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Freighter Trip to the Mediterranean -- Part I

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

I discovered about a week into the trip that the crew took a siesta from 1 - 2 p.m. I decided that I would change my walkabout to this time. Worked out well.

After lunch and the walk, I would normally either work on my Bunka project for a couple of hours or I would take a book up on deck and read. If the pool was filled, I would jump in for 15 minutes or so. (Once we got to the Med, the pool was never filled again as we were in port most days, then when we transited back from the Med, it was just too cool. I also took a nap each afternoon (sometimes on deck with a book in my hand).

The evening meal was served at 7 p.m. This meal consisted of a salad, appetizer and entrée. After dinner fruits and cheeses were available. Wine was also served with lunch and dinner, along with water. Soft drinks and beer were even available at no charge. About a week into the trip, Karen brought a large book of trivia and the 4 of us would enjoy a few rounds of trivia each evening and occasionally at lunch as well. After dinner one of us would grab a DVD movie from the extensive library the crew had (and made available to the passengers) and we would enjoy a movie or two. I usually ended my night up on the bridge where I would enjoy conversing with the 2nd Mate Stephan for an hour or so. I was normally in bed by 11 p.m.

With only small variations, this would be the routine I would follow all of my days at sea throughout the voyage. The ship had a fairly nice swimming pool that would be filled when we were at sea. I guess the pool measured 30' x 15'. Just large enough to get some strokes in, but, more importantly a refreshing place to spend some time. Getting in was an adventure. The water was drawn from the sea and being the Atlantic in early spring it was quite cool. Once in though, the warmth of the sun combined with the chill of the water to make it most pleasant. I probably swam 8 or 9 of the days on the way to the Mediterranean.

Passenger Facilities

The cabin was quiet roomy. I would estimate it to be pretty close to twice the size of a standard cabin on a typical cruise ship. There were two single beds separated at the head by a shelf for radio, clock, etc. A good 5 feet separated the beds (which by the way were permanent and could never be made into one large bed as on cruise ships). There was also a combination desk/dresser. Approximately 5 feet long, it had 3 dresser drawers, a smaller junk drawer and a flip top make-up affair with a lighted mirror. There was a chair for this desk. There were three closets with plenty of space to hang clothes (unfortunately there was only one hanger). One of the closets contained another 3 drawers (similar to those on cruise ships). The cabin also contained 2 easy chairs with a table and stationary lamp in between. There was plenty of overhead canned lighting. Unfortunately, this lighting was all or nothing...either all the lights were on or none were. The deck was carpeted (old and worn but comfortable). As on a cruise ship, the restroom was en suite. The restroom was larger than most I have experienced on cruise ships and contained the toilet, shower and sink with a rather large medicine cabin above. All in all, a quite spacious and comfortable room. Speaking with Patty, most new freighters have much more luxurious accommodations and the rooms are two room + bath suites. Some are furnished with TV, DVD, etc. and fridges.

The passenger deck was on the 6th deck...one deck below the bridge and two decks above the dining facilities. Also located on this deck was the passenger lounge and pantry. The pantry contained a fridge and microwave, along with a sink and cabinets. The fridge was always stocked with 1.5 litre water bottles and juices, and occasionally fresh fruits. The lounge was spacious and contained two large (although very low) couches and 2 or 3 other chairs. There was also a table (for cards or games) with 3 chairs. The lounge was equipped with a TV and DVD recorder as well as a well stocked (by prior passengers) library. A movie library was maintained on the bridge. There had to be 300-400 movies and all that was required was a signature in the check-out log to view any of the movies. The movies were mostly in English (or subtitled) and pretty much ran in times from the 70's right up to recent releases (Memoirs of a Geisha for one). The TV was used for watching the movies and while in port, local stations. The passenger lounge was a comfortable place to spend the evening with other passengers, or simply to sit and read.

As mentioned the passenger dining room was on the 4th deck. This room contained two large tables with chairs and cabinetry/shelving for the dishes and dry foodstuffs. There was also a mini-fridge. In addition on the port side of "our" dining room was a second lounge with couches and chairs. A sliding door from this room led to the officers dining room and lounge. Across the entrance from our room was the pantry and this led to the galley where the meals were prepared. On the other side of that was the crews dining room. While no where as luxurious as the facilities on a cruise ship, this space was comfortable and quite large...in fact one evening this room was devoted to a crew and passenger party. All fitted into the area comfortably.

These rooms constituted the passenger facilities, but as I mentioned before we passengers were allowed pretty much total access to the rest of the ship. A great gathering place for the passengers was the bridge wings. Here we would stretch out on the provided canvas lounge chairs and sun, read, chat or just nap. Here we observed life at sea of not only the sailors, but also of the vast ocean. Over the course of the cruise we saw dolphin, whales, flying fish and more bird life than I knew existed at sea.

On the second deck, there was a fully stocked "hospital" room. It was a nice size room with 2 medical beds and a lot of medical equipment and supplies. This room would be used for taking care of any injured or ill crewmember. There was direct satellite communication with shore. The Chief mate was charged with medical care of the crew and the Chief steward and his assistant were designated as 1st aid men. Extra training was given to all three. Luckily, this room was not used during our stay. I would have loved to have had this well stocked and sized medical facility on my destroyer while I was in the Navy.

The 5th deck contained the officers staterooms, but more importantly for the passengers it also contained the laundry. 3 washing machines and 1 dryer. I would get up at 5:30 and do my laundry once a week. Didn't interfere with the crew or the other passengers and it worked well for me.

The Crew

Normally, a containership has twenty-some officers and crewmembers. The Arno (I believe because of its age) had 33. The officers consisted of the Captain, Chief Officer, 1st Mate, 2nd Mate, Chief Engineer, 1st Engineer, 2nd Engineer, 3rd Engineer and a Cadet (the cadet was a qualified 2nd/3rd Mate who was on a check ride to learn the policies and procedures of CMA CGM. The crewmembers were led by the Bos'n and held positions of Wiper, Painter, Welder, Reeferman. The entire crew was Romanian. The voyage/route was an approximate 5 week circuit. Their contracts were for 3 such circuits or approximately 3.5 months. They started and ended their contracts in Lisbon, Portugal. At the end of their contracts, they were put up at a Lisbon hotel overnight, then flown back to Constanza (Constanta), Romania. There, they could take as little or as much time (within reason) before signing on to a new contract. Their contract was with CMA CGM, but they could specify the Arno. As an example, Claudio our steward was on the 2nd circuit of his contract. He told me that he would spend two months at home with his girlfriend and his beloved pitbull, then arrange for another 3 month contract on one of the ships of this circuit, then spend 2 months around the Christmas holidays at home again. When we were in Lisbon 8 or 9 of the crew departed and were replaced. Three of the 4 engineering officers were amongst them. I found this interesting and after talking with the Captain, found it was not at all unusual. In fact, when they arrived back in Portugal after my voyage, 16 would depart, including the Captain, Chief and 1st Mates. I guess I would go for continuity if it were my choice and never debark that many at one time, but then again, I don't run the company!

The crew are hardworking, proud and a fun-loving group. At sea, they start work about 8 a.m., work until noon. After lunch and a 1 hour siesta, they were back at work until 6:30 p.m. They had a 15 minute break in the morning and the same in the afternoon. There are NO days off at sea. The engineers had a slightly different work schedule, and the engineering spaces were not manned throughout the evening hours (alarms to the bridge would sound any emergency). The deck officers (except for the Captain) worked 4 hours on, 8 hours off throughout the voyage, including in port. The Captain was on the bridge off and on throughout the day, but when approaching or departing a port, constantly. He was mainly bogged down in paperwork. The service crewmembers (Chief steward, Chief Cook and their assistants) worked the hours they were needed to provide to the needs of the crew. I think the Chief and assistant Steward had the worst hours on ship as they started before the crew (breakfast) and finished up after them (supper). In between they were cleaning cabins. I rarely saw them at work between lunch and supper though and on occasion would drop down to the dining room and enjoy a cold beer with them. Additionally, on the way over we set the clocks ahead one hour, five times. So, five of their days were 23 hour days. They truly enjoyed the days on the way back when we added an hour to the day.

Talking with various members of the crew about their jobs, one fact became readily apparent. It was just a job. I don't think one of them I talked with (including the Captain) admitted to a love of the sea. I do not know, and would not ask, what type of money they made, but they did mention that life at sea was much better paying than any job they could obtain in Romania. Claudio said he was saving as much money as he could and hope to be able to quit the sea within 5-10 years and open a restaurant in his home town. His assistant, Gigi, needed the job, as, in addition to a wife and son, he was supporting his wife's parents.

The crew were genuinely friendly. On my daily walks each and every one would greet me. Initially it was just a g'morning and a nod of the head. It soon became, good morning John, how is your day. Because of the numbers, it was hard to remember them all by name, but I tried and was mostly successful. I came away with the distinct impression that, to a man, the crew enjoyed having friendly passengers on board.

After one week of constant steaming, we passed through the Azores on 3 May. I knew we were getting close, but did not pay much attention until I started seeing crewmembers cranking up their cell phones. Once in range, they would make calls to their families, girl friends, etc. The evening before and the day and a half after the Azores we picked up quartering seas. This provided us with a side to side rocking motion. At times it was difficult to stand (had to brace constantly) and at night it was hard staying in the bed. I enjoyed it though.

Three days later on May 6th, we made our approach to the Straits of Gibraltar. It was readily apparent when I arrived on the bridge early that morning that we were no longer alone at sea. Whereas over the previous 10 days, we would only see an occasional ship, as I looked out I counted a dozen within eyesight and the radar showed many, many more. As we approached the straits this sea traffic picked up to include cross-straits ferries, fishing and pleasure boats and various and sundry other shipping. The crew are extremely alert during this part of the voyage. After breakfast I was up on deck again in hopes of getting a good view of the Rock of Gibraltar. Eventually, we did get close enough that I was even able to get a couple of decent digital photos. One interesting one shows a flowing cloud that seems to be sprouting from the highest peak. It gives the appearance of an active volcano.

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