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Mid-Pacific, the 40th day at sea, and the radar shows us all alone again. Lunch is the usual offering. The ship rolls in moderate swells, the air is stunningly clear. Joseph Conrad said that the peace of God begins here, 1,000 miles from the nearest land – but who would trade a fortune and months of life to experience it?
Many cargo ships have a couple of spare cabins which they will sell to paying passengers. Possible routes range from a few days across the Mediterranean to epic world voyages. French shipping line CMA CGM offers a trip from Tilbury, Essex, to New Zealand and back for €10,000 with only one condition: an upper age limit of 80. It takes three months and a certain sort of traveller. Luxury aircraft, trains and yachts have their pleasures but my favourite transport is a mighty freighter loaded with steel boxes. I loved all 125,000 tonnes of mine. She showed me another world.
The seafarers thought I was crazy. “Why are you here?” they asked.
“To see what your lives are like,” I said, reluctant to admit the other reason. Since boyhood I had dreamt of setting sail on a ship bound for far away. When I confessed, the sailors laughed. They had felt the same thing, when they were too young to know better, and signed up.
My captain, Henrik Larsen, a Dane, snorted when I asked if he came from a seafaring family.
“No, no,” he said with a growl. He did not live near the sea, either. “I wanted to do it. My first ship was a supertanker – 100,000 tonnes of oil. A big bomb! We were in the Persian Gulf in the middle of a war. You never forget your first voyage.”
I will never forget mine. Felixstowe to Los Angeles via Suez, aboard the Gerd Maersk: two months of ocean travel, foreign ports and mysterious seas – what could be better? Well, all that, plus a cocktail served on deck, mixed company and decent cooking, you might think. Container ships tend to offer male crews, unsophisticated cuisine and stilted conversation – plus mine was alcohol-free. So surely better to opt for a cruise?
Well, cruises bubble with entertainments and society – they are variations of land-life, afloat. Freighter travel is utterly otherwise. Just booking a berth is an achievement. There are companies to do it for you, offering cabins (I avoided paying by becoming the shipping line’s writer-in-residence), but securing your welcome, by cash or cunning, takes patience.
The ship may not show up. I once chased one to Rotterdam and caught her in Antwerp after a harbour pilots’ strike. You may become entangled in deviation insurance: the owners ask you to cover them against the possibility of you dying or injuring yourself in a way that delays the ship. Few insurers welcome million-dollar-a-day compensations: I ended up going for a blend of fudge and bluff.
Everything is justified when you climb the gangway, a bouncing ladder up the steel cliff of the hull. Shipping companies smart enough to carry passengers also provide decent cabins. More Premier Inn than Savoy, but with a view, beyond the container stacks, that no hotel in the world can beat. The Gerd Maersk had a crew of 21; I was the sole passenger.
The English Channel was familiar but soon we were into the fogs and whales of the Bay of Biscay, then the Strait of Gibraltar, a seaway of multiple weathers and the supercharged feeling of two great planets, Europe and Africa, swum almost into one another’s embrace.
It does not take a seer to stand on the bridge of a ship between the Pillars of Hercules and feel the exhilaration the Phoenicians must have known when they first found the Atlantic, or the anticipation Norse navigators experienced when they discovered the Middle Sea. We were excited because Algeciras, Spain, is a favourite of sailors: the port is walking distance from the town. We took on thousands of tonnes of cargo and were gone the next morning. We passed Sicily, Etna smoking in the distance, and soon felt Egyptian heat.
We spent the time talking of superstitions and legends, of captains who went mad or died or disappeared overboard, and of the best places in the world. Portugal for fish, the captain said; Thailand for the girls, in the old days, the sea dogs laughed. (The old days were those before containerisation, when it took days to unload and days to load, and you were young and cash-rich, alcohol was permitted aboard, and you could bring “guests” up the gangway.) Brazil, someone said, dreamily – but then we remembered ourselves, and our wives and girlfriends, and spoke about food and the best places to live, popular topics with sailors. Everyone put New Zealand in the top three.
“The sea, the hills and the air are green,” said our Romanian first mate. Because the ocean trade’s busiest route, from Europe to China, runs through steamy latitudes, everyone longs for the temperate zones, especially the engineers, whose screaming, infernal, cathedral-high machine radiates 40C of heat. If you like machinery, the engine room is paradise, but I spent weeks on the bridge, greedy for the oceans, birds and flying fish, dolphins, whales and weather.
Overcapacity and shrivelled world trade means giant vessels, half empty, passing each other in endless relay.
“Where’s your cargo?” one of our sisters mocked us over the radio, “Did it fall overboard?”
“Tell him the captain got drunk and threw it off,” the captain growled.
We got our own back a month later when we reached Hong Kong to find everyone else had run from a typhoon, leaving us with as much freight as we could carry. When the Gerd Maersk curved back out of the harbour, stretched to her full capacity and heeling over, we were so heavy it took us 20 minutes to heel back.
Without women, families and alcohol, men do not become macho or slovenly. They are gentle and sensitive towards one another – restrained but professionally cheerful. Our days were measured in meals. The men worked or slept, and I solicited sea stories and wrote and read and dived into deep sleeps, rocked by the great ship, lulled by her diesel heartbeat.
“You think everything is interesting,” said our Danish second mate one night, when I appeared at 3am exclaiming at the sight of the whole South China Sea covered in fleets of fire.
“Squid fishermen,” he explained patiently, as he threaded our monster between them, and what had seemed flame resolved to blazing electric light, apparently irresistible to curious squid. There were times – the egress into the Singapore Strait, the arrival in Hong Kong, and our night navigation up the Saigon River, under hot cloud, with our foghorn lowing and Vietnam like a dark dream – when all three mates came up to watch and learn from the captain.
Shipowners, upon whom world trade depends, aim to achieve the predictability of conveyor belts but the sea is the least predictable environment. Saving God, there are only three powers out here: the weather, what ships can manage, and what captains decide to do. It is a difficult world to imagine if you have not seen it.
No camera or digital fake can do justice to the experience of being on a ship in a real storm. We ran from a tropical cyclone named Nesat but glancing blows from its tail slammed us, groaning, into dark giant hills of murderous water. Cargo shrieked and the huge ship shuddered, caught in a contest between sea and wind. After reeling, sleepless nights we plunged through the bruised colours and violent swells of typhoon days.
Travelling on freighters grants insight into the extremity of nature, and into the nature of men. Conrad and Melville wrote piercingly about characters because they had seen them bared. The oceans permit no bluff or flummery. The tiny crew who bring you and all the world’s goods safely home are a cross-section of male experience. I had family men from the Philippines, missing their wives and children for nine months at a stretch, and young men missing girls, and men tormented by money worries, and others whose optimism and drive never flagged.
The barely skilled and the extraordinarily able each have a place, a rank and a role. The merciless ways in which we divide the world into the cherished and rewarded, and the cheap and expendable, often differentiated only by luck and passport, is plain on a cargo ship. “You have to be strong with yourself,” as one of my chief officers put it.
Our captain practically danced us through the Singapore Strait, navigating by lights, depths, charts, instinct and instruments all at once, as the thick tropical night was stormed with charging ships.
Crossing the Pacific took 13 days – days of utter isolation on the far side of the world, under luminous air and nights of towering silence. We pushed through dawns of strange weathers, where the clouds came down to the sea in arches and we sailed from day to night and back again. “People imagine it,” the captain said, with the nearest land a week away. “They imagine sunsets and sunrises but no one understands, even when you tell them, how vast the oceans are.”
Unlike most seafarers, paying passengers are likely to have some limited internet access, and everyone loves DVDs on ships, though where once these were watched communally, now most people retreat to their cabins.
There will be a gym, and you may even have a swimming pool, as we did – a gap between the containers, filled with seawater and fat flakes of soot from the funnel. I found relief in the work I had to do: it would have felt strange to be idle, when everyone else was on an unvarying shift pattern, and mostly either working or asleep. A passenger has, perhaps, the perfect perch from which to read and write. The experience will not make you a seafarer but you will have done some seafaring. You will know how vast the oceans are, and how strong quiet men can be, and what it feels like, after weeks of waves, to see a faint line harden into colour and form, and know that you are nearing land and “life” again.
‘Down to the Sea in Ships’ by Horatio Clare is published next week by Chatto & Windus
A life on the ocean wave: how to see the world by cargo ship
Why? For some the main attraction is being able to travel without flying; for others it’s all about experiencing the peace of ocean travel without the distractions of a cruise ship. The appeal to the ship operators is less clear: the passengers’ fares make a negligible difference to their profitability. Perhaps more important is offering distraction and conversation for the crew, as well as potential PR benefits.
Where? A huge range of routes are available. With a week you could go from Le Havre to Malta, or Antwerp to Genoa. In 18 days you can go from New York to Suape, Brazil; in 45 from Tilbury in Essex to Sydney, via New York, Jamaica, Colombia and Tahiti. Timings are approximate – ships are often delayed.
How much? Between £70 and £110 per day is typical (longer voyages work out cheaper per day), including food. Alcohol is usually extra, but at low, duty-free rates.
Creature comforts? Cabins are usually en suite and on the outside of the ship (though containers can obscure the views). There is often a pool, passenger lounge and gym, while a steward will usually be on hand to make beds and clean cabins.
Will I be alone? Most ships have a handful of cabins, though they often sail without filling them all. It’s rare for there to be more than 12 passengers – any more and maritime law requires a doctor.
How? Book early, as popular routes get booked up a year or more in advance. Agents include Strand Travel (strandtravelltd.co.uk), which has an excellent website, and The Cruise People (cruisepeople.co.uk)