“They found a dead body in the bushes.” This somewhat weird text message from home reached me while I was sailing on a container vessel on the Baltic Sea.
Two hours later, I received the following text message: “Neighbour’s mother-in-law deceased.”
Just to be perfectly clear: the authorities did find a body in my hometown, but it wasn’t that of the mother-in-law.
How did I end up on that cargo ship in the first place, you may ask? My intention to travel with a cargo or container vessel had already existed for a long time. A sightseeing tour in the port of Antwerp a few years ago made this desire grow stronger. In that ensuing period, I contacted several of the port’s major shipping companies, asking them if I could join them on a round trip. It was anything but a success. I waited for an answer for weeks. I did send some reminders, but unfortunately I got no responses either.
I almost gave up on my pursuit, until an article published in the Belgian newspaper, De Standaard, in March 2013 changed everything. Travel journalist An Olaerts reported on her round trip with a container ship. To my surprise, she had also tried to get in touch with shipping companies but didn’t get any reaction either. Finally, she ended up with Sea Travel Holidays, a Dutch travel agency specialized in trips with container and cargo vessels.
This agency handles your reservation and deals with the paperwork, including port taxes and necessary insurances. All you have to do is pay the invoice and show up on the day of departure at the port dock with a valid passport and your ticket. If space is available, you can also leave your car in the car park, which is part of the dock. These areas are generally not protected, but the docks themselves are only accessible through a secured checkpoint. Prior to your trip, the travel agency transfers the details of your car to the port security authorities.
In a nutshell: shipping companies probably couldn’t care less about passengers, because it’s not part of their core business. The containers and cargo are though. It’s somewhat understandable if they don’t respond to such emails.
The travel agency offers a long list of destinations. I chose a round trip to Finland with departure from the port of Antwerp. I didn’t specifically choose this route because of the destination, but rather because I also liked to photograph the loading and discharging of the cargo in two ports. If it suits your budget, you can embark on trips lasting from one month up to several months, in the direction of Asia, South America, or New Zealand.
The trade routes from European ports to Finland are operated by Transfennica, a subsidiary of the Dutch shipping company Spliethoff Group. I was a passenger on a cargo vessel that is part of the con-ro-type fleet. It transports regular containers but also rolling equipment (excavators, agricultural machinery, truck trailers, vans), tanks with liquids, paper rolls, and so on.
And so my journey began. On April 4th 2014 at 2pm, I passed the security checkpoint at the Euro Terminals Leftbank and headed towards dockyard number 1211, where the 205 meter long multi-deck cargo vessel Timca had been docked earlier that same day. According to the schedule from the travel agency, the vessel would depart around 9pm. I wanted to attend the loading and discharging of the ship, therefore I made sure I was on time. Upon my arrival, it was already pretty hectic in and around the Timca. You really have to be careful when driving your car in between the hangars and numerous piles of containers.
On the trailer deck I got acquainted with Marco, the chief officer, who was very busy managing the loading operation. I would find out later on that he was also responsible for distributing the cargo load so that the vessel remains in balance.
Anastacio, one of the Filipino crew members, guided me to the 2nd floor where Leo, the cook’s boy, delivered me the key to my personal cabin. Apparently, I’m the only passenger. “At 5:30pm, supper is served”, he said. And before I could even blink, he was gone.
The cabin was not very big but had everything I needed: bunk bed with a very comfortable mattress, sofa, table, chair, fridge, bathroom with shower and toilet, and air conditioning. On some ships you can book various types of larger and more luxurious cabins, which results in a higher price range.
The crew works mainly in shifts. The bridge and engine room are staffed around the clock. At least one high ranking officer is present at the bridge. Some crew members are on standby, while the others are sleeping. The captain, the chief officer, and the cook are Dutch. The other officers and engineers are from Russia and Estonia. Maintenance staff and the assistant cook are Filipino.
Obviously, you can’t bother the crew with your questions all day. After all, they are at work. However, you can certainly ask someone to guide you around. And when the ship’s captain is docking the ship, you may be present on the bridge, as long as you don’t disturb the crew. It was very impressive to witness how the captain meticulously docked such a large ship alongside the quay, by only pulling some small levers.
The other day, the second officer told me that a twin engine vessel like the Timca consumes a whopping 100 tons of fuel per day. When the engine is used in “ecological” mode, that consumption can be reduced to about 70 tons per day. With a price around €500-600 per ton, it’s definitely an expensive cost. Use Google Search for “bunker fuel” and without a doubt you will discover some staggering articles. The filth that is emitted from the chimneys of container vessels surpases one’s imagination. Even fork-lift trucks and cranes operating in the port are producing lots of coal-black smoke.
No matter the season you are on board, be sure to pack a pair of gloves. For many of my photos, I climbed up and down many fixed metal ladders and then those gloves came in handy.
Don’t worry if you aren’t a fanatic photography enthusiast. There is plenty of time to read books, play games, watch a movie, or even work out. The fitness centre contains a treadmill, an exercise bike, and a bench with weights. Sometimes large container vessels also offer a sauna and an indoor swimming pool. A visit to the gym is certainly recommended as the cook prepares three sumptuous meals a day. If you intent to burn those excess calories, do bring your running shoes and sports clothing.
Beware, there was no elevator on board this ship. If you accidentally get lost, you are probably facing a climb of many floors. On the trailer deck, I walked into the wrong door by mistake. I ended up five floors high at the stern. I headed back down and after some walking around, I found the door I should have walked through in the first place. From here on, it was six floors up to the ground floor, which is called the weather deck. If you’d like to visit the bridge, it’s another five stories high. Burning calories can also be done this way.
In the morning, you can enjoy a classic breakfast with white and wholemeal bread, biscuits, cheese spread, jam, chocolate spread, cereals, yoghurt, various fruit juices, coffee, tea, and one orange or white grapefruit. At noon, a copious hot meal is served with soup, salad, main dish and dessert. In the evening you get a small meal like spaghetti or pizza. The cook is proud that no meal comes from frozen or canned food. The food is stored in a large refrigerator. Everything is prepared fresh on a daily basis. If you are still hungry, you can order additional sweets, snacks, potato crisps and soft drinks.
The only drawback is the time when those meals are served. I’m not used to eating so early. At 7:30am breakfast is ready. Exactly at noon, the soup is put on the table. The salad follows two minutes later. And the main dish three minutes later. The same ritual repeats itself in the evening: at 5:30pm sharp the cook’s boy shoved the steamy plate right under my nose. Obviously, this isn’t a hotel or luxury cruise, but a work canteen. You just have to adapt to the rhythm of a working ship.
With the exception of one day, the sea was calm all week. With a traumatic experience from 1993 still in mind (read: heavy storm at sea) on ferry between Dover and Ostend, my medicine for seasickness was within reach. While showering, the water was splashing from one side to the other. I noticed that the shower was equipped with a high edge all around so that the water doesn’t flow through the bathroom.
Even though you can bring along 125 kg of luggage, you really don’t need to carry lots of clothes. You can use the washing machines and dryers on board the ship. Do bring your own detergent.
Don’t expect your mobile phone to work when out at sea. Reception is poor, or, most likely, nonexistent. Once docked in the port, reception is restored to normal.
What do you do when the Love Boat makes you shiver and you are longing for an adventurous journey at sea? Look no further. A trip on a container vessel is, without a doubt, your choice to go.
Do have a look at Sea Travel Holidays. They take care of everything. My communication with Els Schinkel, who is in charge of the agency, was professional, smooth and pleasant.
For this trip I paid €1150 for 8 days and 8 nights, three meals a day, and port taxes. My reservation included travel, cancellation, and deviation insurance as well.
If you have any questions regarding this trip, you can use the comment section below or send me an e-mail. I’d be happy to help you wherever possible.
All images were shot with the Fuji X-Pro 1, XF14mm F2.8 R, XF23mm F1.4 R, XF35mm F1.4 R and XF56mm F1.2 R.
You can find the full photo gallery here: Travelling By Cargo Ship.