My first freighter cruise was in the fall (Northern Hemisphere) of 1997, aboard the Columbus Victoria; it turned out to be a glorious disaster. Freighter World Cruises did a wonderful job of setting up a complex plan with careful instructions on meeting the ship in Long Beach, CA. The overall plan was to leave the ship at the second call to Auckland, New Zealand, spend a week in New Zealand and then catch the next ship of the Columbus Line for the trip back to Los Angeles. Meeting the ship was no problem, given the excellent planning of Freighter World Cruises, with arriving a day early and staying in the San Pedro Sheraton Hotel for one night. The hotel chosen by Freighter World Cruises even had an arrangement to take me in their van directly to the ship side, which made the normal major problems of getting into the dock area and to the ship with large amounts of luggage simple. Unfortunately, a year later I found that the hotel was bought out by an Indonesian group and was a completely different story, no passage to the ship and strict Moslem menus with no pork for breakfast.
The Columbus Victoria was a relatively small container ship, mainly dedicated to the refrigerated or "refer" trade between Australia and New Zealand, and the US.(Ed. note: the Columbus Victoria described in this story was built in 1979, operates under Columbus Lines and is owned by Hamburg-Sud. The ships particulars can be found here). Instead of the usual practice of having the refrigeration units built into the containers, the Columbus Victoria and other ships of the Columbus Line use special containers that fit into the hold and automatically plug into the ships internal refrigeration plant through an ingenious air-filled donut coupling arrangements. So loading was rapid even for containers into the hold.
Being a relatively small ship and my being the only passenger made becoming acquainted with the ship and accommodations was a relatively simple process. The Columbus Line has a long history of carrying passengers in the Australian route and the ships are well set up. The Officers were German, both East and West, with the Third Mate being Kiribatian and the Steward was Austrian with an Kiribatian assistant steward. I found out later that this was the last voyage for the Austrian Steward and the Columbus Line was going to convert to all Kiribatian Stewards. For those not knowledgeable in the subject Kiribati is a country composed of a number of small islands that include the Gilbert Islands. In order to insure a source of crew members, a number of ship lines, including the Columbus Line, established a small school on Tarawa, the main island, to train Kiribatian Islanders in basic seamanship. This is now their main source of income. (Ed note: I recently learned that this school will be, or has been abolished; I was told by a highly reliable source that they get a bit irascible after a few drinks and get in a "fighting" mode, though the crewmen I have met from Kiribati were like seamen the world over: drink, spend money and chase after women. So if these are things you would like to do when in port, go ashore with one or more of the crew).
The ship was well laid out for passengers with all dark wood paneling, a little thread bare in places. Two passenger cabins, the large lounge with a large collection of books contributed by previous voyage passengers, the dinning room, the Stewards cabin, the enclosed deck and the outdoor swimming pool were all located on the same deck. This was only one deck above the ships offices and the main deck, and only four decks below the bridge. But even with this compact arrangement, there was a small two person elevator. (Ed note: elevators are rarely found on newer ships; they were expensive to install and maintain and took up space that could be used for cargo). Two additional cabins are located one deck above. Thus, with exception of the bridge and the main cargo deck, all facilities were just down the hall from my cabin. The cabin was very roomy and well laid out with two 3/4 beds, couch, table, easy chairs, refrigerator, large drawer and closet storage, and a 110 V converter (Ed. note: Most all ships these days run on 220 V and the passenger will have to supply their own power converters). The Columbus Line obviously had a long history and pride of working with passengers as evidenced by the book of extensive comments (all very complementary) from previous passengers maintained in the lounge.
With such a small ship and being the only passenger, settling in took no time at all. After unpacking and storing all my cloths and extensive number of books, I took a tour of the bridge and watched all the activity as the ship left LA. We were soon out of sight of land and I rapidly settled into a routine for the 15 day (now 13 1/2) voyage from Los Angeles to Auckland, NZ. Being a relatively old ship, the Columbus Victoria could only make about 16 kts. Each morning the Steward would make me a morning pot of coffee for my break; the nice thing about having a professional European Steward was that all I had to do was request things and they were delivered to my cabin. All things pass, however, as my professional Steward was apparently among the last. The afternoons were usually spent in a dip in the outdoor salt water swimming pool followed by reading on the large open aft deck with a cool drink reading. This was all interspersed with walks around the main deck and numerous visits to the bridge.
While this may seem boring to some, but I found it highly enjoyable. There was always something to see: sea birds, flying fish and the numerous tropical showers which seem to occur some time with rapid frequency. In addition, the captain made slight course alterations which had very little effect on his fuel consumption, but which took us one nautical mile off shore of six South Seas Islands: Malden and Starbuck Islands; Rakahanga and Manihiki Atolls; and Niue and Raoul Islands. This was possible because the sea depth drops off extremely rapidly for all and we could approach closely with little danger. The first two were low lying grassy deserted islands with at most one or two trees. The second two, however, were the classic South Sea Atolls enclosing a Lagoon with the population living on the outer Atoll in the case of Rakahanga, and in houses built on stilts in the case of Manihiki. In the hour or so that it took to pass, we were close enough to make out considerable, including people, by using binoculars. Anyone taking a freighter cruise should always include a good pair of binoculars, they will be the major asset for such a voyage. I used mine every day. The last two were somewhat larger rocky islands owned by NZ, with relatively large populations. These were the only two which we passed in the night and did not get a good view.
After 15 days we finally arrived in Auckland, NZ and I must admit that I was ready. On this first stop I just went downtown for the afternoon to shop, mainly books, have a meal and locate a hotel. Auckland is very convenient; only a short walk from the ship to the main gate of the port and a short taxi downtown. While Auckland is very convenient, it is also very hilly, as is all of New Zealand.
Back to the ship, after only a short stay for the three-day voyage, to Melbourne, Austrulia. In Melbourne I got off in the evening only for a quick trip downtown to have dinner and locate the train station. Back on the ship I packed a small bag and left early the next morning and took the train to Sydney. Given the schedule of the ship I was able to take the train to Sydney, have two days in Sydney and still rejoin the ship in Sydney. The train is a great way to see the countryside of Australia and meet Australians. People seem to talk more on trains. Trains are also downtown to downtown so getting a hotel was easy in Sydney, though with freighter schedules you are not able to pre-plan. Sydney is great and very water oriented.
After my two day excursion I took a very long taxi ride to the container port to rejoin the ship for the three day voyage to Auckland where I signed off the Columbus Victoria and carted everything to the hotel where that I had picked out on the first stop. I rented a car for my 6-day gunk hole tour of New Zealand. Two million people, four million sheep and all hilly. On my last day I Auckland I found an erecting shop for steam locomotives, my other great love in life. While touring these shops, I fell, doing considerable damage. After a quick trip to the Auckland Hospital, I found that I had broken my shoulder, cracked a hip and bruised considerably. Since it was a shoulder break a cast was not possible and the Auckland doctor wanted me to wait for a week to see if it was healing. Obviously I missed the ship. I tried but luckily the Captain would not let me aboard. I ended up spending a week in a down town hotel, sleeping part of the time setting up in chair.
The bottom line to all this is if you take a freighter voyage you should consider taking out trip interruption insurance. I ended up being flown first class back to the States with everything paid by the insurance.I ended up being flown first class back to the States with everything paid by the insurance. Here is a photograph of my first day back in Albuquerque in all my glory. In addition to all the other problems, my front tooth is a result of breaking a cap while eating a sausage roll at the Sidney Zoo. A second point is that if you have to have something like my experience, have it in New Zealand. The people are great. With all my hospital visits I never receive a bill; probably their National Health Insurance. At the hotel the bell boys waited on me hand and foot for the week and would not even hear of a tip; no one in New Zealand accepted tips, at least in 1997. Thus the trip itself was glorious only the last day was a disaster.
Ed. notes from R. F. Ahern