All Aboard – Your Freighter AwaitsHolidays have become all about the destination, not the journey.
We cram ourselves into an airplane, jet off to experience a couple of weeks in a different culture, and often return more frazzled than we were when we went away.
Somewhere during this fast-paced, instant-access world we’ve forgotten that life is a journey, not a destination.
The mystery and glamour of travelling has been lost to cut-price flights and package tours, yet even today there are still amazing journeys to be had if you take a trip on a freighter ship. Yes, deep within those massive, ugly cargo carriers piled high with containers lies a secret world where paying passengers are enjoying magnificent ocean-going adventures.
So maybe it’s time to cut loose, reconnect with yourself and spend a month or two gently chugging across the seas, with the thrill of unknown ports to visit.
Endless days on the ocean may sound like a recipe for cabin fever, yet the more I think about it, the more I’m seduced by this slower pace of life. What turns people into freighter fans is the chance to get away from it all, disembark in unusual destinations, and really experience life at sea surrounded by fresh air and sunshine. It’s a journey for thinkers, rather than doers.
If you have enough time and money and a self-sufficient mindset these trips can take you pretty much anywhere, since freighters criss-cross the oceans in all directions. The schedule is dictated by its cargo, and any extra loads picked up en route. Which means passengers must be flexible because the length of the voyage and the ports of call may change.
Take a quick trawl through the internet and you’ll see fascinating itineraries sure to set your sea-faring legs a quiver. The Grimaldi line chugs from Amsterdam to ports in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Benin, Nigeria and Ghana over a month, starting from $2,706 for a double or $3,746 for a single cabin.
The NSB line sails from South Carolina in the US to the Bahamas and Mexico before heading for Belgium, England, Germany and France over 49 days. It has room for five passengers, paying from $6,300 each for a double of $7,718 for a single. The Polish Steamship Company operates between Amsterdam, Ohio and the Great Lakes, while the CMA CGM Vivaldi leaves Los Angeles and docks in Shanghai.
If you really want to go overboard – figuratively speaking – Grimaldi Freighter Cruises offer 58-day voyages from Germany to Brazil via Africa. That costs from $3,900 each in a double and from $5,460 for a single.
Sometimes it’s possible to break your journey if you pick a shipping line that operates several vessels along one route. You can jump ship to spend time exploring one, or even several, destinations and continue your journey when the next ship passes through.
Fares are usually priced in Dollars and start at around $100 a day – low compared to luxury cruises, but you’re getting a lot less luxury. It also takes far longer, so multiply that by a month or two and it soon adds up. You’ll also pay to reach the port of departure and home again from your final destination, so forget any ideas about freighter travel being a cheap alternative.
So what would you DO all day? Well, you need to have the right mentality to even contemplate a month or more of ocean-going horizon-gazing. Could you really survive with none of the diversions a regular cruise or a land-lubbing holiday provides, such as a cinema, theatre, disco, gym, casino and lectures? You’ll dine with the officers or crew and any other passengers, but this isn’t wall-to-wall entertainment. If you go nuts after a couple of hours of solitude, stick to the madding crowds of conventional holidays.
If you’re fascinated by the intricacies of mechanical workings or navigation, the captain will probably let you visit the bridge, says Hans Schürmann, the director of Oceanus Freighter Travel. Then you can watch the officers at work and discuss all those baffling technicalities involved in modern navigation and communication equipment.
Margi Mostue, a former President of Freighter World Cruises, admits she feared it would be boring until she took her first trip. “I found that my days disappeared quickly and I was busy all the time. Most freighters offer a small exercise room, swimming pool and TV for viewing a selection of video movies,” she says. “How many of us take the time to relax on an uncrowded deck in a comfortable deck chair with a good book and binoculars? Just watch the ocean go by and experience the occasional dolphins, whales, fish and sea birds in your path. These are some of life's special moments and partly what freighter cruising is all about.”
Time spent on the bridge and chatting to the officers are special experiences not possible on cruise ships, she adds.
Most freighters have cabins for as few as a dozen passengers, which appeals to independent types who don’t crave the company of others. The length of the trips means you’ll probably be bumping into retired people, reclusive writers, self-employed professionals, or teachers in school holidays.
Cabins tend to be comfortable and spacious, with lots of room for all the stuff you’ll need for several weeks, like books, a laptop, jigsaws and sufficient clothes, medicines and toiletries. They generally have private facilities, air-conditioning and a sitting area with a desk and mini-fridge. They supply towels and bed linen, but remember to take flat shoes for safe deck walking and your favourite music. Better get an insurance policy covering emergency medical evacuation or cancellation too.
Communal facilities generally include a lounge, recreation room, laundry room and a dining room. Some have a library, exercise room, swimming pool and sauna, while others don’t, so check with the individual line.
The fee includes three meals a day, with wine at lunch and dinner. The standard of food varies with the company, with French freighters renowned for serving gourmet fare.
Björn Grabowski took his first freighter cruise to experience a totally different holiday away from mass tourism and fixed schedules. “At last we were able to experience the luxury of time,” he says. “We enjoyed looking out over the sea, which offered an amazing natural spectacle. The ship’s crew gave us an insight into their everyday lives and were always ready to help, explaining their various tasks in detail and entertaining us in the evening with sailors’ yarns. Never before have we had such a feeling of freedom - without any pressures and at one with nature. We had the opportunity to do all the things we never find time to do, like reading a really good book. Putting in at harbours in the different cities on our route gave us the feeling of having seen a part of the world hitherto hidden to us.”
Now Grabowski is the head of freighter voyages at the German travel agency Hamburgsued, booking people onto any of 350 ships. (www.hamburgsued-frachtschiffreisen.de)
His top-end package is a 125-day round-the-world expedition. “You can’t compare a freighter cruise with a classical cruise. There are no restaurants, bars or discos, but an insight into ‘real’ sea travel with lots of time for rest and relaxation,” he says.