Karaoke at Sea on a Cargo Ship
Story and photos by Rebecca A. Hall

One woman's experience of life with the guards and sailors while "cruising" on a container ship.

Traveling on a container ship

I didn't know what to expect when I boarded the monolith in front of me on that hot summer's day in Athens. Most people, if they choose to spend time at sea, travel by cruise ship; a choice of a la carte dining or all you can eat buffet, non-stop entertainment to keep you occupied and—of course—all those on shore excursions to be shepherded around. Not me. Always one to want to try something a little different, I thought I'd try traveling by container ship.

People’s reactions differed when I mentioned what I was going to do. They ranged from looks of forced interest; because not many people could relate, to abject horror; images of me literally sleeping in a container.

On the day

So there I was. After months of preparation and liaising with my agent, I found myself standing on the dock, the Hanjin Boston dozing in front of me, straining at her ropes, desperate to get back to sea. Korean built/German registered, she loomed slightly unwelcomingly over my head, almost 400 meters in length. No crew lined up to take my cheesy photo in front of the vessel before boarding—but someone did come to relieve me of my luggage. With a shy smile and very little eye contact, the Chief Steward—Nelson—asked me to follow him to my cabin and I would meet the Captain and crew later at lunch.

I stood in awe in the threshold of my cabin. It was 30 square meters (more than 300 square feet). With four massive portholes, lounge area, and en-suite bathroom, I was sure it rivaled any cruise ship cabin of a similar size at half the price.

Room on a container ship

After unpacking I rather nervously made my way down to the senior crew’s dining area for lunch as Nelson had informed me this is where I would eat.  Cautiously opening the door, four men stopped their chatter and rose from their seats, one of them pulling the only empty chair at the table out for me.

“Welcome!” beamed an affable character at the head of the table.  “I am Stefan, the Captain—and you are our passenger (said as a statement, not a question), sit, sit.” I never did get to learn the Captain’s surname as throughout the trip he insisted on only Stefan.  From the inception, any doubts that I’d be an unwelcome female presence melted away.

Dinner on board

The senior crew of Captain, Chief Officer, Chief and Second Engineer were from Northern European countries such as Switzerland, Germany and Poland.  The rest of the crew, such as the remaining officers, engine room, and cook (plus Nelson) were Filipino.  Captain Stefan and his men re-seated only after I had taken my seat.

Our food that first day was to set precedence.   Chicken cordon bleu, boiled potatoes and vegetables with fruit cocktail and vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream for dessert assured me that the cuisine on board was also going to be far from basic.  “With men away from home for so long, we have to keep them happy on board!” supplied Captain Stefan when I observed the quality of the food served. 

Menu on container ship

Later, as the ship pulled away into open waters, away from the safety of the harbor and land, I reflected that I actually didn’t feel nearly as nervous as I had upon initial boarding. Lunch had put paid to my trepidations and shown me what gentlemen I was dealing with. As we headed off, with the sun hitting the horizon to the west of us and I joined Captain Stefan and the Chief Officer on the Bridge, I felt excitement brewing.

Life on Board a Freighter Ship

One difference between cruising and “containering” is the lack of entertainment.  This didn’t mean I was bored or not entertained, however. With a small gym and exercise pool (filled with salt water whilst at sea, emptied / cleaned daily and refilled), I certainly had the opportunity to get exercise.  The long days at sea ensured I fell into a routine:

Pool aboard container ship

There was breakfast at approximately 7am (regardless of the time zone). A quick swim in the pool and/or a walk of the length of the ship to the bow. There I would sit in the “castle” and read, the only noise that of the bulbous nose plowing through the waters, occasional flying fish playing in the wake.

This would take me up to lunch at noon—and after assuring the gentlemen it was really unnecessary for them to stand every time I came to a meal, I would either be lucky enough to see the Captain, Chief Officer, Chief and Second Engineer all together, or depending on their duties that day, maybe just one or other of them would be there.

In the afternoon I would take a siesta. Upon waking I would once again have some exercise, maybe joining in with the basketball game played at the stern with the Filipino crew. At Chief Steward Nelson’s insistence, they had seemed to start accepting me more, were less awkward around me now that they knew I could be “one of them”—not some precious female.

Dinner would come around quickly at 6pm.  Usually I’d dine at 7:00 though. It was at dinner that I was guaranteed to see all the senior crew together and with no “home” to go to afterwards, our little corner of the world saw us putting the rest of the world right. Discussions on board the ship were far from materialistic and surface-level. We all had our own opinions—usually depending on upbringing and nationality—about what was wrong with the world and all sought to be heard.  I think each of us, if on land and left in charge, would have made a wonderful difference to the way things are run!

The cook had the hardest job of all on board that ship: the first one to rise, the last one to go to sleep, all those men to keep happy with a varied menu, no one to step in if he became ill; After some healthy discussions over dinner, the cook became my sparring partner at table tennis and he’d often leave the cleaning up of the kitchen to Nelson whilst training me in the finer skills of the game. I discovered more about his family in the Philippines; with cute baby photos on his phone. He’d often be away for a year at a time without seeing them, yet he was always smiling.

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