A journey on a modern German container ship belies romantic images of a voyage by rusty tramp steamer
Around the World in 84 Days
A journey on a modern German container ship belies romantic images of a voyage by rusty tramp steamer (2-12-95)


ROTTERDAM, The Netherlands--Late on a dark Dutch night, a suspicious-looking incident was occurring on the outskirts of town. I ought to know, because I was there.

It was nearly midnight, 52 days into my 84-day cruise around the world by freighter last summer. I had walked back toward my ship after a few hours spent exploring Pernis--a nearby village that seemed so quaintly Dutch, I half expected its residents to hobble about on wooden shoes. Eager to save time, my companion and I tried to enter Rotterdam's container-ship terminal through a back entrance--only to face a locked, 12-foot-high, wire-mesh gate. Our only option: Climb it.

That was fine by my much-younger companion, Second Mate Friedhelm Stramm, but this certifiable senior citizen shuddered at the prospect. Only with his assistance did I make it up and over. That's when Stramm clapped me on the shoulder and said, in halting English, "This has been a small adventure, yes?"

Yes. Stramm was one of 20 crewmen aboard the German freighter DSR Europe, and I was one of three passengers. That's right: Only three passengers on a 45,000-ton ship the length of three football fields. Unfortunately, it became clear early on in this voyage that my fellow travelers and I wouldn't hit it off. So I'd worked at getting to know crew members, Stramm among them. Now, after our evening in Pernis, we trudged through the terminal and up the rickety gangway. I staggered back to my cabin and collapsed onto my bunk--reminded, once again, that freighter travel is to luxury cruising as a neighborhood Travelodge is to the Ritz-Carlton.

* * *

I'd signed up for this adventure through Pasadena-based Freighter World Cruises, which two years ago had booked me on a 44-day voyage Down Under aboard another German-owned ship. For me, being at sea is one of life's great bonuses. (My wife disagrees, hence her absence.)

I relish the opportunity freighter travel affords for reading, writing and contemplation, along with memorable sights, sounds, smells and sunsets unavailable to landlubbers. And while my nearly three-month cruise cost me about $10,000, the per-day rate worked out to be less than half what I would have paid for a comparable journey on a commercial liner.

My earlier freighter trip had been on a ship manned by crewmen from the former West Germany. Most spoke English, but that was not so aboard DSR Europe. These sailors hailed from the former East Germany, which, before reunification in 1990, had been the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a Soviet satellite. In school they'd learned Russian but no English. Thus, to communicate on board, we used bilingual dictionaries--and plenty of body language.

One day, answering a question of mine, Stramm described, ever so succinctly, what it was like to grow up in a totalitarian state: Sehr schwierig --"Very difficult," as I discovered from my dictionary.

Irrespective of potential linguistic problems, freighter travel requires an open mind and a lot of self-sufficiency.

In port, I was on my own--no chartered coaches with native guides. At sea, I could forget about trapshooting, bridge tournaments, midmorning bouillon and midnight buffets. I had only three organized activities: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I was wrong, however, to expect primitive conditions. DSR Europe, which started service in 1992, couldn't have been more up-to-date. This was no rusty tramp steamer out of a romance novel: Everything was sleek and computerized, from navigation to the loading and off-loading of containers from its massive deck. One consequence of this advanced technology is that we spent far less time in port than in the heyday of bulk-cargo freighters.

As I discovered, you don't take a container ship to see the world, because what you mainly see is the sea. Of my 84 days aboard DSR Europe, we spent a mere 18 docked at 18 ports. Sometimes we had only a few hours ashore, and much of that time we spent getting downtown, for terminals tend to be located in the boondocks.

* * *

We departed in mid-June from Long Beach, and after a night's layover at Oakland, headed for the Far East. From there we sailed to Southeast Asia, through the Suez Canal and via the Mediterranean to four northern European ports, across the Atlantic to New York, then through the Panama Canal and, at long last, back to Long Beach.

Our first foreign stop was Yokohama, Japan, where we threaded our way through heavy harbor traffic in dense, early-morning fog. I felt the irony of this American passenger--a veteran of World War II--reaching Japan aboard a ship flying the German flag. Freighter travel makes strange, though not unwelcome, bedfellows.

Next came Osaka, Japan, then South Korea, Taiwan and, later, Singapore (too squeaky clean for my taste) and impoverished Sri Lanka. My favorite Asian port was Hong Kong, where my destination was carnival-like Temple Street. Festooned with Japanese lanterns, it abounded with cut-rate shops and low-cost eating places. My choice was a sidewalk cafe that boasted five tables and the best fried shrimp I've ever tasted.

Food was one of the commodities transported by DSR Europe, along with machine parts, clothing, furniture, booze, you name it. These goods filled about 2,000 containers weighing as much as 24 tons each, which, when lashed together, occupied much of the deck space. But there was still plenty of room for walking, sunning and lolling.

Located within the ship's six decks were these fixtures: a fitness room (with Ping-Pong table, stationary bike and rowing machine), sauna, laundry, dining room, lounge/library (which stocked only a few books and videos in English), medical dispensary, single-bed infirmary, a store that sold beer, wine and smokes at duty-free prices and, wonder of wonders, der Schwimmbad --the swimming pool.

This pool was pathetically small: a mere 13 feet long, 10 1/2 feet wide and 6 1/2 feet deep. But when the weather turned balmy and it was filled with ocean water, the pool became a center of the ship's social life, especially late-afternoon beer binges.

Situated topside was the bridge--which, like the steamy engine room below, was one of two vital chambers of the ship's heart. Passengers were welcome on the bridge at any time, day or night, and I spent so much time there drinking tea and learning the difference between latitude and longitude that it became my home away from cabin.

* * *

Since I was traveling alone, I had a double cabin all to myself. Measuring about 18 by 12 feet (216 square feet total), it compared favorably to cabins aboard cruise ships. The steward, who also served our meals, cleaned it every other day and changed our linen twice a week.

My cabin featured two large windows with unobstructed views, as well as refrigerator, coffee maker, VCR, desk, sofa, two comfortable chairs, ample storage space and fully tiled bathroom with shower. I'd brought along not only two dozen paperbacks but my own shortwave radio to keep me abreast of the outside world, without which I'd have gone bonkers.
(Crew members also had radios, and as the trip progressed they kept asking, Wer ist Oh Yot Simpson? By the end of the voyage, they knew full well who O.J. was, courtesy of their German-language newscasts.)

Shortly after boarding, I established a routine for days at sea. It included hourlong morning and afternoon workouts--vigorous exercise performed in my cabin and in the fitness room.

I also set aside periods for reading and writing in my journal. Despite the language barrier, I often had pre-dinner drinks with crew members and sometimes drinks after dinner too. (Oh, for subtitles!)

Weather, naturally enough, determined shipboard life. When it was overcast or rainy--a rarity, since this was summertime--I suffered minor attacks of claustrophobia from staying below decks. But when seas were calm and skies were clear, I enjoyed watching the sea life: dolphin, whales, flying fish and enormous schools of tuna arching lazily at sunset. Best of all was swimming at night, when, while floating, I could track shooting stars.

There were also occasional outdoor barbecues, where language hurdles mysteriously eased. At one such feast, Third Engineer Lutz Klatt told me why he'd gone to sea in the first place. "In the GDR," he said in painstaking English, "that was the only way we could travel. If not the sea, we were prisoners in our own country."

At mealtimes, I longed for good old American chow. The cook served up tasty rolls, salads and pastas, but his favorite dish was bratwurst, accompanied by ever-present sauerkraut. It almost came as a relief when, at breakfast, we were offered warm pudding soup, vanilla or chocolate-flavored. Almost.

Everyone ate together from the same menu. At the passenger table, my two compatriots were fellow Californians: a widower and his close friend whose wife, like mine, disdained ocean travel.

For reasons I never fathomed, they treated me as though I were the Invisible Man. I'd hoped my innate charm would win them over, but after nearly 250 meals together, we would part company back at Long Beach without even saying goodby.

* * *

Toward journey's end, I experienced a lifeboat drill to end all lifeboat drills. Its purpose wasn't to teach us emergency procedures--we'd had that humdrum exercise months earlier--but to test basic evacuation equipment and the crew's familiarity with it.

DSR Europe carried a 25-foot-long, self-propelled lifeboat that, in case of disaster, could accommodate everyone on board. Capt. Uwe Pahl had urged me to join the half-dozen crewmen who would take part--an exercise, he promised, "you won't soon forget." An understatement if ever there was one.

The torpedo-shaped lifeboat, painted a vivid orange, had a single enclosed cabin with airplane-like seats. It sat atop tracks that jutted out at a 45-degree angle over the ship's stern. Shortly after I took my place inside the cabin, we began hurtling toward the ocean. Completing the final 40 feet in free fall, our lifeboat smashed its pug nose onto the water with a jaw-jarring bang that made me fear for my molars. Our reward for this indignity was a leisurely cruise around the mother ship. Then came my severest challenge: To re-board DSR Europe, I would have to climb a rope ladder dangling about 25 feet down the lurching ship's side. An officer help me mount the ladder and begin my wobbly ascent. I never glanced down at the rolling ocean lest I tumble in. Once on deck, I shivered compulsively . . . but in 15 minutes I was slurping Jim Beam to celebrate my survival. Two days later, we landed at Long Beach. When my wife boarded, I gave her not only an extended embrace but also an extended tour.

On the bridge, Capt. Pahl proudly showed off his electronic gear. "Has your husband told you about the lifeboat drill?" he asked. "By the way--" now he turned to me --"how did you like it?" My answer applied both to that extraordinary event and to the whole journey. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything, but"--here I was groping for words--"maybe not again, thanks very much, till the 21st Century."