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Life on a cargo vessel

Cargo ships are not cruise ships. That sounds a pretty obvious and straight forward statement, and indeed it is, providing that you understand what it really means. A cargo ship is a working vessel, with a few also transporting as many passengers (in this case, one – me – though had I had any friends there could be as many as 2 passengers on board) as they have spare rooms. The days when you could pitch up at a dock of your choice and be signed on as working crew within a few days have long since gone, although a few smaller companies still offer discounts in part for working. Most cargo ships no longer accept passengers, due to increased paperwork and especially since 2001, security considerations: allowing random passengers onto an oil tanker, for example, is not necessarily always a clever idea.


In the case of many ships, including the Green Cape, this means just one cabin is available: known as the owners cabin, it is generally used by shipping company dignitaries or guests, occasional family or friends of the crew, and if none of those, passengers. It also mean't that I pretty much had the best accommodation on board: a 2 room-suite comprising a bedroom and sitting room, with a private WC/shower and windows in two directions for views out to the side and the aft of the ship. If it had had a small kitchenette, it would have been bigger and swankier than some apartments and rooms that I have lived in.

My suite here is comfortable and functional without being luxurious. It includes a kettle and coffee machine (with coffee!); a hi-fi with cassette and CD players (obviously, there is little radio signal out at sea) and a monitor with VCR/DVD player and a stack of Video's for the VCR which are generally either bad action films or soft porn in genre, with a few home made harder porn ones for variety: After all, most sailors are away for long periods, and can go weeks without seeing a single female. There is also a small collection of books, mostly left by previous passengers, many in German, and including the obligatory Bible.

Part of my lounge

Entertainment is solely of your own making: the appliances provided in your cabin and anything you bring with you (in my case, a stack of books, Ipod with speakers and a laptop with lots of documents/blogs/emails to write and some films etc to watch) are all you have. Bottles of cheap spirits could be bought from the captain at sea, and beer was available from the saloon. On the Green Cape (all ships have different rules depending on the owners, captain and cargo), whilst at sea I have free reign of the ship and can go anywhere I want to – I can wander the deck amongst the cargo containers, hang over the aft of the ship watching the water glide past, or go and watch the world from the bridge. If i had wanted to slip over the side and disappear, it would have been very easy (especially at night) as i would not have been missed until the next meal time, and possibly not even then. Many of the crew were fairly bored when not on duty (and often, on duty) and happy to talk to me, play cards or chess or drink, although my Polish is limited and many of the crew spoke only very basic (or pretty much no) English, but essentially you are left to your own devices.

There is no phone, no TV, no internet, no contact with the outside world at all. Just you and a group of hulking Polish men and the occasional small boat full of attacking and very, very lost Somali pirates.

The fact that a cargo ship is a working ship means that everything is based on the crew and it's needs. Meal times are fixed and tend to be earlier than you are used to: Dinner service finishes at 18:00, for example. And food is prepared according to the crews tastes and requirements. As a passenger, you get served with the captain and officers, and over the years, I have done several short cargo voyages and thus know enough that given the choice, I will always plump for one with a Malaysian or Filipino crew. Certainly a South East Asian one , as they tend to have the tastiest food. For me, on a German owned ship with a Polish crew, the fare is hearty and filling if mostly unexciting. Eggs or Sausage plus bread, coldcuts and coffee for breakfast; lunches are the main meal of the day and comprise juice and soup (which have mostly been delicious) followed by some kind of meat and potato plus often a bowl of communal salad. Dinner is a simpler affair and tends to be tea or coffee plus something like Beef and cabbage goulash or stew, or a Polish specialty of thick fat soup (I don't know it's real name and can't describe it any other way, though it is pretty good) or sometimes fish. Occasionally something an extra appears: a yoghurt at breakfast, a beer at dinner for example. Portions are rarely huge, so you learn to make good use of the extras, like the bread, salad or fruit. Potatoes have abounded, appearing 2 or 3 times a day on this ship. There is no choice, and if you are a fussy eater you pretty much starve, and for those with a a sweet tooth, it is not the place to be: Desserts do occasionally appear, but tend to be fairly token and uninspiring: frozen cheesecake, basic ice cream etc, although a large bowl of changing fruit makes a daily appearance.

It is also not always that cheap. I paid 1800euros for my journey. Maaret, by contrast paid only 300euros for a return from London to Johannesburg, though that is cheaper than most people pay. But you don't travel by cargo ship solely as a means of transport, and certainly not for cheap travel. Instead, it is an experience, a way of life. My 1800euros works out around 100euros a day, but for that I get a decent sized accommodation, all my transport and all meals plus some drinks, as well as the intangible benefits and enjoyment of the whole unique experience. It really isn't so expensive when you think about it.

And for somebody who loves being at sea, is in no special rush to get back to Europe and is happy with their own company (that sounds like i'm a master masturbater, although it's not mean't to), it is a wonderful way to travel

Posted by Gelli 14:34 Tagged boating

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