Story by Julie Lawson
Photos by Patrick Lawson
My husband, Patrick, and I had already experienced a decade of freighter travel when we decided to cross the Pacific by container ship. We consulted the website of the German shipping company, NSB Reiseburo, and found the Hanjin Geneva, a mega-ton container ship that does a rotation from North America to Asia with stops in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Seattle (2nd call), Busan (formerly Pusan), Kwangyang, Qindao, Nigbo, Shanghai, Busan (2nd call) Prince Rupert and back to Seattle. Welcome Aboard!
On August 30, 8:00 pm, we board the Hanjin Geneva in Seattle for the 26-day one-way trip to Shanghai. We’ve booked the Owner’s Cabin, one of three cabins available for passengers, at the daily rate of 90 Euros (approx. US$117) per person. Located two decks below the bridge, the cabin is large, comfortable and carpeted, with a bedroom, shower/toilet and a sitting room consisting of two sofas, three chairs, refrigerator, TV, a desk, and video/DVD player. It has forward facing windows, good reading lights and lots of storage.
After we unload our luggage, we head for “Monkey Island,” the deck above the bridge, to watch the unloading/loading of containers. The operation goes on all night but is surprisingly quiet. And with blackout curtains to block the port lights, we sleep well.
By 8:30 a.m. we’re leaving Puget Sound on our way to Portland, Oregon. We meet the captain, who tells us we’re welcome on the bridge and navigation deck any time, night or day as long as we stay out of the way when a pilot is on board. The first day, we spend hours at the bow, watching for dolphins and orcas. The Third Officer gives us a tour of the ship, informing us about safety drills and equipment and making sure our life vests and immersion suits fit properly … just in case!
The first six days, we have a hectic port schedule along the Pacific Northwest. After that … next stop is Korea. The officers and crew become noticeably more relaxed and the Captain holds a welcome party for the passengers: Dan, a young Korean art student, and us.
We too enjoy the slow rhythm of life. In between meals and snacks (coffee at 10, tea at 3), we read, write, do puzzles, chat to the crew and officers, play cards, watch DVDs, take photos, download photos, organize photos, make frequent visits to the bridge to look at maps, radar screens, AIS and weather reports.
For daily exercise we have numerous flights of stairs, laps around the deck (800 meters/2.624 feet from bow to stern) or the captain’s “sport” circuit. I opt for yoga in our cabin. There’s a fitness room with a ping pong table, various machines, and a small pool that’s filled with seawater when the temperature reaches 25 degrees.
We tour the engine room, attend officer parties and the captain’s Sunday morning meetings of beer and conversation. Now we’re at sea, the “slop chest” is open. Available items include wine, beer, mineral water, peanuts, chips, shampoo. Heineken beer is $24.00 for a case. Not bad, $1.00 per bottle, but the San Miguel preferred by the Filipino crew is only 50¢.
We’re on a northwesterly route, passing Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and the Aleutian Islands. We’re lucky with the weather gods but our timing is off where whales are concerned. And as for passing ships? In spite of shipping traffic on this route, it’s unusual to spot another vessel given the vastness of the sea.
The German-style meals are similar to what we’ve had on other cargo ships but this time the cook makes the difference. He earns high praise from the officers – especially since it’s his first voyage as cook. Breakfast might be banana pancakes, sausage goulash, eggs to order, or “Strammer Max” (toasted rye bread topped with chopped onion, ham and fried egg). Lunch is the main meal aboard, with soup to start followed by a main course and dessert.
Supper is another hot meal, with salads and cheese instead of soup and dessert. Sunday dinners, called “Alaska,” consist of salads, cold cuts, cheese, breads, lox and smoked tuna. Saturday lunch is the German “Eintopf” (one pot), a thick soup made of beans or lentils, vegetables and sausages. Corn and crab chowder is the best!
On any German-run ship, if it’s a Thursday or Sunday, there’s cake at teatime (instead of cookies) and at lunch there’s ice cream for dessert. Our steward creates decadent banana splits and fruit sundaes, topped with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a cherry.
The ship’s BBQ is a highlight on every voyage, a time for crew and officers to eat, drink and relax together. It’s held in a room open to the outside deck where the grill is set up. There’s a bar, music, colored lights, salads, garlic bread and a variety of kebabs, meat and chicken for grilling.
Being in a container ship terminal means you get to see a lot of heavy machinery up close. Scenic? No. Colorful and fascinating? Yes. At night the scene is surreal, the port lit up like the set of a science fiction movie. We spend hours up on Monkey Island, totally absorbed with the organized moving of containers on and off the ship, the maneuvering of gigantic gantry cranes.
Port arrival doesn’t guarantee getting off the ship. We were looking forward to exploring Busan and having a “land lunch” with Dan before he caught the train to Seoul but, thanks to Typhoon Sanba (which, fortunately, we missed), the port was shut down prior to our arrival. The resulting backlog means we anchor off shore and wait for a free berth. By the time we’re alongside, it’s 10:00 p.m. and too late to go ashore. Schedules don’t revolve around the convenience of passengers.
We manage to have real shore leave in Quidao (formerly Tsingtao), China, not in the actual city — which is too far away — but in a small town 15 minutes from the terminal by vehicle. It’s a small, pleasant place with tree-lined streets, cafes, and a bustling market. We’re the only foreigners and attract a lot of attention, especially from children who grin, say “hello” and go away giggling.
When you book a container ship trip, the itinerary is not guaranteed. Schedules change. Ports are missed or added. Surprises happen. It’s part of the adventure.
When will you actually arrive? You can’t wait until you disembark to make a hotel reservation because most immigration authorities require an address. In our case, we reserve a hotel in Shanghai for September 24, the projected time of arrival, but the delay in Busan moves the date to the 26th. Since we have a temporary email address on the crew’s internet service (a rare privilege, thanks to the captain), we email the hotel and change the date. In the end, the ship gains time and we arrive in Shanghai late on September 25 – so late that by the time the agent takes us to immigration and on to the hotel, it’s now 1:00 a.m. on the 26th. All too quickly, we become regular tourists once again.
The grueling flight home from Shanghai gets us thinking. We’ve never crossed the Atlantic by ship, and Hanjin Palermo does a rotation from Montreal to Southern Europe with port calls in Valencia, Salerno, Genoa … Why not?
Freighter Cruises Worldwide, www.cruisepeople.co.uk/freighters.htm, is the easiest of the three websites to navigate and find routes.
NSB Reisebüro, www.nsb-reisebuero.de. Since 1986, this German company has become one of the leading providers of voyages on cargo vessels worldwide. The NSB fleet has grown from four to over 100 vessels.
TravLtips, Freighter web pages, www.travltips.com/cruises/freighter/overview.php, offer tips and facts worth reading as well as worldwide listings.
Julie Lawson is a Canadian children’s author. Her most recent book, an historical novel for young adults, is Ghosts of the Titanic. Fortunately there were no icebergs on her voyage to Shanghai. www.julielawson.ca.
Patrick Lawson is a freelance photographer specializing in art, travel and marine photos. For additional photos, click here.