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Freighter Trip to the Mediterranean -- Part I

Author: DocJohnB (More Trip Reviews by DocJohnB)
Date of Trip: May 2006

The only similarities between a freighter cruise and mass market cruising is the sea...well, maybe not.


I started thinking about taking a freighter cruise many years ago, but it was always in the back of my mind. Last year while on a Mexican Riviera cruise we were in the port of Manzanillo where I noticed a number of containerships in port with us. Late in the afternoon one of these ships got underway. I was watching it depart using binoculars when I noticed a lady walking on the bridge wing. She was taking pictures and I had the thought that she was a passenger. Well, that got me to thinking again about freighter cruising.

Around the first of the year I started doing some internet research. There are only 3 or 4 companies in the U.S. that deal with bookings (although individual travel agents do so). I eventually picked a company out of Connecticut called Maris Freighter Cruises (http://freightercruises.com/). The company is owned by a former freighter captain. All my dealings with this company were pleasant. Although not all of my concerns were addressed, none were of such importance as to be a real worry.

The key to freighter travel is and has to be FLEXIBILITY. I will address this a bit more later in the review, but suffice it to say, if you ain't flexible, don't even began to consider this type of vacation.

After much research and some discussion with Maris, I decided on a 5-week Mediterranean voyage onboard CMA CGM's Arno. CMA CGM is a French company with offices around the world, including their North America headquarters in Norfolk, VA. I later learned that it was the 3rd largest shipping company behind Maersk and Mediterranean Shipping Line (MSC). The Arno is a 28-year old containership that was refurbished about 2000. I chose this particular voyage as it fit in well with other travel plans my wife and I had made for the early summer and because it was a Mediterranean voyage. Port stops would include Malta, Leghorn and Genoa in Italy, Marseille, France, Valencia, Spain, Lisbon, Portugal, then back to the United States for stops in New York City, Norfolk, VA, Savannah, GA and back to the starting port of Miami, FL. My wife would not accompany me as she thought she would get too "bored" with no activities. I believe she would have been right, at least as far as she is concerned as she always has to be doing something.

The Voyage Begins

When I first contracted this voyage, the sail date from the Port of Miami was April 21st. Due to the vagaries inherent in commercial shipping this date became April 25th. I would learn more of these vagaries during our voyage. This was also my first lesson in the flexibility that is required for this type of travel.

Each port the ship stops in has a port agent, however, the port agent only has a good guestimate as to the ship's arrival time (and date) about 24 hours prior to arrival. This can be a bit tricky, especially if you have to travel a long distance to the port of embarkation. Some people have spent up to a week in a hotel waiting to board. Luckily, my brother lives about 90 minutes from the Port of Miami and I was able to stay with him. I also was able to track the voyage of the ship on the company's website, so I knew that there was a delay. I made contact with the ship's port agent on the original arrival date and he confirmed for me that, "It looks like she will arrive on the 25th." He told me to call him back on the 24th for specifics. I did and was informed to be at his office no later than 2 p.m. on the 25th. The ship was not scheduled to arrive until 8 p.m., but I was required to get a letter from the agent and take it to port security to obtain a day pass in order to get into the secure area of the port. The port security office stopped issuing passes at 3 p.m., so I was looking at killing 5 hours. (Flexibility).

Around 7.p.m. the agent dropped me off at the dock area (berth) that the ship would be tying up at. The ship finally came into view as it made its way up the shipping channel about 8:15. I had situated myself about 50 yards away from the pier up against a fence that enclosed the shipping containers. Between me and the water were these mammoth gantries (used to load/unload the containers) and a bit of dock traffic. I felt safe and upon the advice of the agent would not move about until a crewmember came to fetch me (the ship was informed that I was waiting on the pier). About 9 p.m. or so, the ship was tied up, the gangway was in place and a crewmember approached me. He introduced himself as Gigi, the assistant steward. He took my luggage and told me to follow him onboard. Once onboard, I had to sign in the ships log and Gigi took me and my luggage to an elevator and up to the sixth deck which was the passenger deck. He then took me to my room and informed me that the Chief Steward would be there shortly. I started unpacking and within 5 minutes the Chief Steward came to the room and introduced himself. His name was Claudio and he would become a friend over the next 5 weeks. Claudio showed me the workings of the room and then to the passengers lounge. He then took me up to the bridge for an extremely brief handshake with the Captain. There my picture was taken for the ID I would be required to wear while in all ports while on the ship. Claudio gave me a quick tour of the facilities, then took me back to the room and departed saying that he was in a hurry as he had to get to Miami Beach to visit with a cousin, but that he would see me the next day. Breakfast was at 7 a.m. I finished unpacking and decided to wander around my new home. I quickly became lost, but was found by the ship's cook who showed me the right door and how to get back to the stairs to get back to the passenger deck. By now it was 10:30 and as the day had been rather long, I took a cool shower and went to bed.

I got up at 6:15 the next morning after a restless night of sleep. The room was really warm and I could not adjust the a/c. I would speak to Claudio when I saw him later. After cleaning up, I headed down to the passenger dining room on the 4th deck. The night before Claudio informed me that there were 3 other passengers onboard. On arrival I met the first of them. Patty was a retired school teacher (special education) from Columbus, Ohio. This was Patty's 10th freighter voyage over the past few years (over those voyages she has accumulated almost a full year at sea). She was traveling with a friend. The friend showed up 20 minutes later. Karen was a semi-retired teacher (theatre and drama) from Columbus. Both ladies are extremely delightful. Patty is a bit quiet and reserved, whereas Karen is just the opposite, quite gregarious and chatty. I would meet the last passenger later that day at lunch. The ship was loading/unloading containers throughout the evening (quitting between 3-6 a.m.) and continued to do so until about an hour prior to departure. The ship was scheduled to depart at 12:30 that afternoon, but did not leave until 7:30. Unfortunately, the passengers never got off the ship in Miami for a couple of reasons. First, because of the logistics. Cabs are not allowed in the container area of the Port of Miami, so a loooooong walk was the only way off that area. Although the port agent probably would have taken them/us to their office and back, the ships ever-changing schedule precluded even that. In all ports, the passengers were required to be back onboard one hour prior to departure (the captain even suggested two hours). In Miami, the schedule kept getting shifted back, by an hour at a time. I didn't need to go ashore for anything and the other passengers later told me it wasn't worth the hassle. I spent most of the day just watching the operations from the walkway outside the passenger deck. I later learned that this was not allowed for safety reasons. When we got to sea that evening, I was able to sit and talk with the Captain. He informed me that I pretty much had the run of the ship except for the engine spaces (unless accompanied by an engineering officer), the main deck after darkness AND any outside deck while in port except for getting on and off the ship. Whoops!!! At lunch, I met the third passenger. Louis was a retired defense contractor. He seemed brusque in his dealings with the ladies and with the steward (more on this later).

We were finally informed that we would depart at 7:20 p.m. with certainty. So after a quick supper, I headed up to the bridge to watch the ship depart the Port of Miami. The Captain had given permission for us to be on the bridge, but that we were not to interfere with the crew during this time and were to refrain from speaking loudly. No problem. Watching and listening from the bridge as a ship gets underway is a totally different experience that watching from the deck of a cruise ship. After departure and my talk with the Captain, I stayed on the bridge for awhile then headed back to the passenger lounge for a visit with the other passengers. About 10:30, I headed back to my room. I had forgotten to talk to Claudio about the excessive warmth of my room. I took a cold shower to cool off, then got in bed on top of the sheets. I would definitely talk with Claudio at breakfast as it was too uncomfortable to put up with for 5 weeks. If it got too hot that night, I decided I would find a place in the lounge. Wasn't necessary. About 2 a.m. I woke up to a chilly room. The a/c had kicked in. I covered up with the blankets and promptly fell back asleep. I did talk to Claudio in the morning and he explained that in port the ship ran on its auxiliary engines and they did not supply power to the a/c units. When back on the main engines, the a/c's eventually kicked on. The thermostat in the room was completely non-functional. That first night at sea I tried to open the porthole, but it was painted over and I was unable to even move the screws. I asked Claudio if this could be taken care of as I would enjoy fresh sea air during the voyage. He said he would have the Bos'n take a look. A couple of days later, it was fixed and I enjoyed fresh sea breezes from then on. My room had a side facing window/porthole (other staterooms had forward or rear facing portholes) and even when in rainstorms I did not get water in the room. Nice.

Long Languorous Days at Sea: Miami to the Mediterranean

There would be 12 days at sea before we arrived at our first port of Marsaxlokk, Malta. The days at sea were long, refreshing, entertaining, sometimes boring but always interesting. Once at sea I settled into a daily routine. It, of course varied from day to day, but pretty much held fast throughout the cruise.

I normally arose about 6:15 each morning. After performing my morning ablutions, I would wander up to the bridge and after checking out our position via the GPS, I would exchange pleasantries with the crew on the bridge. Throughout the cruise it was always the same two. The Chief Mate Gheorgi and the helmsman Leonid (?). They had the 4-8 watch, always. I would then head to the dining room for breakfast. During this part of the voyage, the only person who was routinely there at 7 a.m. was Patty. Breakfast was pretty much a do it yourself affair (i.e. Claudio was available, but did not serve routinely). There were breakfast foods available (cereal, juice, good coffee, breads, fruits, jams, yogurt etc.). A couple times each week, fresh croissants were available and most days a bowl of fresh boiled eggs. Once or twice a week, I would ask Claudio for an egg white omelet and he would have the cook prepare. Normally, my breakfast consisted of coffee, juice, a slice of toast with jam and yogurt or a boiled egg. The bread was baked daily and the breakfast bread was from the day before...great for toasting. We would normally sit around gabbing and would be joined by Karen on most days and Louis a couple of times a week.

After breakfast, I would head down to the first deck. From stem to stern the ship was 688 feet and at the stern was probably 50 feet wide. So one lap around the deck would equal a little over a quarter mile. I normally did 15-18 laps. Unfortunately, some mornings the crew was working on this deck and rather than walk around them or interfere with their duties, I would head up to their lounge where there was a stationary bike. I would do 50-60 minutes and some resistance training, so I did get in some exercise. I was real faithful to this routine at sea and only missed one day a week (on purpose). In addition to this exercise routine, I had made a pledge to never use the elevator except when absolutely necessary. Except for moving my luggage onboard and off and one other time, I stuck to that pledge. That time I had just got back from my 15 laps and had trooped up 5 decks when I was asked by one of the other passengers to show them how to get out on the main deck.

After exercise, I showered and got dressed for the day, then straightened out my room and bed. Then it was normally up on deck to enjoy the sun and watch the world go by. I would take a book with me, grab a lounge chair and find a nice sunny spot. I usually read two or three pages and promptly fell asleep. On the trip over there was very little to see in the form of shipping traffic. Occasionally we would spot some dolphin and on even rarer occasions a whale or two.

The first couple of days, I thought lunch was served at noon as that is what I was told by the other passengers who were on board before me. Around the 3rd day we were reading through the ship's information package and discovered it was actually 12:15. Claudio seemed quite happy when we discovered this bit of info...made things a bit easier for his routine. Lunch was the main meal of the day and normally consisted of 4 courses...soup, appetizers, entrée and dessert. Some of the appetizers could serve as a main course. As the crew were all Romanian, so was the food. As they were all hard working sailors the food was quite hearty and heavy. Lots of meat and potato type meals. All the food with the exception of one entrée and one soup throughout the trip were extremely tasty and seemed to be enjoyed by all the passengers. I found one fish steak meal terribly oversalted. Now the one dish that each and every passenger passed on each time it was offered was Tripe soup. Even though I am an adventurous eater, I just could not make myself try it.

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