Nov 02

Cargo Cruising the Indian Ocean

by in Asia, Europe, Planning

A steaming bowl of brothy, robustly seasoned, homemade chicken soup awaited us in the Officer’s Mess just minutes after we dropped our panniers off in our cabin, the Purser’s Suite. With that first spoonful, we both felt all of the stress and worry we were experiencing leading up to our meeting the freighter melt away. And in its place came the warm, comforting sensation of a welcome home hug. Albeit, aboard a temporary, floating home.

Despite our fears of the bicycles complicating the procedure, the delay of information concerning such non-trivial questions as Where do we go? and When should we be there?, the boarding process ultimately could not have gone any smoother. We received a call the day prior our departure in Piraeus, alerting us that we needed to board the ship a day early, and telling us to meet at the cruise terminal to complete the immigration check at 10:30 the next morning. Kristin and I bicycled a mile to the terminal, met the representative from the shipping agent, and got our passports cleared. From there we followed behind another man on a scooter as we pedaled 6 miles through traffic (yes, in the country we were just checked out of) around the perimeter of the Piraeus harbor to the container terminal. That’s where things got a little dicey as the port was demanding a customs form, stating that the bicycles had to be declared. This was news to us. Our escort told us to remain calm and be patient as numerous phone calls were made on our behalf and, after ten nervous minutes, the security gate finally opened and we were led to a bus. We quickly stripped the panniers, heaved them up the five stairs of the bus, and carefully threaded the bikes one by one up the stairs and between the seats in the narrow aisle. Only one hurdle stood between ourselves and a mighty sigh of relief.

Tense moments as our bikes were hoisted some 20 meters up the side of the ship from the pier.

Tense moments as our bikes were hoisted some 20 meters up the side of the ship from the pier.

The ship is enormous. In fact, up close, one does not see a ship. All you see is a 334-meter-long massive black wall of steel and several indecipherable markings in white paint. And the gangway. Given that the ship had yet to receive much of its cargo, the MV Hatsu Crystal was floating high in the water. We were told during the booking process that the bicycles would be welcome aboard so long as we were able to get them up the gangway. “No problem,” I thought, thinking back to the myriad ferries and cruise ships we’ve been on.

Problem.

The gangway in this instance was an 80-step, very steep staircase whose railing was barely waist high – the metal safety rails replaced with a loose rope in some sections – and had rounded aluminum steps. The gangway shifted a little with each footfall during our initial ascent with the first few bags. Gulp. Making matters worse, Kristin and I had our cycling shoes on, metal cleats and all. Fortunately, several members of the very friendly and helpful Filipino crew met us at the gangway, helped carry our panniers up, and offered to hoist the bikes up the side of the ship with a rope. I returned to the pier and waited for the rope, expecting some sort of net or carabiner of sorts. But when I saw that it was just a simple rope they were lowering, I sheepishly waved for one of the crew to come down to help. My knot-tying skills pretty much start and end with shoelaces; best let the sailors handle this rope business. Particularly when we’re about to dangle several thousand dollars’ worth of sentimental bicycles sixty feet above the water.

The view outside our cabin in Piraeus, Greece.

The view outside our cabin in Piraeus, Greece.

Life On Board

We likely wouldn’t have decided to spend nineteen days at sea if the cabins made available to passengers aboard cargo ships weren’t both spacious and comfortable. It was even better than the website promised. With two couches, three chairs, cabinetry, refrigerator, a television with DVD player, and a very large desk, the main living room was the most space we’ve had to enjoy since our house rental in Bali. The bedroom had an actual queen-size mattress (not two twins masquerading as a queen like in much of Europe), plenty of closet space, and a second desk. The bathroom was larger than that of most hotels.

The main living space of our cabin aboard the Hatsu Crystal.

The main living space of our cabin aboard the Hatsu Crystal.

For those who have wondered how we could spend 24 hours a day together, 7 days a week for over 19 months, I will tell you that Kristin and I agree that our favorite feature of the cabin was a door that could be shut between the two rooms. Ahhh… solitude. Where have you been?

Our bedroom and bathroom in our cabin.

Our bedroom and bathroom in our cabin.

We settled into a routine quickly: I typically woke before 6 a.m. and would get an hour or two of writing done before Kristin tapped me on the shoulder for breakfast. Meals aboard the ship were on a very strict schedule. There was only one Steward on board and he served the four passengers and all the officers their meals, delivered drinks and snacks from the “slopchest” when requested, and was also responsible for cleaning the cabins. He was a very busy man and the Captain made it clear on day one that we were to arrive during the scheduled time, to not be late, and to not linger. Conversation should be taken to the Officer’s Recreation Room or our cabins if we wanted to socialize.

Outside our cabin on F Deck, doing a little reading in the sun.

Outside our cabin on F Deck, doing a little reading in the sun.

Breakfast is from 7:30 to 8:00; lunch from 11:30 to 12:15; and dinner from 5:30 to 6:00. Additional tea/coffee service could be had at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., though we usually skipped these offerings. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, though in truth, all three meals are far heavier and more fattening than we’d prefer. Potatoes and gravy are practically standard. There are no choice of entrees, a weekly menu is posted on Monday. My only improvisation is telling the steward to hold the vegetables. I tired of eating around a pile of overcooked peas, carrots, and cauliflower; I suspect he tired of scraping my uneaten vegetable medley into the trash. The hearty meals were a nice change at first, particularly after nearly three months spent in two countries with repetitious menus. But we soon grew weary of the heavy sauce-laden food. Lunch always consists of a soup starter, followed by a meal many would consider excessive. The first day: pork cordon bleu and rice with the aforementioned chicken soup. For dinner that night it was pan-fried liver steak, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. It wasn’t long before I began asking if we could maybe have what the Filipino crew was eating instead. This only earned me a confused smile and the nightly question: potato or rice?

The captain gave us a tour of the Bridge.

The captain gave us a tour of the Bridge.

There is an on-board gym, but we both found it to be a bit on the depressing side and avoided it after our initial tour of the ship. Kristin walked ten laps around the deck each afternoon (roughly 600 meters per lap), but my exercise consisted of little more than some push-ups and lunges and the half-dozen trips up and down the stairs each day: 112 stairs round-trip, from our cabin on F-Deck to the Officer’s Mess on Deck B (we ignored the elevator in favor of this small bit of exercise). I didn’t help myself in this regard, as our first order from the stores included a kilo of Gummi Bears and a case of Warsteiner. More Gummi Bears were ordered weekly, along with wine and chocolate-covered marzipan.

A cargo cruise is certainly not for everyone. We’ve been at sea now for twelve days as I write this from the middle of the Indian Ocean and, other than the brief excitement of going through the Suez Canal (where we could see Egypt) and a port-call in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (daily notices leading to our entering Saudi waters reminded us that all alcohol as well as magazines and electronic devices containing pornography must be locked away in the Bonded Store… apparently some Saudi inspectors have run a Jpeg search on personal laptops and fined violators $500 USD for every pornographic image they found) there is nothing to see but the sea itself. We spend our days in the exact same manner each day: reading (I read three books), writing (I totaled over 50,000 words between blog posts and a work-in-progress), and playing a few computer games we installed before boarding the ship: Fairway Solitaire for Kristin and Skyward Collapse and Dwarfs! for me. We watch a movie each night, provided we can find a disc that isn’t too scratched to play and has English audio (we found none with English subtitles). That’s it. If you cannot entertain yourself through similar means, you should not even consider a trip of this type.

Ferries race across the Suez Canal between the never-ending train of cargo ships.

Ferries race across the Suez Canal between the never-ending train of cargo ships.

I have never found it difficult to entertain myself with books, but I will admit that if I did not have a writing project to occupy my hours (more about that in a future post), even I would say 19 days is a long time to spend with such little variation. Kristin secured several career-related reading recommendations before leaving and we both enjoyed Robert D. Kaplan’s very informative book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, among others. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in learning more about this corner of the world.

We were given a tour of the Engine Room, the multi-story home to a colossal 90,000 horsepower, 12-cylinder turbo diesel engine, and visited the Bridge. Human Officers are there to make corrections when the automatic systems need to be overridden, but the Bridge held little interest during general cruising. And you can be sure visitors will not be allowed to the Bridge during those times of stress. We have nearly as good of a view from the balcony outside our room.

Mountains of sand line the banks of the Suez Canal from the recent expansion.

Mountains of sand line the banks of the Suez Canal from the recent expansion.

Our fellow passengers, a seventy-something Swiss woman and a sixty-something German man are both very nice and we occasionally chat with them at meals, but the man speaks very little English (being from the former East Germany, he was forced to learn Russian as a schoolboy). The Swiss lady, Iris, is very friendly and a willing translator, but we naturally fall into our own private conversations in our native tongues. As for the officers, we seldom see them. The Chief Engineer often takes his meals at the same time as we do, and the Captain also, but few others. We haven’t seen anyone in the Officer’s Recreation Room and even the Crew Recreation Room is seldom occupied; we have yet to hear their large drum kit being played. Any thoughts about hanging out with the German officers and throwing back some beers over a game of cards should be put to rest immediately. Any socializing that takes place at all, at least on this ship, clearly happens behind closed doors.

Pirate Concerns Linger

I had two concerns about this trip before leaving: 1) going to sea for nearly three weeks with my beautiful wife… and thirty dudes, and 2) pirates. My first concern was immediately allayed by the friendly, professional manner in which everyone aboard the ship conducts themselves. Evergreen, the company that operates this ship, really runs a tight ship – sorry, I had to say it. Having researched freighter travel periodically over several years, my suggestion would be to definitely stick with one of the major European-flagged companies. Evergreen (German), Maersk-Sealand (Danish), or CMA-CGM (French).  More about this below.

Two plywood "scarecrows" to deter pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

Two plywood “scarecrows” to deter pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

As for pirates, now that we are well past the Gulf of Aden and due into Sri Lanka in two days as I write this, I don’t feel it would be bad form to relay a funny story. The summer before we left on this trip, after ten years of trying to outwit my friends, I had finally won our Fantasy Baseball league. Alas, the coveted “Least Stupid Dummy” trophy was to be mine! But the [Shady] Commish wouldn’t send it to me. Instead I got a message saying, in light of our pending adventure, the trophy was to remain in New Jersey, “Out of concern it will fall into the hands of Somali pirates.”

It was a pretty funny line in 2013, just a few months before our trip, but also a bit irrelevant since our originally planned route went nowhere near eastern Africa.  Which brings us to yesterday.

The captain arrived at lunch and asked if we saw the “suspicious vessel” earlier in the morning. We hadn’t. Apparently a vessel that didn’t show up on the Automatic Ship Identification system appeared behind us with two skiffs being towed by rope. We were already hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia, into the Arabian Sea, but the pirate threat remains present. Even though there hadn’t been a hijacking in these waters in over two years and never has a ship of this size been taken, it was reason for concern. The Captain said he accelerated from 14 knots to 21 and the vessel didn’t pursue. He said the skiffs were empty, but they may have been manned with teams of pirates, in which case the alarm would have sounded. It was more than a little suspicious and he used the opportunity to drill home why it was so important that we always call the Bridge before going for a walk on the deck.

It's not the joggig track aboard the Queen Mary 2, but we walked plenty of laps around the Upper Deck.

It’s not the joggig track aboard the Queen Mary 2, but we walked plenty of laps around the Upper Deck.

We were provided instruction on the necessary precautions before entering the High Risk Area near Eritrea, Djibouti, Yemen, and Somalia. For starters, all doors were to remain locked at all times, with only one door to the exterior deck open during the day. Cardboard covered all of the portholes in the exterior doors and we were to draw our curtains tight at night so the ship could run dark. The crew had tied firehoses into position throughout the perimeter of the ship so, if under attack, the captain could engage the bilge and blast the would-be pirates with forceful jets of seawater as they tried to scale the massive hull. Two wooden “security guards” in bright orange vests were positioned at the rear of the ship, comical scarecrows that likely wouldn’t confuse anyone in my opinion.

The main defense for the ship was the ship itself. The ship’s hull stretches over 20 meters in height above the waterline, and climbs vertically. Even with a grappling hook or ladders, the pirates would have a hard time scaling it while stationary. We wouldn’t be stationary. Though we only run at 14 knots for fuel-saving concerns dictated by Evergreen, the captain would accelerate to 21 or even 25 knots in the event of a pirate attack. No smaller vessel could get close enough to our ship at that speed to hold ladders or ropes in position. “It would be impossible,” the Captain says.

Kristin in front of the 12-cylinder, 90,000 bhp, turbo diesel engine that powers the ship.

Kristin in front of the 12-cylinder, 90,000 bhp, turbo diesel engine that powers the ship.

Nevertheless, we were shown where to flee in event of the pirate alarm sounding. If that happens we were to hurry down to the Upper Deck (below A-deck) and follow a path through the Main Engine Room to an unmarked utility corridor that spans the width of the ship. The mustard-colored corridor was little more than a meter wide, but completely secure, provided someone barred the massive door behind us. The emergency exits at either end had a locking bolt on the inside. Inside the Citadel were several cases of water, but no food. Enough for everyone on board to survive for a day, we were told. We spent the six days in the High Risk Area with a bag in our room containing flashlights, a change of clothes, and one of our large bags of Gummi Bears. If the pirates were to get us, we wouldn’t go down starving.

Calm Seas, A Typhoon Gives Chase

The rain and wind came two days before we reached Sri Lanka, the night after the suspicious vessel showed up off our stern. The flat seas, humid air, and clear skies we experienced from the Mediterranean through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden vanished and the sound of driving rain and wind woke us up at 3 in the morning. The next day was spent with the boat under a constant minor sway. Those who read One Lousy Pirate know Kristin doesn’t have the sturdiest pair of sea legs. Neither of us do, to be honest. But we were fine. The gentle sideways rocking was noticeable and sometimes enough to send the doors swinging on their hinges and our clothes on their closet hangers, but neither of us ever felt nauseas. It could have been much worse as we learned the next morning that the storm was the remnants of a typhoon that had formed near Somalia and was chasing us across the Indian Ocean. Had we have left three or four days later, we would have sailed right into 20-meter waves it while we were exiting the Gulf of Aden. Yikes!

An average day at sea, as viewed from outside the bridge, two decks above our cabin.

An average day at sea, as viewed from outside the bridge, two decks above our cabin.

We woke to sunshine the next day, the dwindling bands of wind and rain having finally split from our course. There was a brief rain shower the afternoon we left Sri Lanka, but that was it. It would seem to us that October is a fine time to be cruising the Indian Ocean from west to east.

Delays in Sri Lanka forced a faster cruising speed across the eastern half of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, en route to the Strait of Malaca. This stretch, which took the better part of four days to cross, was certainly rougher than going through the closed water of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, though not stormy. Though it rained and the wind was more intense, the sensation in our cabin was one of very minor airplane turbulence. In fact, sitting at my computer throughout the day, I often found myself wondering when the plane was going to land, that’s how similar the vibrations and the noise were. And the gentle rocking to and fro of the ship, felt just like a plane banking through a turn.

Port Calls

One of the main reasons we enjoyed the Trans-Atlantic cruise we took last summer was because there were no destinations to be herded through like cattle; no six-hour whirlwind tours of cheap amusements, souvenir shops and sanitized restaurants the cruise companies sell as add-ons. Instead, it was just transit. This is how you should view the cargo cruise.

Ferries crossing behind our ship in Suez.

Ferries crossing behind our ship in Suez.

Our fellow passengers boarded in Trieste, Italy and were able to spend the day in Athens when the ship made its 20-hour stop in Piraeus, Greece. That was nice for them, but shouldn’t be expected everywhere. Our stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was only 14 hours or so and nobody, not crew or passenger, was allowed to leave the ship. We were excited about our stop in Sri Lanka and had been electronically approved for a visa over a month prior to our voyage. Unfortunately, a combination of Sri Lankan bureaucracy and tardiness mixed with the shipping company’s overprotective rules governing our coming and going from the ship combined to net us a fewer than four hours ashore in Sri Lanka, more than an hour of which was spent waiting for our drivers. We should have had more time ashore, a half-day’s more to be exact, but our minders were a total no-show the next morning. Tomorrow’s blog post will detail the 25 frustrating, wasted hours we spent in Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka Post here).

Had we have booked this cruise for its port calls, we would have been very disappointed. Fortunately, our focus was transit, pure and simple. And downtime. Yours should be too, if considering this method of travel.

Booking a Cargo Cruise

Freighter-travel isn’t a particularly new method of travel, but you’re unlikely to encounter many people who have done it, given the long days at sea, the limited number of passengers per ship (less than a half dozen), and the relative cost. Expect to pay, on average, 100 Euros per person, per day for room, board, and transit. The Captain recommends each passenger tip the crew a case of beer (an additional 15 Euros). We also gave the Steward and Chef an additional tip of 70 Euros to share. We spent an additional 46 Euros over the course of 19 days on beer, wine, and candy. Provisions from the slopchest were essentially at wholesale prices.

Sunrise in the Strait of Malaca, off the northern tip of Sumatra.

Sunrise in the Strait of Malaca, off the northern tip of Sumatra.

Cargo cruising is harder to be approved for if you’re over a certain age, as there are no doctors on board. Kristin and I had to have our doctor back home in the Seattle area complete a health questionnaire for us; the Swiss passenger on board said, because of her age, she had to get multiple forms and doctor’s permission slips in order for the shipping company to approve her. If something were to happen at sea, the ship’s crew could do little more than try to keep you comfortable until they get to the next scheduled port. Don’t expect a diversion or a helicopter; it’s not happening.

Maris operates a freighter-cruising club you can join for a fee here. Another option, the one we chose thanks to a recommendation from Travelling Two, was to get in touch with Hamish and let him set it all up. He’s a fast respondent and was easy to work with. Just be sure to send your initial inquiry at least three to four months in advance of your planned departure. There are numerous websites (Maris’s is a good one) that will help you get an understanding of the available routes. Note that some ports are not available for arrival/departures. Also, some routes are round-trip only. We were originally investigating a cargo-cruise from Singapore to Auckland with numerous stops in a myriad of exotic locales, but that route was round-trip only.

Special Thanks: We’d like to thank Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc. for their continuing support of our journey as well as Sharon Woodward, our wonderful travel clinic pharmacist, for her generous donation. And, of course, to everyone else who continues to follow along on this journey of ours. Thank you so much!

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7 Responses to “Cargo Cruising the Indian Ocean”

  1. From Dad Walsh:

    What, no casino, no rock wall, night club, ice skating rink? At least your cabin looked very spacious, and the ship overall looked very clean! I’ve been on many oil tankers during my 41 years in the oil industry. Your ship looks like a Disney Cruise Ship by comparison! I’m glad you made it through the “Pirate Zone” safely, with a bit of added excitement with the “suspicious vessel” following. It sounds as though ‘Evergreen’ has taken some thoughtful steps in the event pirates make an attempt. The world doesn’t need another Maersk Alabama incident, although the outcome helped to stem the tide of the piracy. Great writing and photos, as always! Thank you, and stay safe!

    Posted on 2 November, 2015 at 11:27 pm #
    • From Doug Walsh:

      Kristin joked early in the trip that she was really disappointed in the lack of a midnight buffet. Ha! The ship was immaculately kept and the crew worked every day on painting and scraping any signs of rust on the exterior. The ship was only 7 years old, I believe, made by Samsung (I thought they were just electronics and appliances, but they’re a world leading ship builder too. I had no idea).

      The Maersk Alabama had a double-whammy working against it: only 155m in length and making port calls in Kenya and Djibouti. Yikes! Our ship was 334m in length, just 11 meters shy of the QM2 we took across the Atlantic.

      Thanks for the comment and for reading, as always!

      Posted on 3 November, 2015 at 3:09 am #
  2. From Michele:

    You are living my mantra, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Thank you for sharing your journey stories, I eagerly await and read them. The very best is my wish for you both, and in all you experience in your travels. I wish you favor above struggles.

    Posted on 2 November, 2015 at 3:38 pm #
    • From Doug Walsh:

      Thanks for the kind words, Michele. This trip has taken several unexpected turns, but most of them so far have yielded our fondest memories.

      Posted on 2 November, 2015 at 7:31 pm #
  3. From Lou:

    Awesome write-up! Not sure I would have the focused determination to withstand so much downtime. Definitely not without a guitar to strum. Continued safe travels to you both!

    Posted on 2 November, 2015 at 2:18 pm #
    • From Doug Walsh:

      Thanks Lou! You could definitely bring a guitar on board, but it’s still a long day. I don’t think I realized jut how many hours there are in a day until day #18 of this trip.

      Posted on 2 November, 2015 at 7:30 pm #

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