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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
By about 8pm I was ready for bed, so I would retire and read, make notes in my diary, and invariably be asleep by 10pm, pleasantly exhausted from the sea air, mild exercise, and thoughts of the days to come.
This was to become my routine for my days at sea, before arriving into port for 12-hour layovers where I could spend time ashore. The ports of Genoa, La Spezia, Barcelona, Valencia, back to Athens, then Singapore made sure I also had plenty of sightseeing time. I had more time ashore in these spots than I would have on a cruise ship, actually.
Our longest time at sea was from Athens down the southern Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean to Singapore. Just as we exited the Red Sea into the Arabian Gulf, three new people joined us. I visibly noted the change in mood on the ship the days leading up to these new passengers, a kind of tension building. Upon questioning Captain Stefan, he told me armed security guards would be looking after our ship as it transited the pirate zone for ten days.
Two British men and one South African joined us for the most treacherous part of the journey. Captain Stefan called a meeting for all crew and myself in the Mess Room and these three men—surprisingly short in stature—greeted and briefed us as to their reason for being on board. As the ship was to slow its speed so it was not ahead of schedule, in the dangerous Arabian Gulf waters it was necessary to have them on board to protect against a possible pirate attack. It turned out to be nothing like Captain Phillips. Granted, there was no doubt our three guards had a serious job, but they fitted in well with the crew and as a team. Soon it was easy to forget their real purpose on board.
Ten days went by too quickly and they exited the vessel off the coast of Sri Lanka. We still had plenty of time left at sea, and the best was yet to come.
“You sing, yes?” Cook tried to get me to sing as we continued our table tennis sojourns.
“Er, not very well,” I replied as I eyed him curiously.
“Yes! I think you sing Total Eclipse of the Heart!” he enthused. “We have competition tomorrow, in our Filipino mess room. You come. The boys, they used to you now—you good person, you pure heart, you welcome in our room.” My eyes misted up a little at his compliment, but not for long as he volleyed that tiny ball at me and it bounced off my forehead with some force.
Humming Bonnie Tyler in the pool the following morning before breakfast, humming through breakfast, I garnered odd looks from my gentlemen diners. I progressed to belting the song out to the flying fish as I walked to the bow of the ship, practicing what I would sing that evening.
Their gathering place was separate: the Filipino crew socialized in a different mess room than the European senior crew. Shyly entering the mess room that evening after dinner, a cheer went up. I motioned for quiet with my hands but the Filipinos cried “Madam sing first! Madam sing first!” I couldn’t help grinning. I’d been at sea almost two weeks now and this was the first time I’d been invited into their space, and the first time I’d experienced most of the Filipino crew all in one place. Far from being intimidating, they couldn’t have been more welcoming, if a little overwhelming.
As Cook typed in Bonnie Tyler and we waited for the someone to finish a rather raucous version of Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine,” I cleared my throat several times. When my turn came, I nervously started the first few lines, but again, my fears were unfounded. Cook grabbed the other microphone and joined in, prompting several more crew to do the same—highlighting the fact that even in fun times, you were always a team and never alone on a ship. As I warbled out the closing lines, the clapping and cheering began again in earnest with cries of “Tomorrow! You come back tomorrow Madam.” I found myself having to take requests and knew the rest of my days at sea would be taken up with singing practice.
So was my experience a scary one; filled with days sleeping in an actual container, scary being the only passenger (and female) on board? Not at all. I can truly say that men of the sea put the “gentle” into gentlemen. It’s summed up by the Chief Officer’s comment as I left: “Thank you for being here. The mood of the ship changes when a woman is on board, whether it’s the Captain’s wife or a single woman, it doesn’t matter. We become better humans, better men.”
Now then, no-one’s ever thanked me for merely being “me” and told me I’ve made them better people. Or invited me to sing for an audience of seamen.
After extensive global travels, Rebecca A. Hall left the UK to return to the country she fell in love with—Greece. There she teaches English, writes, and wryly observes that the chaotic nature of her adopted country actually suits her personality very well. She is a Rough Guide co-author for The Rough Guide to Greece and has contributed to numerous publications including Let's Go for RyanAir, the Daily Telegraph travel section and was interviewed twice by National Public Radio in the United States. When not writing, you'll usually find her drinking coffee with her friends, or sourcing a new place to eat baklava.
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