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November 23rd 2013 print

Peter Smith

Human Cargo

Fly cramped, squeezed and cattle-class to the other side of the world and you'll soon understand what toothpaste feels like in its tube. Or you can make relaxation your companion and ride a freighter. Our intrepid voyager reports....

smithI recently travelled as the only passenger on a French-owned container ship, CMA CGM Magellan, from Hong Kong to Southampton. When I announced my intention to travel this way not one of my family or friends had any idea that it was possible or what it would be like. I had done some reading but none of that prepared me for the experience. None of it told me what it would be like on board. I will try to fill the void for those who might want to contemplate this way of travel.

My original intention was to start my journey in Sydney. However my travel agent (at Travelscene on Clarence) who, by the way, before dealing with my request, had not handled this way of travelling, did some research and discovered that no berths were available during the period I wanted to travel. He suggested that I fly to either Singapore or Hong Kong, where berths were more plentiful. I chose Hong Kong. I paid my fare of 3,080 Euros which, at the time, came to $5,100. A Chinese visa was required because the ship was docking at a Chinese port. Proof of comprehensive travel insurance and a medical certificate from my doctor were also required; some weeks in advance of the voyage. You need to be in fairly good health because there are no doctors on board working ships.

I flew to Hong Kong a couple of days before the scheduled departure of the ship bearing in mind that docking and departure times can change. The ship’s agent, whom I contacted on my arrival in Hong Kong, picked me up from my address the day before the ship was due to depart and took me through immigration to the docks. Be prepared to climb up a steep gangway of thirty odd metres up the side of the ship. My luggage was winched up by onboard crane.

I briefly met the captain and was then taken to my cabin. Cabins might vary, of course, but mine (one of five for magellan cabinpassengers) was extremely spacious and well-appointed (The picture above is one of the doubles.) It must have been about 45sq.mtrs, maybe a little larger. It had an ensuite, a double bed with side tables, separated by a partition from the living area, which had a large table and two built-in couches. There was also a desk with bookshelves, ample wardrobe and cupboard space, and a small fridge, stocked with some soft drink. It had five windows. The view out of three was blocked by containers but two had clear views out to sea on the port side (the left-hand side for landlubbers). Other container ships might not have similarly well-appointed cabins, but my earlier research suggested that passenger accommodation was generally fairly good on these kinds of ships.

A first and important thing to say is that I was treated with civility and friendliness throughout the whole voyage. The officers were mostly Croatian and the crew Filipino. Language was a problem if you wanted to have deep and meaningful conversations but otherwise no-one I met on board was without some English.

I was onboard for 27 days and nights and there is no television, no radio, no bars, no restaurants, no shops, and no entertainment. There was the internet, through a central computer shared with the officers, but this was intermittent and extremely slow; and I understand most ships do not have even that. So you could potentially go ‘ship crazy’, as I called it.

The way to counter this is to develop a routine. The captain made it clear to me that I had the run of the ship. So each day went broadly as follows: I woke for breakfast, served between 7am and 8 am, and then wandered up for coffee and tea on the bridge. I usually stayed a couple of hours on the bridge talking with those on watch and gaining an insight into how the ship was steered and navigated. I then retired to my cabin where I read – my kindle was useful because the onboard library consisted of only five books. Though, to be fair, one of the officers found me an additional five or six. I sometimes took a walk around the deck. This was not any kind of romantic stroll. I was asked to let the bridge know that I was going; I had to wear a hard hat and florescent coat; and needed to watch out for obstacles and pieces of equipment which protruded along the narrow concrete deck.

Without being a nuisance you need to ask about things to do with running the ship; and when it is due to dock at and leave the next port. Everybody on board has a job to do so information is unlikely to be volunteered. My ship stopped at the container terminals in Yantian (China), Port Kelang (Malaysia), and Tanger (Morocco). There was really no opportunity to get off the ship. There was nothing remotely close to these ports and the ship docked at the first two late evening and was scheduled to depart next morning. I think a couple of the crew did leave the ship in the evening in Kelang but to my knowledge no officers left the ship. Certainly I was discouraged by the ship’s office on each occasion from leaving the ship even though it was left up to me. It might vary voyage by voyage but be prepared to stay on board during the whole trip.

Meals became a way of marking off the day and lunch was served between 12 and 1pm. After lunch, I usually had a nap. The rolling of the ship – there were no cruise-ship-style stabilisers – often disturbed my sleep. In any event, rolling around each day seemed to take a toll. But luckily I didn’t need to take any of the ample supply of sea sickness pills I had brought along.

At around 3 to 3.30 I spent an hour in the gym. Don’t think of Fitness First or other gyms you might be used to. The gym was small and rudimentary; three benches, one home made by the crew, some free weights, and hook attached to the ceiling on which another crew-made bar could be attached for pull-ups. For those disinclined to lift weights, I would suggest additional reading or napping. I also found that moving between decks using the stairs instead of the lift provided useful exercise.

After the gym I varied my routine. On occasions I visited the engine room, or the citadel (more on that below), or back onto the bridge. At various times I had a go at the internet; though it often proved to be frustrating. The goal was to get to dinner time which was set between 6pm and 7pm. After dinner I sometimes joined the officers in their saloon and tried to sing along with some Croatian songs; I read; or I watched Chinese-pirated DVDs with poor quality sound in the passengers’ recreation room. I accompanied these latter two activities with red wine which I alone could obtain on board. It was a dry ship for the officers and crew.

It might have been more interesting if there had been one or two other passengers to share the experience. But, be warned, those on board explained that it was rare to have more than one passenger at a time. They spoke of a Frenchman and separately of a German woman. Though, apparently, a man and his son were to join the ship in Southampton – sharing the one cabin that had two single beds. So, if I had been going on to a European destination I would have had fellow passengers.

I mentioned that the ship had a citadel (akin to a panic room). This is a fortified place in the bow of the ship, replete with stores and a portable loo, in which to muster and request help, if Somalian pirates were to board. Now I was assured that our ship was too big and too fast to be boarded by pirates. Nevertheless we travelled in an internationally recommended two-mile-wide transit corridor when in ‘pirate territory’(within which naval and military protection might be more quickly afforded if needed); there were helmets and flak jackets on the bridge, a list of duties in the event of pirate attack, hoses at the ready to flood ballast-tank water over the aft sides of the ship to impede scaling up boarding ladders; and the security level was lifted as we approached the Horn of Africa on the way to the Red Sea.

Landlubbers could get alarmed; especially on learning that pirates commonly attacked the bridge with rocket propelled grenades. Ignorance has its advantages. Fortunately, we successfully ran the gauntlet and came out unscathed. But, for your peace of mind, make sure, if you do a similar trip, that the ship is big and fast or has armed guards, as some more vulnerable ships do.

Don’t expect too much with the food. There is little choice and it is variable. Some meals were fine, others not so good. Often, I asked for what he crew were having when the officers’ fare was not to my taste. And this is something to keep in mind because the Filipino cook was more adept, I think at cooking Filipino food, than he was Western fare. The crew tended to have rice with either a fried fish or chicken concoction and I always found it to be reasonable. Breakfast was cornflakes or muesli with full cream milk or yogurt and/or eggs, sausages and bacon. A typical lunch menu was soup of the day, which was often fatty unless it was mulga bean which I found quite good, boiled beef, which was usually a bit chewy, and roast potatoes, which were usually quite soggy, and boiled or sautéed vegetables. A dinner menu might be soup, and some kind of pasta, or alternatively roast chicken, which was often quite good, with vegetables; and sometimes with a fruit pudding or apple pie (of too much pastry) to follow. There was always, as well, an iceberg lettuce and tomato and cucumber salad on the table, also chick peas; and cheese and fresh fruit (mostly apples and oranges) available. I found it possible to eat healthily provided I picked and chose carefully and ate sparingly.

Overall the experience was well worthwhile. It got me from A to B at considerably less cost that would a cruise ship, but that is the least of it. I gained an insight, on the bridge and often alongside the captain and pilots, into how a container ship works; into the competence, discipline and skill, and organisation, it takes to navigate and dock a ship, larger than the Queen Mary II, carrying around 100,000 tons of cargo, with just 28 officers and crew on board.

One thing to look out for in choosing a ship is whether the accommodation decks and bridge form one structure with the engine room towards the aft of the ship or whether, as on the Magellan, the accommodation decks and bridge are towards the fore of the ship and separate from the engine room. This latter configuration is best because I was told the engine causes vibrations within the cabins if it sits directly below them. This is not surprising considering the size of ships’ engines.

For the mechanically minded the Magellan was powered by a marine diesel, fuel injected, internal combustion, two-stroke engine with fourteen ‘giant’ pistons, each almost a metre in diameter; generating 109,000 hp. I can personally vouchsafe that it is very large and loud. My calculation was that it used about 4,700 tonnes of marine diesel fuel at US600 per tonne to complete the journey. And that, among other things, is how our computers, TVs and other appliances are carried from Europe or China or Japan so economically – big ships, few men, and big engines powered by relatively cheap fuel.


Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics


Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics