Fun on a freighter


GO CARGO CRUISES:Cruising the world does not have to involve non-stop banqueting and floor shows. Cargo ships have cabins for a handful of intrepid passengers, and it could be the voyage of a lifetime, writes SHEILA RYAN

CRUISE LINER has become a byword for a luxury holiday experience, but for some the idea of non-stop entertainment and extravagant banqueting with hundreds of strangers on a floating hotel is a vision of hell. There is another way to explore the world by ship. Many of the cargo vessels that circle the globe have a few cabins available to passengers who want to travel by sea while avoiding the crowds.

Society on freighters is limited by a maritime law stipulating that if a ship carries more than 12 passengers there must be a doctor on board. Freighters, therefore, generally offer only six double cabins, not all of which may be occupied. For some passengers this is the whole point of going, and they use the absence of distractions to work on a project such as a book. Because voyages can take weeks or months, it’s no surprise that freighter voyaging appeals greatly to retired people.

Hilary and Patrick Semple are one such couple. Ever since crossing the Atlantic by ship in 1970, the Semples had promised themselves they would take to the sea again. Only when they retired did they have the time to make their six-week voyage to the West Indies and Central America. After doing their research online, the Semples reserved a cabin through one of the booking agents that specialise in freighter travel. They boarded a refrigerated vessel, or “reefer”, in Dover, and after a stop at Antwerp, sailed for nine days with no landfall.

A freighter voyage is not a budget cruise. With prices coming in at around €100 per night, the cost is not far off that of a cruise, but the experience is a world away. No entertainment is provided, and passengers on cargo ships need to have their own resources.

“When you’re on a ship like that you have no responsibilities whatsoever except to turn up for your meals,” said Patrick, a published author who used this freedom to write a book inspired by the voyage.

The Semples chose their voyage for its destinations, but the ship also had relatively extensive facilities including a dip pool, bar, lounge and library. Cabins on freighters are generally comfortable, with air conditioning, an en suite shower room and sometimes a television and fridge. They usually have an outside window, although the view may be obscured by a container.

Joining such a small group of passengers for a long journey is a risk, but the Semples found most people were like-minded, and also enjoyed chatting to the officers and stewards and learning about their maritime life.

“Most masters are happy to allow passengers on the bridge, but you have to be discreet,” said Patrick. “Don’t talk to officers when they’re busy and, if there’s a bit of a crisis or an emergency, get the hell out of it as fast as you can.”

On the bridge, passengers can track their voyage on the charts, watch the crew at work and learn about navigation. On many ships the sextant is still brought out at sunset to verify the GPS co-ordinates.

CARGO SHIPS HAVE none of the lavish banquets of a cruise liner, but it is recognised that a well-fed ship is a happy ship, and food is generally good.

“The cook is the second most important man on any ship, after the captain,” said Patrick. It is worth considering the nationality of the ship you choose, as this may influence the cuisine on offer.

Freighter voyages have other restrictions. With no doctor on board, ships will not accept passengers with severe, chronic health conditions and there is often an age limit, usually 75. Itineraries and sailing dates, like the pirates’ code, are more what you’d call guidelines. Embarkation instructions are confirmed only at the last minute and there is a very real possibility of disembarking at a different port from the one on the itinerary.

The Semples never made it back to Dover from the West Indies. Half way across the Atlantic on the return leg of the trip, their ship’s refrigeration system broke down and the master made for the nearest landfall, the Azores, for repairs. Passengers are not left in the lurch however; the shipping company flew them home from there. Whether this deviation from the itinerary is an annoyance or a bonus is down to the attitude of the passengers. Patrick warns prospective voyagers to remember their place in the hierarchy of the ship. “As passengers, you are second to cargo,” he said.

Perhaps the most unappealing aspect of freighter travel is the fact that trips ashore are dictated by the schedule for loading and unloading cargo, which rarely takes more than one day. Typically passengers get off the ship at the cargo port and hop in a taxi to see and do what they can in the time allowed. On their Mediterranean voyage, Hilary and Patrick visited Pompeii, the Acropolis and Jerusalem but were disappointed at Alexandria where there was not enough time to leave the ship.

“You should not set your heart on any one destination,” said Hilary. Freighter travel is for people who want to enjoy the journey on their own terms, and the rewards are tranquillity, adventure and a unique view on the world.

Tips for cruising on cargo ships

* ENJOY the journey. If you focus on a particular destination you could be frustrated by delays, itinerary changes and time restrictions.

* EXPECT seasickness. Cargo ships lack the extensive stabilisers of the big cruise liners and in certain conditions will pitch and roll simultaneously in a stomach-churning corkscrew motion.

* AMUSE yourself. With a maximum of 12 passengers on each ship, you will need to bring plenty of books and DVDs to watch in the evenings.

* CONSIDER your health. Because cargo ships do not have a doctor on board, many have an upper age limit and may require a doctor’s certificate.

* BRING a map or chart. Tracking the progress of the voyage is a daily occupation.

* UPGRADE your cabin. It may be worthwhile to upgrade to the more spacious “owner’s cabin” for an additional charge.

* DRESS casually. But bring one presentable outfit to wear when going ashore.

Some cargo ship cruises

Tilbury, UK to New Zealand and Australia

Taking passengers around the world in 84 days, the CMA CGM Matisse calls at a shopping list of destinations, including New York, Jamaica, Tahiti and Fiji, via the Panama Canal.

There are options to take a one-way voyage by leaving or joining the ship in Australia or New Zealand. The ship has an indoor swimming pool, exercise room, library and passenger lounge.

The 84-day round trip costs around €11,000pp. A yellow fever vaccination is needed for Panama.

Felixstowe, UK to the Canary Islands

To dip your toe into the world of freighter travel, this 10-night trip with OPDR could be just the thing.

The maximum number of passengers is four, so two couples could book it out, and the ports of call are familiar ground, including Madeira, Tenerife, Las Palmas and Cadiz.

The cost is from around €1,000pp.

Tilbury, UK to Buenos Aires

Argentina is the ultimate destination on this Grimaldi Lines voyage, but passengers will catch sight of Spain, Morocco, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Brazil before ending in Germany.

The ships on this route have passenger lounges and gyms, and it is possible to take a vehicle on board.

This 29-day voyage is from around €1,500pp. Yellow fever vaccination is compulsory.

Southampton, UK to Hong Kong

A slow boat to China with CMA CGM wends its way to a number of northern European ports before passing through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal.

Ports of call in China include Yantian and Shanghai, and there is a stop in Kuala Lumpur before returning via Morocco.

A 75-day round trip from England to Hong Kong is from €8,800pp but shorter, one-way options are available. The age limit is 80 and those aged 75 or over must supply a medical certificate.

Portland, UK to Cape Town

RMS St Helena is one of the last working Royal Mail ships in the world, and travels between England and South Africa calling at Tenerife, Ascension and St Helena.

Passengers can join a scheduled sea passage on the ship or opt for a themed tour to St Helena to learn about the island’s history or natural environment.

With 128 berths, a swimming pool, two bars, stabilisers and a six-course dinner served every night, the RMS St Helena strikes a balance between hopping a freighter and a more conventional cruise.

A 31-day voyage from Portland to Cape Town is from €3,800pp including accommodation in St Helena and one night in Cape Town.

Coasts of England, Wales and the Channel Islands

From April to October guests are welcome on the THV Patricia as its crew refuels offshore lighthouses, cleans navigational buoys and deals with emergencies, such as the marking of wrecks.

This is for marine enthusiasts, with the majority of time spent at sea and no guarantee of going ashore. However with comfortable, en suite cabins and a dedicated chef, the 12 passengers will not be roughing it.

A 14-day round trip costs around €3,300pp. Itineraries are guidelines only, and instructions for joining the ship are sent out a week before departure date. There is no upper age limit but passengers should be prepared to step down into a workboat or climb a vertical ladder when joining and departing the ship.

Southampton, UK to India

Mumbai and Mundra in India are the ultimate destinations of this 56-day voyage on the CMA CGM Coral with stops in some familiar ports, such as Le Havre and Malta, and some less familiar including Djibouti in Somalia and Jebel Ali, UAE.

The route passes through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The voyage is from around €100-€110 per night per person sharing. This voyage sails only every eight weeks.

Hamburg, Germany to Lake Malaren, Sweden

This seven-day round trip promises a unique insight into northern Europe’s waterways. From Hamburg the ship takes the Kiel Canal, which connects the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

It then passes through the Södertälje Canal to Lake Mälaren, the setting of the 14 islands of Stockholm. There is just one double cabin on the ship with a very basic single cabin that can be booked as an extra bedroom for a party of three.

The charge is €518pps or €665 for a single person.

Southampton, UK to Beirut, Lebanon

Sail through the Straits of Gibraltar to the Mediterranean stopping in Portugal, Spain and Italy before going on to Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey with Grimaldi Lines.

The round trip takes 28 days and this route offers single, triple and quad cabins as well as doubles. With the option to bring a car, camper or motorbike, a one-way trip to one of the disembarkation ports could be the start of a big adventure.

The 28-day round trip costs around €2,214. Departures between October and March are discounted.