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Container Ship Cruise
"This not bad weather! This good for sleep! Rock like baby!" insisted our Polish captain. He crooked his arms into a pantomime of a cradle, rocked them back and forth, laughing heartily. We had come to appreciate his delightfully mischievous sense of humor and the way he put English words together.

It was breakfast, after a night of ten foot swells that pitched and rolled the ship in a way I never expected from a ship almost 500 feet long and loaded with containers. I had long since ceased trying to pick up my belongings that had been flung to the floor of my cabin.

During daylight hours, hanging on to an outside deck rail and watching the sea was fascinating as well as mesmerizing – the rhythmic, shuddering plunge of the bow into troughs, sending mountains of spray clanging off the forward containers, and then the buck back upward again, occasional spray hitting your face. Did it really get worse at night, or did it only seem that way?

We were on the western fringe of Hurricane Wilma, and she was the cause of the high swells. Hurricane Katrina had passed by about a hundred miles east of here a month ago, and now Hurricane Wilma was following Katrina's path. Our captain had cut our speed to 2 knots to slow our progress until Wilma had passed through the Caribbean bottleneck between the Yucatan peninsula and Cuba. He had told us that despite weather reports he regularly received from five different sources he never fully trusted a hurricane when it came to predicting what direction it will take. If it turned west instead of east, as expected, we would have been directly in its path, so he played it safe and waited to see which way she turned.

This was a little more excitement than I had planned when I booked the 20 day voyage out of Houston on the Lykes Commodore, a container ship, but in three days I had come to respect our Captain, who had been friendly, but totally professional, and completely unruffled.

You get to know the captain on a trip like this, and with cabin space for only 3-4 passengers, you get to know the passengers as well as the crew.

Freighter travel isn't for everyone. Aside from the fact that there are no frills, you must be someone capable of entertaining yourself, be it reading, playing solitaire, writing, or just gazing at the sea while on board, as well as being able to operate independently if you decide to go ashore. There are no escorted tours.

It also requires flexibility. You can be fairly certain the ship will disembark within one or two days of its scheduled sailing, barring natural disasters or other emergencies, but beyond that you take what comes. My trip originally had been scheduled to leave on October 17. Then I received notice it would be a day later, the 18th. When the 18th arrived the ship didn't dock until about 9:00 p.m., and after it was cleared by immigration officials we were allowed to board about 9:30 p.m. but didn't sail until 10:00 the next morning. Loading and unloading of containers went on throughout the night.

Ports of call can sometimes be changed, as well. My cruise was scheduled to make seven stops: Altamira and Veracruz, Mexico; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; Manzanillo, Panama; Cartagena, Columbia; Puerto Cabello, Venezuela; and Caucedo, the Dominican Republic. Before I even packed my suitcase two ports had been cut from the schedule due to various problems relating to Hurricane Katrina: Puerto Cabello and Caucedo, thus shortening the cruise by five days. (The shipping company refunds the cost of any days eliminated from the original schedule, but does not charge more if the cruise takes longer than scheduled.)

Despite being flexible in their ports of call, they adhere to the schedule they have as closely as possible, which means if you're ashore in port, you'd better be back when the captain specifies or you'll be left standing on the dock. They cannot wait.

Since freighters are working ships they do not cater to sightseers when the ship does enter ports. A passenger pretty much takes pot luck and has to show a certain amount of enterprise in his ability to get around in a foreign city. We were lucky to have a captain who helped us arrange tours with certain taxi drivers when we did go ashore. He reminded me of a mother hen with his chicks: "Don't forget I.D. badge, pass port paper, shore leave card. Only go with driver when he tells cost, don't buy from street peddlers, wash hands often, be careful what you eat." Not all captains will be as thoughtful.

While we knew we would not be disembarking at Altamira, since the ship docks there at night and is not in port long enough to permit sightseeing, the captain had given a favorable recommendation for the next stop, Veracruz, explaining how we could get a car to pick us up at the ship and bring us back on schedule. But upon arrival there, a berth for the ship not available, so we anchored offshore, putting us behind schedule. We got into port at 3:00 a.m. and had to leave early in the morning, which left no time for us to go ashore. It was disappointing but that's life aboard a freighter.

After Veracruz we were three days at sea, some of it pretty rough, while we were waiting for Wilma to pass. Never having sailed on a ship this big, I came prepared, with Dramamine and wristbands. Luckily I didn't need either, nor did my two fellow passengers, both men, Guy from Colorado, and Jim from New Jersey. The three of us ate together at the passengers' table in the Officers' Mess, which also doubled as a day room, where the captain met with local officials every time we entered a new port. (The rest of the crew eats in the Crews' Mess at the other end of the passageway.) Luckily we were all congenial, and enjoyed each other's company during meals, but each did his own thing during the day and evenings. I'm sure this can vary from voyage to voyage.

Our captain, gregarious and generous, extended an invitation to visit the bridge any time we wanted, except when a pilot was aboard. During those instances we could stand outside the bridge on the wing deck, behind a yellow line that had been painted on the floor. We were careful not to abuse the privilege of going to the bridge, and on one of first days the captain gave us a tour, explaining the instruments, demonstrating how the radar worked, and showing us our position on charts.

Other freighter passengers have related that their captains were aloof and unapproachable, so again, this can vary, depending on the ship.

Officers and crew were of mixed nationalities, our captain from Poland, two other officers from Germany and Russia, with most of the crew from the Philippines. The crew was friendly and happy to answer questions, but are there to work and not converse, so again, we did not infringe on their duties. Our room steward, a Filipino whose English was sometimes hard to understand, but who could nevertheless understood us and was attentive to our needs, doubled as our waitperson in the mess hall.

Passenger cabins on a freighter are usually modest, but can be spacious. I was able to book the Owner's Cabin on my ship, which can be booked for two people but is recommended for one. It was two flights up from the main deck. The bunk in the small bedroom is really only big enough for one person, so if the cabin was booked for two, one person would have to sleep on the living room sofa, which is not a sofa bed.

The living room was large, however, approximately 14' x 16', a long credenza with drawers and a cabinet, plus a chair on one wall, a sofa and two end tables on a second wall, love seat and low cabinet with TV and DVD player on the third. There was also a table in front of the sofa. Since there is no TV reception except in port (in our case all in Spanish), it served mainly as a monitor for the DVD player. (A DVD "library" is available on the bridge.) There is a small, built-in refrigerator, as well, big enough to hold snacks and drinks.

My bedroom was small, with accessible floor area about 3' x 8', but quite adequate, especially with a forward facing porthole that seemed to add space. There is a built in closet and desk on one wall, a bunk bed on another and a small bathroom with shower opposite the desk and closet. All living rooms and bedrooms were carpeted, and my living room had two portholes on the port side and one facing forward.

My fellow passengers had cabins two decks above mine, with smaller living rooms and sleeping cubbyholes with just a bunk bed sans portholes, but quite still adequate.

Life on this ship means no place to walk for exercise – everything accessible is either up or down stairs, as the forward deck where the containers are located, is too dangerous for walking. From my cabin the mess hall was two flights of stairs down, the laundry room three flights, the bridge three flights up.

Meals were served on a strict schedule: breakfast at 7:30, lunch at noon, dinner at 5:30. Food can vary with the cook, but is generally of the meat and potatoes variety with generous helpings, and you do not linger over meals. The kitchen crew needs to cleans up quickly. Two kinds of wine (red or white), as well as a limited variety of other sundries can be ordered from the "slop chest" and paid for when you leave the ship at your home port.

The room steward doubles as mess hall waiter, and while he is available to help with passenger needs, there is no room service for food or for daily housekeeping chores. Sheets are laundered weekly by the room steward but passengers keep their own cabins tidy and do their own laundry in the ship's washing machine.

Freighter travel is a unique way of traveling that permits you to feel more like a traveler than a tourist, and after my first experience I am eager for more.
About the Author
nancyj lives on an island in Puget Sound and travels when she can tear herself away from her island paradise. She is a free-lance writer who has been published in several major newspapers.
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