ON A SLOW BOAT TO ENGLAND

It's another world on a transatlantic cargo ship. Hugh Adlington tucks into sauerkraut as he crosses the Porcupine Abyssal Plain

(This article origionally appeared in the The Daily Telegraph (London) on January 20, 2001)

But for Captain Hölzer and his crew, the remaining days of January would be spent at sea, ploughing a lonely furrow across the Atlantic to New York.

TWO thousand miles east of Labrador, a cold front was rising from the deep waters of the Faraday Fracture Zone.

"An oil tanker sank in the Bay of Biscay last night," said the captain, chewing on a forkful of Aufschnitt. He swallowed. "Snapped in two. Crack! Just like that."

"But don't worry," added the chief engineer. "That was an oil tanker. Container ships don't break."

"He's right," nodded the captain. "Container ships don't break - they blow up. Only last month a container of propane exploded in the Singapore Strait. It burnt out our sister ship." He shrugged. "Schade."

I pushed away my plate of herring and potato salad and looked out of the window of the officers' mess. Freezing wind burned the wavetops, spraying the decks of the APL Atlantic. Occasional bursts of sunshine broke through the clouds, keeping the temperature on deck at 5°C.

New York lay four days behind us, Europe four days ahead. Holding to a steady 20 knots, we were heading for the cold waters of the Porcupine Abyssal Plain, the depths of the North Atlantic.

The captain, Ulf Hölzer, 55, heavy-set with half-moon glasses, leant back and sipped his coffee. He and the crew were tired. They had been at sea for three months now. The chief engineer, Daniel Bachmann, 30, a pale giant in a Marge Simpson T-shirt, glanced nervously at the engine alarm panel on the wall, the strain on his face clearly visible.

"When I go on leave in Hamburg," he said, "I wake up in a cold sweat every night."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because it's so quiet," he said. Bachmann's eyes flicked to the alarm panel and back. "You see, I wake up and think the engine has stopped."

I had joined the APL Atlantic at Staten Island, New York. I was returning to England after seven years away. After all that time, to fly home seemed too fast, too efficient. Crossing the Atlantic by freighter promised unhurried days, constitutional walks on deck, cocktail hour and the captain's table. I could hardly wait for my first glimpse of the ocean.

I boarded the ship at midnight, as the clanging gantries loaded the decks with containers. At 3am I awoke. The entire cabin was vibrating. A deep, grating rumble came from the belly of the ship.

My head still full of dreams of Hornblower, Joseph Conrad and Lord Jim, I stumbled to the window to get my first sight of the moonlit Atlantic, stretching 3,000 miles from the Newfoundland Basin to the Celtic Sea. Europe lay ahead of me now, America behind. Farewell America!

I swept back the curtain and pressed my eyes to the glass. And there, in the glittering moonlight, it was . . . container no. 5389. A 20-ton cuboid of reinforced steel obscuring even the merest patch of sea or sky. For 12 days, red steel container no. 5389 was my "view". Some view! Some future!

At lunch the next day I asked Captain Hölzer what was inside the container. It must be important cargo to block my window so comprehensively.

"They don't tell us," he shrugged, "Not unless it is dangerous or precious."

"Thiapentonal, for example?"

"Correct."

The Captain paused, toying with his Fleischsuppe. "Once, I remember, we took a precious cargo from Norfolk, Virginia, to Bilbao. Two full containers."

"What was it?"

"Blood. Forty tons of human blood. Sent from America for transfusions in Spain. Apparently the Spanish lack plasma."

Chief engineer Bachmann winked at me. "Containers are also used for smuggling," he said.

Captain Hölzer glared at Bachmann, mock-indignant. "The most I ever smuggled was 10 kilos of butter from Finland in exchange for a bottle of vodka. Hardly organised crime, now is it?" He laughed. "Ah, but I did take some cows from Haifa to Port Said once."

"Cows?" I asked. "Is that smuggling?"

"Well, no, but let's just say that in 1977 Israel and Egypt were hardly the best of friends."

Captain Hölzer blew the steam from his tea. "When we discharged the Israeli cows at Port Said, one panicked and jumped on to the quay. Instead of calming her down, the Egyptians chased the poor animal around the docks, yelling and screaming. But she ran fast that cow, nothing could catch her.

"She ran faster and faster until finally one of the men grabbed hold of the cow's tail, hanging on for grim death, heading straight for the harbour wall. Splaying her legs, the cow threw herself into a U-turn. Four hundred kilos of cow! The poor man on her tail was lifted clear off the ground. The force was too much. He let go of her tail and flew like a cannon ball over the wall - whoosh! Twenty feet down into the harbour. The Egyptians laughed so hard they cried. I think they really loved that Israeli cow."

The Captain laughed loudly, enjoying his audience. In the middle of the Atlantic the ship's computer was steering the course; there was little for the Master to do. "I am just a glorified truck driver now," he said. "The computer does everything. The motivation is gone."

But in contrast to the captain's, my days were full. Breakfast of eggs, toast and tea was followed by a brisk walk on deck. A busy morning of hard study in the officers' day room, punctuated by dozing, ensued.

After a lunch of boiled potatoes, Schinken and Sauerkraut, there was the daily visit to the bridge. There, First Officer Atay, one of the crew of 20 Filipinos serving under the two German officers on the German-owned ship, would discuss the oceanic charts, telex messages, and satellite weather maps. He talked of the lonely life of a seaman.

"I was married at 30," he told me, "to a girl of 19. But I married too late - my children are still at school. Now I am 50 and away for nine months of the year. What kind of family is that?"

Several of the crew had the same story. "The sea is jealous," Atay said. "It takes the whole of a man's life with nothing left over."

Leaving the bridge, I spent the remainder of each afternoon losing to Kasparov, the chess computer, and reading and strolling on deck.

One evening, as the sun sank like a burning wick into the sea, I saw flashing fins in the sunlight from the salt-coated rail - a school of porpoises cavorting in the bow wave, twisting and leaping clear of the water. As the sun set, the porpoises finally peeled away and slipped back beneath the waves.

As we approached the end of our voyage, the food at dinner got worse. Supplies were running low. Lumps of powder floated in the soup. Congealed Topf clung to the crockery. Knödels, hard as cricket balls, rolled from the table and bounced off the floor.

But Captain Hölzer was in a jovial mood, happy to have steered between the lows that broke up the tanker in the Bay of Biscay. We had passed the Porcupine Abyssal Plain and successfully crossed the Great Sole Bank. Soon we would reach the Scilly Isles and Bishop Rock. In Bremerhaven, the Captain would see his wife and family for the first time in months.

"Did you know there are still pirates in the South China Sea?" he asked, lighting his Marlboro.

I shook my head.

"Oh yes," he said, "and off the Brazilian coast too. Of course, pirates are not Long John Silver any more. Nowadays they have Kalashnikovs and powerboats."

"What do you do if they attack?" I asked.

Captain Hölzer shrugged. "Best do nothing," he said.

"Help them load the boxes," added Bachmann.

The Captain drew on his cigarette. He smiled.

"Once, in the Indonesian Islands, we bought $1,000 of razor wire from Nato and covered the ship in the stuff. It seemed to work. The only problem was, we had to cut our way out. It took hours! It probably cost us more than the pirates would have stolen in the first place."

Two days later, after stops in Antwerp and Bremerhaven, the APL Atlantic finally approached Thamesport, Kent on a misty Sunday morning - the beginning of a new year. After seven years away and 12 days at sea, I had come home.

  • The APL Atlantic is no longer plying the transatlantic route, but similar 12-day voyages between Felixstowe, Suffolk, and New York on the German ship Northern Virtue can be booked through The Cruise People (020 7723 2450, www.cruisepeople.co.uk) from £695 per person one-way; it will also make bookings on 10-day non-stop cargo ship voyages between Liverpool and Philadelphia.

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