First Freighter Trip
Bill McDonnell

I'd been hearing about the enjoyment of freight travel most of my life. My parents had taken a few freighter cruises before I was born, and frequently spoke of how much they'd enjoyed them. My younger brother, perhaps inspired by my mother, graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, and spent his career at sea, retiring as a Captain with Lykes Lines a few years ago. I'd always wanted to take a trip with him, but he retired before I ever got a chance. Needless to say, he always had a lot of interesting sea stories to tell.

My wife too, spoke fondly of sea travel. She had migrated from England to Australia in 1969, taking a passenger ship on a six-week voyage through the Panama Canal, calling at a number of ports along the way. We'd talked of doing a cruise sometime.

I'd always had the fear of being bored on a long sea voyage. The longest voyage I'd ever done was to cross the English Channel. But I was moved to subscribe to TravlTips, and thought of a cruise from time to time.

I'm a futures trader, and 1999 was not kind to my bottom line. This motivated me to finally consider a cruise as an opportunity to update my futures trading plan. So I set out to review my options. The Internet a fair amount of information on freighter cruises, espically "The Internet Guide to Freighter Travel". I was looking for trips with an interesting itinerary, and enough port time to see things.

Immediately, the Egon Oldendorff itineraries from New Zealand to the Far East looked interesting. They have several vessels in that service that carry both containers and break bulk cargo (like coils of steel, and palettes of paper).

Break bulk cargo is good for the passengers, as it takes longer to load/unload cargo. Port calls are often 1 ½ to 2 ½ days long, enough time for some serious sightseeing. We were especially interested in a voyage going to Japan and Korea, not only because of the itinerary, but also because many consider Japan expensive to tour. To have a ship close by to provide bed and breakfast in port seemed a real good deal.

We noted that the 44-48 day Egon Oldendorff cruise was available, departing Auckland on the Tasman Discoverer (AKA Henriette Oldendorff) about January 25, 2000. We sent in our deposit. One of the things of minor concern was that the literature we received did not indicate a gym on board. I had also checked on air fares from Los Angeles to Auckland return, and to get the flexible tickets as recommended was going to be very expensive, more than twice the cost of the non-changeable, non-refundable tickets. So I e-mailed (in English) Oldendorff’s home office in Lubeck, Germany and asked them about schedule reliability and a gym. They answered right away, saying the ship had a gym, that the schedule was very reliable, ending with they "looked forward to having us on board".

The Tasman Discoverer checks in at 22,000 tons, and is 540 feet long and 85 feet wide. The Ship was built in Flensburg, Germany in 1992, and is fully equipped with the latest technology, such as GPS, satellite communications, and a plotter that shows the ships position on the chart at all times from the GPS input. It was very impressive. She is powered by a single 10,000 horsepower diesel engine, which can operate at a steady 130-rpm and maintain the speed of the Ship at about 16 knots. Sulzer, a Swiss company, built her engine at their factory in Dalian, China. The Ship was fitted with parts from many parts of the industrial world, making Her a truly remarkable study in how things are made in a free economy.

So I booked inflexible tickets with United. The outbound date could not be changed, but the return could be changed with penalty payment. We scheduled to arrive in Auckland on January 22, and to return to Los Angeles on March 25, in order to allow a little time for schedule slippage.

A few days later we learned that the schedule had slipped, and that the ship would be leaving Auckland on January 29. That was still OK, we'd be back in time for our return flight, but it would be tight. Then, only a few days before our departure we got another call saying that the itinerary had changed again. Now the ship was going to visit Yokohama twice and would omit Kokura, Japan, and that it was now a 51-day trip at no extra cost. We said OK, now realizing we'd have to change our airline return date. I learned this could not be done until after the trip commenced, but I was able to do this through United upon our departure from Los Angeles.

All this left us with the very pleasant prospect of a longer tour in New Zealand. It’s a wonderful place to visit. The scenery everywhere is magnificent, and the people most hospitable. Prices are reasonable, and rental cars are the cheapest I've come across in recent years. We took our copy of the Lonely Planet New Zealand Guide and our slightly dinged, but mechanically sound Alternative Rent a Car automobile and headed North to the Bay of Islands. All in all, we toured outside of Auckland for two weeks, staying in bed and breakfast or in motels with kitchenette. Almost all towns have information centers that are very knowledgeable with plenty of brochures and they can make accommodation and local tour bookings for you if you wish. We were paying about $75 New Zealand (US $37.50)) for bed and breakfast, and slightly more for motel with kitchenette.

The most exciting feature of our tour was the Haggis Honking Holes near Waitomo Caves, where we rappelled about 200 feet down into the cave in three stages and through waterfalls. Then we crawled through a stream a while before commencing to make a strenuous climb to the surface. The climb included ropes and ladders, not to mention crawling through watery tight spaces. I was only barely fit enough to complete the trip, but I'd try it again any time. A few days later we did the 8 mile Tongariro Crossing in the Tongariro National Park south of Taupo. In the town of Turangi, you can organize a bus to take you to the trail head at 7:00 AM and then pick you up the other end at 5:00 PM. It’s a hard day’s hike, but very popular and people of all ages are doing it. Some detour to climb 7446 foot high Mt. Ngauruhoe, but we declined. We did pass very close to Mt. Tongariro at 6396 foot. The scenery is fabulous.

Finally, we got to board our ship in Auckland on February 9. Our long time friends and hosts who live in Auckland came to the ship with us to see us off, and we all had dinner together with the Captain in the Officers’ Galley. Captain Bengt Hed, a Swede, was just a bit younger than us, and was always a very gracious host. He started his career as a steward at age 15, and quickly worked his way up to become a very young captain. He’s served as captain for a number of years, although he only recently joined Oldendorff after the reorganization of one of the European ocean-going ferry operators, where he was previously skipper. In addition to the skills normally expected of a good mariner, he was adept at spotting dolphins, whales, seals, birds, and other sea life.

Accommodation aboard ship was spacious and comfortable. The food initially was unimaginative, but we got a new cook in Yokohama, and the food became quite good. It’s hard to lose weight.

Other New Zealand ports included Timaru, in the southeast where we rented a car and drove west to get a good look at the New Zealand Alps, crowned by glacier covered 12233 foot high Mt. Cook. Finally, we sailed for Tauranga, where we spent about two days loading and re-provisioning for the long voyage north. The highlight at Tauranga was to climb nearby Mount Manganui (an easy 754-foot climb). The views from the top are spectacular, and you can see all the way to the active steaming volcano Whakaari (White) island about 30 miles away. We’d passed close by this island on our way into Tauranga. We then had a swim in the thermal pools across from the campground at the base of the mountain.

As an aside, in my view you need to be very careful when walking in the port areas. When the ship is being loaded and unloaded, cranes, trucks, forklifts, and large container handling equipment are moving rapidly, frequently going backward. There is real danger to all walking humans both coming and going, even though there is no restriction on passenger movement. You must be alert, and reasonably fit to cope safely with this environment.

Then began the two weeks voyage nonstop to Yokohama. It’s rare to see a ship along this route except on occasion when passing New Ireland at the eastern edge of New Guinea. We had plenty of reading material and personal projects to keep us busy. The ship has an exercise bike, and of course you can make the 500 foot (each way) walk to the bow any time you wish (if the sea isn't too rough).

When the water is warm, the bosun fills the swimming pool daily with sea water, so you can enjoy swimming as you traverse the Tropics. The ship has a library with perhaps 300 books and a video collection of over 300 titles, including some recent movie releases.

Flying fish can be seen any time, and of course the stars can be seen without interference from city lights as long as the weather is clear. I managed to practice my bridge game on my personal computer, and even found a little time for financial modeling.

after two weeks, we arrived in Yokohama about 6:00 AM. We were ready to leave the ship, but Japanese Customs did not arrive until about 9:00 AM, and we finally got off the ship at about 10:00 AM. We headed to the center of Yokohama. I was looking for an ATM where I could buy some Yen with my credit card, but found no machine with English instructions. We were finally directed to a bank. There are very few English notices, and even the tourist information office did not have very good English speakers. The only literature offered to us was a good English map of the city, and a guidebook for expensive hotels.

Finally, money at hand, we went to Chinatown, the largest in Japan, and with careful shopping were able to get a nice businessman’s lunch for about $8.50 each. There’s no tipping required either. Here, as well as elsewhere in Japan, we found that nice and reasonable meals could be found at acceptable prices with careful shopping. This frequently is made easier by pictures or models of meals in the restaurant window with prices in European style. The waiters will accompany you to the window, if you wish so that you can choose the meal you want.

Early the next morning, we left for Pusan, Republic of Korea. The most interesting part of the trip was passing the narrow Kammon Straits between the Japanese main island Honshu and the southern island of Kyushu. The passage is remarkable with heavy industry along both sides, and a current that can easily be at nine knots or more. A Japanese pilot is on board for the passage to assist the Captain with local waterway information and specify the course to be followed.

Pusan was interesting. We got in on Sunday afternoon, and docked practically in the center of town. It’s a bustling modern city of 4 million, complete with two subway lines. We walked over to the railway station, and found an ATM with English instructions, and we obtained Korean Won without difficulty. We did a little shopping, and picked up our e-mail at one of the many common Internet cafes.

Next day, we took the subway north almost to the end of the line, and then a 70 cent share taxi ride to Pomosa Temple, one of the largest and prettiest Buddhist temples in Korea. From there, we walked uphill to the ancient fort at Kunjong-gu. The trail was good, and there were maps along the way, mostly Korean only. But with my guidebook, and the Korean names, we were able to tour without difficulty. The fort is in large and unspoiled Kumgang Park. It is so rural that it was difficult to imagine we were less than 13 miles from our ship. We exited at a small town in the middle of the park, and took a share taxi to the bus station at Myongnyun-dong. Koreans are very friendly, and many speak some English, and they're happy to help you get around. We had some trouble finding the subway station when we got back, so one young Korean man put us in his truck and drove us to the station. We then went to the fish market near the center of Pusan and had a good Korean dinner. Korea is a travel bargain, and a beautiful country. It seemed incredible to get into the real countryside for about US $1.30. It is impressive to see how the Korean work ethic transformed the country from one that was poor and devastated after the Korean War less that 50 years ago, into the economic powerhouse of today.

Loading went faster than anticipated, so we left early Tuesday. We'd planned to see a bird sanctuary, but had to leave before we had the chance.

Back through the Kammon Straits again, but this time we took the Inside Passage through the Inland Sea between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. Shipping is heavy in this area, and there is a lot of fishing, so a pilot is used for the entire route. The destination was Osaka, which we reached early in the morning. Unfortunately, the narrowest and most scenic part came at night, but we did at least see Hiroshima Bay at dusk, and reflected on the profound changes unleashed so close to here only 55 years ago.

The cargo workload in Osaka was heavy, and some engine and radar repairs were scheduled. With over two days, we went to the Japanese ancient capital of Kyoto, using subways and the railroad. We arrived in Kyoto late morning, and visited the Sento Gosho Imperial Palace. You only get to see the gardens and palace exterior. They were beautiful, but tours were only in Japanese at the time of our visit. As it is free, the tour is definitely a travel bargain. Afterwards, we went to Nanzen-ji Temple, a beautiful place with fabulous gardens. We watched a movie being filmed, and toured several finely preserved temples very much in service today. These gardens were the best we saw in Japan.

We walked along the Kamo-gawa River between the Higashiyama Sanjo and Kawaramachi stations, an area of non-stop restaurants of all descriptions. We enjoyed a very traditional Japanese meal in a very traditional restaurant. Our dinner included shushi and a number of other dishes. The owner spoke English, and was very helpful. It was a very satisfying experience. We returned to our ship about 10:00 PM

It is worth noting that the crime rate in Japan is very low. You can walk around with your camera with little fear of being robbed or assaulted in any neighborhood, day or night. Illegal drug use seems to be about nil. The people are reserved, but nearly all will try to help if you have a question. It’s a good place to travel. They must be doing something right.

Next day we took the train to Kobe, and a cable car to climb Rokko San, the mountain and National Park overlooking Kobe. It’s solid industry below as far as the eye can see. The park is small, the biggest feature being a golf course. The mountain peak is loaded with transmitters of all types, a somewhat gaudy observatory, and a large number of restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s hardly as close to nature as would seem to me appropriate in a National Park, but it was still a good tour. We saw no significant damage remaining from the devastating earthquake they suffered only five years ago.

We toured the Panasonic Center in Osaka, and saw displays of modern Japanese appliances, including efficient kitchen storage, very practical refrigerators and freezers, and toilets with heated seats and sounds to mask the possibly offensive sounds of the user. Unfortunately, the display of their latest electronics and virtual reality had been closed the month before. My wife was so much the happier; she saw what she wanted without any boring side shows.

Next, we had a day stop at Nagoya, where we toured the port area including the Maritime Museum, the Fuji Antarctic Exploration Ship, and the Nagoya Port Aquarium.

Back to Yokohama, this time in two days. We went to the Sogo Department Store in Yokohama, the largest department store in the world, and saw many beautiful handicrafts, china, kimonos, black ink drawings and all other sorts of things. It was better than a museum! On the top floor they have a selection of 14 restaurants. We picked one that was billed as a French restaurant, but the food seemed very Japanese. Perhaps the fact that they served the food with knives and forks instead of chopsticks was the foreign qualifier.

Our final day in Japan we went into Tokyo, taking the train to the Shibuya station. We walked to the Tokyo Electric Power Company Museum, one of the few museums in Tokyo that are open on a Monday. They have 7 floors of exhibits, with something for everyone - power generation of all types, electrical distribution systems, home appliances, computers, etc.

Then on to Asakusa in the Northeast of Tokyo where we visited the Senso-ji Temple and the Dempo-in Temple and garden. There is an excellent tourist information center near the Asakusa subway station with very good maps, friendly English speakers, and good advice all for free.

Our whirlwind tour continued with a brief stop at Akihabara, often called "electric city", which is Tokyo’s discount electronic center. We looked at several stores, and my wife bought a couple of small items. I was looking perhaps for a digital camera, but most had descriptions only in Japanese, and most of the staff did not speak English well enough to be of help. I decided that whatever the deal, I'd be better off to buy in a location catering to English speakers so I'd know about the features and software I'd be buying.

We finalized our Tokyo tour with a stop at the Ginza station in Tokyo’s business heart and upscale shopping area. We walked in the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace. It was getting dark, so we found our final Japanese restaurant and had dinner. We got back to the ship about 9:00 PM. I felt some satisfaction in mastering the public transportation systems in one of the world’s largest cities, with ticket vending machines and subway maps mostly in Japanese. On the few occasions when we had difficulties, my wife always quickly found an English speaking businessman to point to the right stairway (some have nothing but Japanese writing). We left Yokohama at 6:00 AM on the following morning.

Now, we're halfway back to New Zealand, and are passing Bougainville Island, New Guinea, but we're too far away to see much. Yesterday the Captain presented us with baptismal certificates (in German, and suitable for framing) for crossing the Equator. I was named Gadus Morhua after a Cod and my wife Scomber Scombrus after a Mackerel. The certificate showed the seaman with a mermaid - beautiful she was - and I've been peering out with my binoculars ever since. To be honest, we've enjoyed the trip so much that we'll feel a bit sad to leave the ship in Auckland after a voyage of 47 days. The Tasman Discoverer and her crew are friends, and it’s easy to see why many people choose a life at sea.

I hope we'll be able to do it again sometime.