Freighter

Our trip on a freighter – Something between love and hate…

View on deck of the Grande Nigeria
View on deck of the Grande Nigeria

Some facts about the trip:

  • first planned date of departure: December 18th, 2018
  • other dates of departure: December 22nd, 2018; December 30th, 2018; January 10th, 2019
  • actual date of departure: January 11th, 2019
  • first planned date of arrival in Rio de Janeiro: January 30th, 2019
  • actual date of arrival in Rio de Janeiro: February 9th, 2019
  • 26 crew members and 5 passengers were on board during the time we spent on the vessel
  • co-passengers: Michel from France (69 years old), Florian from Germany (62 years old), Lesley from Great Britain (78 years old)
  • stops on the way:
    • Le Havre, January 13th – 15th, 2019
    • Porto, January 18th – 19th, 2019 (anchoring and waiting to get into the port for one day → morning of Jan. 18th until morning of Jan. 19th)
    • Dakar, January 24th – 28th, 2019 (anchoring and waiting to get into the port for 4 days → morning of Jan. 24th until morning of Jan. 27th)
    • Vitoria, February 5th – 8th, 2019 (anchoring and waiting to get into the port for two days → afternoon of Feb. 5th until evening of Feb. 7th)
  • ship problems on the way:
    • drifting because of engine problems outside of Le Havre just having left the port: about 4 hours
    • drifting because of engine problems outside of Dakar just having left the port: about 30 hours → running on 7 cylinders instead of 8 for the whole Atlantic Ocean crossing
    • anchoring outside of Vitoria to fix these engine problems before entering the port: about 50 hours
  • besides breakfast there were 2 meals each day, usually consisting of 3 individual servings + some fruit as dessert
  • Thursday and Sunday were special meal days, so there was even more food and more fancy food, i.e. ice cream or some special cake for dessert

“Wow, what an ugly ship…”

I’m taking one last good look at the Grande Nigeria before I finally leave her behind for good. Our parting had to happen at one point, we both knew that right from the start. But when I looked at her in that moment, as ugly as she is, I was actually missing her a bit already.

It truly was a love and hate relationship between her and me. There was a time when I was on deck leaning on the railing, looking down on the ocean and thinking, “I could just jump into the water and swim the rest to the coast. It’s not that high. And it’s really not that far either.” We were anchoring outside the coast of Dakar and it was Friday. We arrived the day before and would not be able to get into the harbor before Sunday. That was the first time I thought I might actually go crazy on this big piece of floating metal. I walked the deck up and down looking over to the bits of African land I could see. I felt like a tiger in a cage. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it and worst of all, this was somewhat my own choice. Before actually jumping off the ship I walk into the bridge, which is the control unit of the vessel. Michel was sitting on the couch doing his crosswords. We look at each other and he just laughs making a joke about my lovely facial expression. I guess, I was showing my mood all over. At least that cheered me up somewhat and I smiled just a little, but not too much. The days before weren’t necessarily what I would call relaxing and, to be honest, not quite what I expected from this trip across the sea.

That’s just one lesson I truly learned on this ship: Never expect or take anything for granted. Take cheese, for example. While there must’ve been tons of fish and meat stored somewhere on the ship, cheese was a rarity. When there was cheese, it was served as a single slice on a plate. It does feel quite odd to eat one slice of cheese with a knife and a fork. Fortunately I made the cook play a game of table soccer over 8 slices of cheese once. I always lost against him but that time motivation was high enough and I won. But 8 slices…that’s usually what I eat as a snack and now that had to last for days. Normally I would just go get some in a grocery store but oh wait, there is no grocery store in the middle of the ocean. It’s pretty interesting what you start missing once you can’t have it. Here is just a few examples:

  • Cold water: Leaving the harbor of Porto and getting close to Dakar the temperatures started rising, up to 30°C to 40°C. That was also the time when there was only hot water coming out of the shower. I don’t know exactly what was wrong but you could either let it run for 5 to 10 minutes to get some cold water. Or you just got yourself boiled because it wasn’t just warm. It was HOT.
  • Silence: There is always a noise on a freighter. You hear machines everywhere and I mean EVERYWHERE. There’s not a spot on that ship with a bit of silence. The first couple nights we had to use earphones and music to be able to fall asleep somehow.
  • A window: We had an inside cabin without a window. It is OK for a few nights but at a certain point you loose all relation to daylight and do not know when to get up anymore. That tends to get quite confusing.
  • Certain foods: Fresh vegetables, bananas, candy, ice cream, real fruit juice (not the colored sugar water some people call fruit juice), nuts,…
  • Drinking water: Yes, drinking water was limited, too. At the beginning there were always two 1.5l bottles for lunch and supper for the 5 of us. So 4 bottles for 5 people…Christian and I asked for an extra bottle every other day to have just enough. But the temperatures got hotter and we were still trying to keep up the fitness. So, at one point the water supply became a bit of a problem. After the 5 of us did a little of complaining we were given 3 bottles for each meal. Later we found out, that actually every passenger was allowed one beverage for each, lunch and supper. Since there was a bottle of wine to each meal for the other three passengers, that left us with 2 bottles of water. But, of course, we shared the 2 bottles of water among each other, not knowing this particular fact. But seriously, how can you put water on the same level as alcohol?
  • Just any kind of distraction: From the Canary Islands almost all the way to Dakar, we had a blind passenger. I named him Klaus. Klaus is a carrier pigeon. I never thought the sight of a pigeon could get me that excited but it did. When you see exactly the same things, the exact same people and do almost the exact same things every day for weeks, almost everything may get you excited.
Klaus, the pigeon
Klaus, the pigeon

There’s also a few things which were kind of funny or disturbing to find out and which I actually never considered before getting on a freighter:

  • The whole ship is constantly moving. Yeah, I was aware of that fact in advance but it’s a whole other story to actually experience it. Running on the running board gets pretty tough when you cross the North Sea during a bit of bad weather. Rolling back and forth in your bed is also something I never thought about. When the ship took bigger waves, you felt like riding a roller coaster. On our first stop in Le Havre we did some sightseeing offshore. I could not stand still all day because it felt like the ground was moving.
  • There are port pilots. Once a bigger ship enters or leaves a port area, people who are schooled for that particular area take over the navigation of the ship, next to the captain. They get on the ship while it is entering the port area. The whole procedure can get quite dangerous since the pilot enters from another small ship and climbs into the vessel from the outside.
  • Abandon-Ship or In-Case-Of-Fire exercises: Being quite a distraction from the ordinary monotony on the ship, these exercises were actually kind of entertaining. Passengers and crew shared a few laughs. Except for the first days, we had such a calm sea throughout the whole trip that I actually never considered that our ship may sink. But they do and those exercises are a necessary procedure to limit the amount of chaos in case one of the emergencies happens. Just a few days ago, the Grande America, another ship of the Grimaldi fleet, sank because of a fire on the container deck.
  • Garbage policy or general impact on the environment: More than once I felt devastated watching the crew members throw garbage into the ocean, tiny plastic cups they used to drink coffee, even big black plastic bags. Just to find out that this is somewhat normal, that even broken washing machines are kicked off board. Also that particular freighter is transporting thousands of cars from one part of the world to the other. Sports cars and SUVs, all pretty environment friendly…not. Not to mention the amount of fuel this vessel is burning every day just to keep moving.
abandon ship exercise
abandon ship exercise

Last but not least, a list with all the positive experiences I would not want to miss:

  • Just close your eyes for a second and try to imagine yourself standing on a freighter in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is night, everything around you pitch black, a crystal clear sky full of stars above you. Millions of stars. All you hear is the waves underneath you (and the ship’s roaring engine but you’ve already come to ignore it, so you are not actually hearing that anymore :P). The ship is moving slowly, in a way that calms you down and there’s no one but you outside on the deck. You know that for hundreds maybe thousands of kilometers there is nothing around you but water. That feeling, you feel right in that moment, is indescribable.
  • Sunsets, sunsets and more sunsets. There is a phenomenon called the green flash that occasionally happens when the sun is setting. In the moment when almost all of the sun is just below the horizon with only the upper edge of it still above the horizon. For just a second or two this tiny upper part might appear green just before it disappears. Awesome sight!
  • Crossing the Line: It was the first time we entered the southern hemisphere and we did that on foot. Well, basically we did 🙂
  • The Grande Nigeria Drinking Club, in short GNDC. I think, it was during the second week on sea, when we decided to establish that club, inspired by a travel report of someone who had a similar journey on another Grimaldi ship, the Grande Angola (https://amzn.to/2XORHtY). Seeing the same people every day in an environment like that makes you get really close to them. While we were having our GNDC meetings on deck, we spent the time watching sunsets together, analyzing stars and sharing intimate thoughts not only with each other but also with some of the crew members. I really enjoyed these moments especially considering the different ages, life backgrounds and languages.
  • Flying fish and DOLPHINS!! So cool! Not more to say about that 🙂
port pilot climbing into the vessel
port pilot climbing into the vessel
sunset over the Atlantic Ocean
sunset over the Atlantic Ocean

After all, the best way to describe this trip is a steady up and down. There were moments when we’ve had a tough time, questioning certain things, even the decision to be on this trip. But we also got to know great people, had experiences which make us appreciate certain things even more and made us find out a few things about ourselves.

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