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Published: September 10th 2010
‘You are going to America on a cargo
ship? How long is that going to take? Wouldn’t it have been easier to fly?’ This is the general reaction from my friends when I tell them that I will cross the Atlantic Ocean by container ship. Easier perhaps, definitely cheaper, but also a lot more boring. I am going to study in New Mexico for a year, and continuing the theme from my epic overland journey to Pakistan and India in 2007, I want to get there without flying, too.
So I dip my toe into the strange and wondrous world of freight ship travel. I heard about this unconventional way of travelling a couple of years ago in India, and have wanted to try it out since. I find that cargo ships are an increasingly popular mode of transport (relatively speaking, as there are only around three passenger cabins on each ship), despite long journey times and relatively pricey fares. Long gone are the times when you could work in exchange for your passage: a cargo ship journey now costs approximately 100 Euro per day. Apart from the passage, this price includes your own, comfortable cabin and three meals a
day. And of course, a ship’s carbon footprint is way smaller than that of a plane (around thirty-six times less).
An Internet search leads me to a small German company called ‘Frachschiffreisen Pfeiffer Gmbh’ who specializes in cargo ship journeys. They offer me a trip on a ship called MSC Rossini that will take me from Bremerhaven in Germany to Charleston on the USA’s East coast. With a departure time at the end of August, this should get me to America in approximately two weeks, leaving me enough time to cross the country by train to my final destination.
Without a second thought, I book my ticket - despite the fact that there isn’t even a fixed schedule of departure for cargo ships. ‘I am fully aware that sailing and arrival dates and itineraries are not guaranteed’ reads my passenger contract. This is due to cargo requirements and contingencies, which always come first on a working vessel. Ships can be cancelled or re-routed with very little notice. In addition, there are risks, especially during loading works. I am solemnly informed that there is no doctor on board - I have to supply a medical certificate that affirms my
ability to travel.
Still, I am undeterred. To traverse the seas like this seems like a wonderful and unique adventure that calls me strongly. I have romantic images of my forebears, the brave Sicilian men and women, in my mind. I picture them as they left their native island almost a century ago with hope and fear in their hearts to make a new life for themselves in the Land of the Free. I imagine myself leaning over the railing with the strong ocean winds blowing through my hair as I gaze over miles of water. I can’t imagine a better way of getting to the USA.
Yet, in the weeks that follow, I am to experience the trials of flexibility and patience one needs to travel on a cargo ship first hand. About three weeks before MSC Rossini is due to depart, I receive a telephone call. My ship has been cancelled. Damn. Though I was prepared, I somehow didn’t think it would happen to me. However, not all is lost, and after two days of telephone calls and e-mails, I am offered a new ship: MSC Uganda, leaving from La Spezia in Italy. Though it’s far
to go, I accept. But again, I am not lucky: a few days later, MSC Uganda is re-routed to South America.
I am all set to go to New York with another ship from Antwerp in early September when a new ship suddenly emerges on the horizon: MSC Ilona, leaving from Bremerhaven to Charleston on 29th August. Actually, the ship is full, but the captain kindly offers to free up a spare cabin for me. Even though I fear that I may be sleeping in a broom cupboard for two weeks, I accept. It may be my last chance to travel to the States in this way before my deadline runs out.
This time, I have a good feeling. And so far, so good: I only get one more phone call from Frau Pfeiffer, this time to inform me that the ship leaves one day sooner as planned. But I take this in my stride by now.
On 27th August, the day of departure has finally arrived. My uncle Hans drives me to the railway station. ‘Check your luggage carefully before you leave the ship in America!’ he warns me. ‘Take heed that nobody slips drugs into your
suitcase. Otherwise, you’ll do life over there.’ I blink, confused. ‘Yes, yes’, he continues while he glares at me in the rear mirror, ‘they hire lots of shady characters on these cargo ships! And this is how most of the drugs are smuggled into foreign countries.’
When I finally arrive in Bremerhaven a long six hours later, my excitement mounts. I take a taxi to the container harbour. When I tell him where I want to go, the bearded taxi driver shoots me a sideways glance and asks ‘Are you going there as a passenger?’ ‘Yes’ I laugh. He tells me that he used to work on passenger ships and as we pass Bremerhaven’s seafront, he points out a large number of sailing boats that have just arrived for the city’s ‘Sail’ fair that takes place every five years. It seems like a good omen to me.
After about fifteen minutes, we reach the Container Terminal, a vast, uninviting Industrial wasteland. ‘Good luck and Bon Voyage!’ the driver says and shakes my hand. I check in at the harbour reception, and am instructed to take a small shuttle bus that will bring me to my vessel MSC Ilona.
While we drive, I spot huge cranes and big colourful containers everywhere. They look big pieces of Lego and I feel like I am on the set of a gangster movie.
‘MSC ILONA!’ announces the driver cheerfully and I climb out of the van. I gaze up at the big ship in front of me. Actually, with a height of around fifty metres, it’s more like a castle than a ship. I can’t even make out how long it is. I suddenly feel very small. I spot two young Filipino men who look down the ship’s railing, and wave at them. One of them climbs swiftly down the long metal gangway ahead of me.
‘Hello’, he say and smiles. ‘You are passenger? My name is Jeric, I am your Steward.’ He takes my suitcase and I begin my ascent on the wobbly gangway, holding on to the sides. By the time I reach the ship’s entrance, my hands are black with machine oil. I laugh. My cargo ship journey is about to start.
Jeric takes me to the ship’s office, checks the passenger list and shows me to my cabin. I am pleasantly surprised. Instead of a
broom cupboard, the cabin is comfortable and spacious, with a bed, sofa, table, desk, two chairs, fridge, wardrobe and en-suite bathroom. It also has a window. ‘Thank you!’ I say, ‘this is brilliant!’
Jeric then walks me to the kitchen and officer’s mess and introduces me to the Rene, the Filipino cook, who says that he is happy to prepare vegetarian meals for me, something I’d been worried about. Then it’s already dinner time, and I meet the first of my fellow passengers. His name is Hans-Joachim (HJ), a retired social worker. He is on a personal journey to New Mexico. Our third companion is Horst, a retired automobile executive on his way to Florida. I am the only woman on board among twenty-two men, consisting of a handsome Polish captain, a Polish First Officer, three German engineers and seventeen Filipino crew members.
Over dinner, Horst tells us eagerly that a hurricane has been forecast on the Atlantic Ocean. He beams as though he has just won the lottery. HJ, on the other hand, shrinks slightly upon hearing the news. His eyes widen. ‘I want my mother!’ he murmurs. Horst’s hurricane becomes a running gag.
night on the still stationary ship is comfortable, but I have strange dreams and wake occasionally to the sounds of containers being placed on the vessel. Due to the loading works, we are staying in the harbour until the following morning.
Breakfast is at 7.30am, and I am overwhelmed when I see that the cook has lovingly prepared a fruit salad for me. After our security induction with the Second Officer, a cheerful young man called Rogelio, we nose around the ship. It has a small indoors swimming pool (which is to be filled with seawater from the Atlantic Ocean), a gym containing a tired punch bag, two bicycles and a table-tennis top, a sauna, and a recreation room with small library and TV/DVD. MSC Ilona is a huge beast - 300m long, 40m wide, and nine storeys high, with a loading facility of 7000 containers. I am amazed that something like that can swim without drowning.
We’re informed that there’s a delay in departure of several hours, and also a change of route. Instead of going straight to Le Havre, France as planned, we are now going to Felixstowe first. ‘Back to England?!’ I laugh. And Felixstowe!
I lived in Suffolk for ten years and know the area well. I text my old friend Emma to see if she wants to meet during the ten hours we get to spend there.
At 3.30pm, we finally set sail. Horst , HJ and I stand excitedly at the railing on C-Deck. The last containers are being loaded on the ship by big cranes, brought by strange tall vehicles that look like three-legged alien spiders. Then we see two boats approach. They, says Horst, will pull MSC Ilona out of the harbour. I am somewhat doubtful: these two little nut shells? How will they manage that?
Then the container workers come off the ship, the gangway is being pulled away by a small fork lift truck, and a harbour man starts to untie the three big ropes that tie our ship to the shore. We lean over the railing and watch with big eyes. A few decks above us, our Captain and Chief Mate talk on walkie-talkies. We walk to the other side of the ship and observe how the small but powerful puller boats tow us out of the harbour with steel ropes.
The sun has
come out. Magnificent sailing ships go by. We are moving slowly but steadily away from the harbour. ‘Bon Voyage!’ says HJ. ‘Bon Voyage!’ we reply. Our journey has begun. I grin like a maniac. After all these months of planning and mishaps, I am finally aboard a cargo ship, ready for a new adventure.
America, here I come! (Please read my next blog for part 2 of this journey:
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