High Seas Adventure: A Personal Saga
By Connie Barnard
Beware of aging men with time on their hands. They come up with wild ideas.
Not long ago the Fates presented us with a gift of unanticipated leisure. Just as I was trying to figure out how to con him into re-doing the master bath, he walked in one day and said, “Why don’t we get on a freighter ship and go around the world?”
Without missing a beat, I replied, “Have you lost your mind?” as I clicked over to HGTV’s “Extreme Bathroom Makeovers.”
Flash forward six months. He takes me out to dinner, smiles into my eyes, and says, “Okay, why don’t we get on a freighter in Savannah and go to Jamaica, the Panama Canal, Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand ?”
Call it madness, ignorance, love – all of the above. I smiled back at my boyfriend of 40 years and said, “Sure, why not?”
And thereby hangs this tale.
I am writing from the middle of the Pacific Ocean where for the last 37 days we have been passengers on the CMA CGM freighter Matisse, a French company with Romanian officers, a Philippine crew, and a passenger limit of six. If you don’t know exactly what a freighter is, next time you cross the Ravanel Bridge into Charleston, look down on your left. See those great big boats with stacks of metal crates? Yep, that’s a freighter, and a few of these ships have cabins available to a small number of passengers. I know, you’re thinking just as I did: “Why in the world would anyone want to do that?” Amazingly, our ship’s three cabins are so in demand that they are usually booked at least a year in advance.
Our personal Odyssey began on September 22, 2011, at the Port of Savannah, Gate 5, Berth 9. As our port-authorized cab pulled up next to our new home away from home, we saw two couples standing on the tarmac in the ship’s shadow. I knew at a glance that they were the other passengers on our ship – and that they were seasoned travelers who do stuff like this all the time. They had that look, you know: sturdy utilitarian clothing, collapsible hats, investment cameras in durable cases hanging around their necks. And there I was: Scarlet O’Hara dressed for the ball. Well, not exactly, but you know how we Southern women have a thing for coordinated outfits and make up. I had spent three months trying to figure out which clothes to bring on the two month trip and was quite proud of myself for cramming everything into one suitcase and a carry-on. As I watched the ship’s third officer and steward struggling to haul our luggage up the 38 steps of gangplank’s ladder, I knew deep inside that these women had put everything they’d ever need into a bag the size of my pocketbook.
Their names were Irene from Denmark and Angela from England. With their husbands, Hans and Mike, they had met on September 8 when the ship departed from England. They’d made stops along the way in Rotterdam, La Harve, Dunkirk and New York City. They were waiting for a cab into Savannah, eager to visit the Waving Girl and an internet cafe.
After checking our paperwork (medical clearance, passports, visas, shot records), the Third Officer had recovered sufficiently from the luggage episode to give us a tour of the ship and introduce us to each member of the crew. The Matisse is a mid-sized freighter owned by a French company with Romanian officers and a Philippine crew. The required language of the workplace is English. The ship’s captain, Laurentiu Melniciuc, is a crusty, no-nonsense boss, but in the evenings after dinner, he shares marvelous, often hilarious, tales of his 33 years at sea, the best one involving a raccoon in the engine after a stop in Miami.
Passengers are given free reign of the ship, including its operational center, the bridge, which is manned 24 hours a day in four hour shifts. An open deck above the bridge, nicknamed “Monkey Island,” is where we passengers all stood to wave at the video cam as we passed through the Panama Canal. We waved at the cameras and the visitors on its observation deck waved back to us, Monkey-see, Monkey-do.
The gymnasium/library on board is a large room with two walls of paperback books. About half of these are in French, but there is a surprisingly impressive collection of English titles, many donated by previous passengers. The room also contains a ping pong table, dart board and treadmill. Meals are served in a sunny dining room designated for officers and passengers. The ship’s masterful cook, David, also prepares Philippine food for crew members who have a separate dining room. Elsewhere on board there is an indoor swimming pool and a small ship’s store which provides wine, beer, soft drinks, snacks and toiletries. I’ve been told that somewhere there is also a coffin – just in case one of us is unable to complete the voyage…
The owner’s cabin, which we leased, is a spacious suite about 10 by 15 feet with its own tiled bath. It has large double porthole windows with a nice view, partially blocked at the moment by stacks of those colorful metal crates mentioned earlier. There are two other cabins, the super cargo and second officer. These are not as large but otherwise much like ours with nice carpeting, sturdy blond furniture which includes built-in beds, cabinets, desk, wardrobe and a small refrigerator. Next door is a large passenger lounge with tables, chairs, sofas, a coffee pot and a nice flat screen television for watching videos. At the end of each hall is small deck with metal chairs. We refer to this as “the porch” and spend a lot of time here soaking up the view and the sun.
Speaking of time, yes, there IS a good bit of that. The ship averages about 20 miles an hour. I’ll let you do the rest of the math. This is not a trip for people in a hurry. It is much more about the journey than the destination. We do not have live television or internet (though we do have access to the ship’s e-mail system), and I am truly amazed that the world has survived almost 40 days without our watching the news or reading a newspaper.
What freighter travel does provide is the rare and precious gift of total leisure. Our culture tends to measure the value of life by how busy it is. On board, it doesn’t take long to get beyond this. Between Panama and Tahiti, we went ten days without seeing land. Spotting a distant fishing boat or freighter off in the distance is often the big excitement for the day. That and watching the radar screen coordinates switch from N to S as we celebrate crossing the Equator into the Southern Hemisphere. This actually WAS a pretty big deal, as was crossing the International Date Line. Currently, we are 16 hours ahead of South Carolina, which just goes to show how our concept of time is both nebulous and artificial.
Our fellow passengers are an interesting lot, each with a unique personal story. A retired English midwife is traveling with her husband to New Zealand where she worked thirty years ago. They got off in Sidney and were replaced by a British engineering professor returning to the UK after seven years in Darwin working on a water project. This trip tops his Bucket List. An Australian woman who doesn’t like to fly is meeting her family in England where she will travel for several months before heading home via the Trans Siberian Railway and a Russian freighter. Two in the group are recent cancer survivors. Hans and Irene from Denmark have visited remote spots all over the world. They got off in Melbourne and will travel around Tasmania for a month.
Despite its Spartan aspects, freighter travel is not cheap. (And no, we don’t have to swab the deck to pay our way.) Passengers pay a daily rate which includes three meals with wine and steward service. The amount seems quite reasonable until you consider the number of days involved – 43 for us. Compare this with costs of flying in to a posh resort or going on a conventional cruise. You may be surprised – as I was.
Obviously, traveling on a freighter is not for everyone. If you like to dress for dinner and need to be constantly entertained, don’t even think about it. If you don’t enjoy reading or otherwise entertaining yourself, this trip could be pure torture. It requires flexibility as well. The ship’s primary purpose is to deliver the goods. Weather and port delays often complicate arrival and departure schedules. For certain people, however, this is a unique and enjoyable way to go. Passengers get to know one another and the officers and crew as well. Often they are invited to tour the huge engine room, impressive even for someone who doesn’t know a piston from valve. When the ship approaches a port, passengers gather to watch the port pilot arrive by small boat. He climbs aboard the moving ship via a rope ladder dropped over the side of the ship, and then takes charge of the ship as he guides it into port. Pretty amazing stuff.
In a couple of days our adventure at sea will end. Forty days and forty nights on a boat is long enough – even for Noah. We will spend the next month aboard planes, trains and automobiles exploring both islands of New Zealand and both coasts of Australia. It is an amazing opportunity which has taught me something very important: TIME is the greatest luxury of all – that and the freedom of not even knowing what day it is.
About this writer
- Connie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.