So here I was, flying to Savannah to board my freighter. I was nervous, for no one I knew had ever traveled by freighter before. As we landed, we passed over the port itself. From above, the ships looked like miniature game pieces from Axes and Allies and the containers themselves looked like the blue, orange, red and white roads from the Settlers of Catan. My heart raced, both for the excitement of the upcoming journey, but also for nervousness as to whether this was the right decision.
After landing, I called the port, as instructed by the travel agency. The operations manager was very friendly, but confused. “Now, wait a minute, why do you want to go on board?” she asked, with a southern drawl.
“Um…I am the passenger on the ship?” I replied hesitantly.
“Oh.” There was a long pause. “So you’re a paying passenger?”
“Yes I am.”
“Oh, Ok.” Another pause. “Does the captain know your coming?”
“Um…I hope so?” Through the rest of the conversation, she gave me directions on how to enter the port and where to go. When we hung up, I had an uneasy feeling that I would be an unwelcomed guest.
Thus you can imagine my apprehension while boarding the vessel. The 212 meter long ship dwarfed the taxi I was in. I made my way cautiously up the gangplank and was greeted by two Filipino crew members who welcomed me aboard with smiles and laughter. They probably noticed my discomfort as they took down my ticket and passport information, but the more they joked, the more uncomfortable I became. It seemed as if they were merely putting up with me.
A big non-smiling Caucasian walked into the ship’s office wearing white overalls and took a look at me. In thickly accented English, he said “Are you the passenger?” After answering in the affirmative and showing him my papers, he said, “Well, I was not expecting you, but perhaps the captain knows you are arriving. Come with me. I will show you to your cabin.” With that he turned around and took off.
“Great,” I thought to myself. “The port agent was right. They don’t know that I’m coming on board.” My fears of being a parasite were coming to fruition. He led me to a very small elevator and we went to the 7th floor. While in that small space, I learned that he, Petar, was the second officer and a Montenegrin. We arrived at a door marked “Owner” and he said, “This is the officer’s deck. This is your cabin.”
I took a cursory glance. Everything in the room was white, giving it a clean but sterile look. It was of the size of a comfortable single with its own shower. There was a bed, desk, bookshelf, closet, couch and table. Everything was tightly bolted down to the floor or the wall. In effect, it looked like a prison cell.
He continued with his instructions. “Dinner is at 5:30 on Deck A. We set sail at midnight.” I looked at my watch. It was 3:00, nine hours before undocking. As he turned to leave, I realized I had no idea if I was supposed to stay in my room for that entire time. “Excuse me but, is there any place on board that I should not go?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Go anywhere you’d like. The bridge is right there.” He points up the staircase. “Just don’t go on deck. You need a hard hat and safety training.” With that, he left.
I began to unpack and took stock of what would be my room for the next two week. There was a window over the bed and I was pleased that I had an unobstructed view of the shipyard. I found a mini-fridge under the desk. There were electrical outlets to plug in my laptop. I was pleasantly surprised that the walls were magnetic. It made it easier to attach my map of the world with some souvenir magnets.
I started to wander down the staircase, opening any door that did not look like a personal room or say “Restricted”. Quickly, I located the laundry room, recreation room, a ping pong table, a pool and the mess hall. I ran into the 2nd engineer, a German raised in Lithuania who offered a tour of the engine room. We descended below deck and entered a cavernous chamber painted green-and-white. On the way down, we pass a spare piston that was taller than a human. Then we saw the engine, all 50 feet of it with 8 of those pistons. We continued descending for three stories to reach the base and saw the 2.5 foot shaft attached to the propeller outside the hull. It makes a mean whirling sound that makes migraines seem tame. After the tour, I told the 2nd engineer how impressed I was by the engine. He shrugged his shoulders and said through his thick Russian accent, “This small motor. Last one was three times larger for a ship three times bigger.” All I could think of was “wow.”
I returned upstairs to visit the bridge. Outside of it was an ominous red lightbulb and a large “Restricted” sign. But Petar said I could go, so hesitantly I opened the door, half expecting to be chewed out by someone, but found it quite deserted. The view was amazing. Below us were rows and columns of containers all neatly stacked one on top of another like Legos. Two giant cranes towered above. A steady stream of trucks drove alongside the ship with containers and the cranes would grab one and place it neatly on the ship. I looked up and saw the lone operator controlling the crane and moving containers at a rate of more than one per minute. The crane, I realized, was the ultimate power tool. What an adrenaline rush it must be to operate a 15 story tall piece of machinery?
At dinner, I met the captain. He is Romanian, but spoke perfect English. He too welcomed me on board and after a quick conversation, invited me to the bridge for the launch. At midnight, I made my way up to the darkened bridge where I met the River Pilot, who was responsible for guiding us out into the ocean. He sat at the front of the bridge and beckoned for me to join him. For the next two hours, we talked about hiking, fishing, Europe, traveling, and all the subjects we could think of. Every once and awhile, he would give coordinates to the navigator as we maneuvered around the sand bars.
As we entered the open ocean, I stared out into the black horizon. The bright orange halo from the street lights became fainter as more and more stars became visible in the darken sky. But no matter how black the sky became, the sea was a darker, purer shade of black. Out here, there were no landmarks, no gas stations or 7-11s to take a left at. We were completely dependent on our electronic gadgets, gyroscopic compass, radar, GPS, etc., for navigational support. I felt sympathy and respect for the renaissance sailors who could navigate in these conditions with only magnetic compass and a sextant.
That night, as I lied in bed, all I could think of was what an amazing day it had been. I could feel the bare excitement of the open ocean. I was in a world that only seamen see and experience. The next 15 days were to contain some very unique moments that could only be experienced on a vessel. I would find out that Petar was a very gentle and kind person after you got to know him. But that first night threw away all doubt about traveling by freighter. I knew that I did belong, and was looking forward to the journey across the Atlantic.