Cruising on a North Atlantic freighter
As the only passenger on an Atlantic freighter, Chris Hannan discovers that he has more space than on the Queen Mary.
If you get carried away with the packing...
The first thing is I nearly miss the boat. I take a train from Philadelphia down to Chester, thinking I will get a taxi to the ship from there. No way. The homeless people who inhabit the station tell me this is not a town where taxis feel safe. If you try phoning for one, they won't come to the station.
I talk to a bus-driver who says he goes near the port. At least I think that's what he says, but I'm Scottish and he can barely understand me. He drops me off at a petrol station in an industrial wasteland and I wheel my suitcase up an unpaved road, the only one I can see.
I come to a Pentecostal church – dilapidated and lonesome-looking on the margins of an ominously silent housing project. Beyond that, thank goodness, is a big sign. Penn Terminals.
"You the passenger?" the security men ask at the gates. That's the first I know I'm the only one.
Freighter ships routinely carry six or so passengers each trip – older, adventurous types who have done the luxury cruise holiday and are looking for something more offbeat and challenging. But clearly brave souls like that draw the line at crossing the North Atlantic in winter.
The chief mate eyes me over as if to say he hopes I know what I'm letting myself in for and shows me to my cabin. Surprisingly, it is much more spacious than the one I had on the Queen Mary II going to New York. There is a bedroom and shower, and the living-area has a television, sound system, writing desk, and cupboards galore. It's just underneath the bridge and has views – once we set sail – fore and aft.
As we plough the seas I spend hours staring at the deck below in comic fascination. We are a floating distribution warehouse. The huge orange containers are piled up in towers, like a bar graph. It's not exactly aerodynamic and you wonder what will happen in a storm. Even now, in calm waters, the ship hangs to the left as it pitches forward. It reminds me of a tired racehorse whose jockey has a heck of a job hauling its head up to keep it going towards the line.
I mess with the officers and dine at the captain's table. He is a widely-read German with more than four decades of sea-stories to draw on. Some meals he snatches while he is at work, but when he has time to unbutton he can converse about anything from the Second World War (in which his father fought) to Johnny Cash, and that's before he touches on his first-hand experiences of Vietnam and Cold War Leningrad.
It's also fun to eavesdrop on his exchanges with the chief mate – a beautifully spoken Indian – or with his Polish chief engineer, even when their technical jargon is impenetrable. It's not often you are privileged to enter the closed world of a ship and I feel I am being given an intimate glimpse.
These are men away from families and homes for three months at a stretch, cooped up with 20 others. But if they feel claustrophobic they do not show it. The mainly East European officers enter and leave the mess with a cheerful "Good appetite!" to one and all. Sadly the kitchen does not hide a Michelin-starred chef weary of London or Paris, but the captain has just bought the Filipino cook a couple of recipe books to extend his range. There isn't much for the sailors to look forward to all day except grub, and in his desperation to keep all nationalities happy the cook serves up what might with charity be called "fusion cuisine" – a delicate fish curry might come with chips, and some charcuterie on the side.
I am just congratulating myself on how well I have fitted into this small society and found my sea legs, when the sea starts to act up. It's pretty rough, even for sailors. Suddenly even sitting requires a greater degree of skill, or stronger buttock muscles. One moment you are walking with heavy weights on your legs which are suddenly taken off the next, as if gravity were pressing you into the deck then pulling you up.
I decide to go to the small gym, thinking the cross-trainer will be steadier than the ship, and if it were nailed to the floor it would be. Instead, it jumps and rears and I quickly realise why there are so many dents in the low polystyrene ceiling. After I've added a few big ones, I hole up in my cabin and read Conrad's Typhoon, while the ship gamely pushes on through the night.
Maybe I've come through some kind of initiation, because at lunch the next day, the chief engineer offers to show me the engine room.
It's Chinese and new. Freighters like this are worked hard; the cargoes put enormous stress on the hull and the ships go full speed with little time in port. Their life-spans are getting shorter and shorter, and owners prefer to commission inexperienced Chinese shipyards rather than shell out three times as much for something that might last a decade longer.
After only three days I feel accepted by the officers and crew, but outside of mealtimes and lifeboat drill I'm left entirely to myself. I sit on the chilly sundeck reading and resting. It's restorative, and I'm in need of that.
I have spent the past three weeks in a budget hotel in the West Indian part of Brooklyn, working from eight to late to finish a novel for my New York publisher, living on watermelons and coffee and cashew nuts bought from local stores. The night before I checked out I wrote the last few paragraphs at three in the morning, then rewrote them at six when I woke up. Now I wrap my legs in a blanket like some 19th‑ century invalid on a recuperative voyage.
This freighter cruise was booked through Strand Travel (020 7010 9290; www.strandtravel.co.uk), which runs Strand Voyages. It offers freighter cruises to almost anywhere in the world and price depends largely on the number of days at sea. To go from Antwerp to Charleston, South Carolina, would, for instance, take 15 days and cost about £1,300 per person, based on two travelling. You will need a medical certificate and insurance as well as relevant visas.