and where he has lived in the world.  He steps up to the microphone and sings a decent version of ‘Hotel California’.  He is followed by Cadet Olivier who does an impressive rendition of Metallica, complete with rock star moves.  It is hilarious, because it is so spot on.  He appears as a menacing shadow on the white wall of the ship, posturing with the mic and his arm in the air.  The next song up is ‘YMCA’, sung by four Filipinos, with many of the crew serving as back up dancers.  No one is even remotely in sync, but the energy is there as they try to form letters along with the words.  They look a bit like drunken geese, trying to take off from a pond.  Those who are left in the audience (and there aren’t many) are falling on the floor laughing.  The captain insists I join him on a rendition of ‘We Are the World’ and Louis joins in also, drowning out any semblance of a key.  Dessert and coffee is served and I head back to my cabin stuffed.

The next morning, a Sunday, we start to see other ships.  The boat is very quiet, there is no one at breakfast in the officer’s mess, where I take my meals.  On the bridge a freighter passes and I spot another whale in the distance.  We are in the Indian Ocean now, Australia is on our port side, though we can’t see it yet.  Everyone is resting up for unloading at Fremantle.  The cadets are making pancakes, which they take up to the Chief Engineer’s quarters for the officers.  I am not invited. It is a day of reading on the deck and strolling around the ship.  At dinner the captain brings out some especially good red wine and invites me for coffee in his cabin. We are now on a first name basis and he tells great stories about his life at sea.  I ask if he’s seen the movie, Captain Phillips and he becomes a bit somber, he says he will no longer accept assignments in that part of the world.

At 5 AM I get up and go to the bridge.  It is a lovely sunrise, one of the watchmen makes me coffee.  Australia comes into view on the port side. I watch as the crew raises the flags.  One a company flag, the second the Australian flag and finally a yellow flag for quarantine.  Things should start happening in about and hour. Suddenly there is a new guy on the bridge, with an Aussie accent.  Where’d he come from?  Apparently they sent a pilot boat out. I had not noticed this in previous ports, but now I know most of the crew, so seeing a stranger is different. Apparently a pilot boat motors out, they drop a ladder and this guy climbs aboard, all while we are moving.  Who knew?  This seems like a crazy job to me, jumping on to a moving boat from another moving boat.

We pass Perth on the port side and turn left into the channel of Fremantle.  Then the tugs completely turn the boat around in this narrow channel surrounded by other freighters.  It’s like parallel parking an apartment building.  We moor behind a big white ship that is listing a bit to one side.  What’s wrong with that boat, it’s listing, I ask the Aussie pilot. 

Unloading and Loading in Perth

“Yeah, that will be on the news tonight, hundreds of dead sheep on there and all sorts of animal rights protesters this morning!  That’ll be held in quarantine for some time to come. That ship’s got trouble ahead.”  I think to myself, slow news day in this little town, but this boat is actually the subject of a huge controversy over live sheep exports and will be featured on ’60 Minutes’ Australia.

Once we are docked, immigration comes on board and when my named is called over the intercom, I go down to the office on A Deck to meet with them. They ask a lot of questions and then ask me to take them to my cabin to go through my bags.  They do a very thorough inspection, which I had not anticipated or I would have tidied up a bit better.  After that, the Aussie biohazard guy gives me a lecture on not bringing food etc. ashore.  Once I get my ship ID (which will also get me into the sailor’s club), I am free to go. 

The boat will be unloading and loading until the following morning.  The Chief Engineer and Captain have invited me to go into town with them for dinner.  As we are preparing to leave, stevedores are clustered on U deck, near the top of the gangplank.  I am surprised to see that many of them are women and many are sporting union badges.  The only women I saw on the docks in Port Klang and Singapore, worked in the offices. 

We return after dinner and the ship is still unloading.  They continue into the night with only a short break around 2 AM when they stop for coffee.  Some of the containers come on without trouble, but when the crane operator misses there is great shuddering and noise on the ship.  Trying to sleep is impossible. It’s fascinating to watch as the people like ants, stand far below the crane, which maneuvers the boxes up and out onto the trucks waiting on the dock. I eventually get used to the noise and fall asleep.

I’m up at dawn again and head up to the bridge.  The bridge is empty when the ship is in port. The sheep ship is being moved to a quarantine and investigation dock.  I can hear the animals baa’ing their protest.  Our ship is unloaded and now the trucks come loaded, and go away empty.  After breakfast, I go to the control room and watch as Thomas, the Chief Mate checks the placement of the boxes on a computer screen.  He says there was a mess up in the night and he had to manually pump the bilge, rather than have it done automatically, because the ship was listing to port.  I was apparently asleep and didn’t notice.

We pull out of port at 1:15 pm.  The tugs pulled the stern end out first and then we were on our way.  The Australian pilot comes over to chat as we are manoeuvring into the channel.  He is very smooth, he knows the passage so well, he’ll interrupt our conversation to say turn port to 210, then a few minutes later starboard 306 and the helmsman repeat back his orders.  He points out Rottnest Island, named by the Dutch, because it has some sort of creature that looks like a rat.  He says it’s a nice island and there are seaweed beds with seahorse nurseries.  He says there are lovely white sandy beaches and there’s some good snorkeling over there.  Bucket list item 756, I think!

Soon he is saying that’s that and I see the pilot boat coming toward us in the distance. I ask if I can follow him he says it’s no problem. He and the chief officer take me into the bowels of the boat, where they stick out a platform for him to launch himself onto the pilot boat.  We go down lots of stairs to another part of the boat I’ve never seen, way below the upper deck. He jumps aboard the pilot boat and is whisked away and we are underway. I still shake my head when I think of this crazy job.

When we arrive in Sydney the unloading process begins again.  The captain says it will take all night and says I can stay on the ship an extra day.  I pack after breakfast the next morning and say my goodbyes.  The captain says the boat will leave around 1 PM, but he says it in French and I misunderstand I think he says to see him at 1 PM.  When he calls all hands on deck at around 12:45, I go up to the bridge.  He looks surprised to see me and tells me that I almost went to Melbourne. They are already raising the gangway when I arrive on U deck and they have to lower it and have one of the deck hands carry my luggage.  The tide is out and it’s a steep climb down.  I call for a car to pick me up and take me off of the secure dock where I can catch a taxi.  The taxi arrives just as the freighter pulls away from the dock.  I wish I’d waited another 5 minutes and then I’d still be on the freighter, but this time as a stowaway. 

Ready To Go

It is hard to pick a favourite trip, or a favourite country, all of them have their pros and cons.  This trip though was among the top ten things I have ever done.  I don’t think you have to be a boat geek to enjoy this, although I admit I am one.  Is it expensive?  Not really, it’s around $100.00 American dollars a day, but that includes, 3 meals, wine, accommodation and some pretty cool parties.  Your cabin is bigger than on a cruise ship and there is on board entertainment. The cons?  There is a lot of upfront paperwork to be done. You don’t just show up with a passport.  You need a doctor’s letter, a yellow fever immunization certificate, you have to sign a lot of forms and you need to be fit enough to clamber about on a ship. The pros?  Sunsets, sunrises, stars and getting to see how all that we use in our daily life, comes to us by container ship and meet the people who make that happen.