The cargo experience

Once I found myself inside the commercial harbor of Le Havre, in northern France, I just stared at the steel monster in front of me. The Fort St. George Cargo Ship lay in dock while the crew was busy loading and unloading TEU’s (standardized containers of 20 or 40 feet). This was definitely a commercial organization and I was not quiet sure what to do or where to go, so I just climbed up to the vessel. I booked the passage just days earlier in hopes that it all works out. The journey would be with the French company CMA CGA across the Atlantic Ocean to Martinique. The officer on duty seemed to be satisfied with my papers (Insurance, medical certificate, ticket, passport,  etc.). The steward showed me the way to my cabin. For a moment it felt like he would say “there you go, that’s what you signed up for, see you in two weeks, idiot.”At least I brought enough to read and study to keep my mind occupied for the passage.

The crew mainly consisted of French officers, engineers and a deck crew from the Philippines. Don’t be mistaken by thinking that these companies will stop in harbors in the 3rd World and just pick up any cheap muscle. All these men are well studied and know exactly what they’re doing. The days of “just giving a hand” on commercial vessels are long gone. Therefore, I am on board as a passenger who has to pay for the passage, and I am not the only one. There are four of us who occupy the spare cabins.

Leaving the mainland behind we soon find ourselves in the rough north Atlantic conditions. Passing south of the Azores promises even rougher seas in the following days. For unknown reasons I am the only one looking forward to it. What would a sea fairy be without a storm? Contrary to earlier experiences on sailboats where the waves slap you in the face, there is something calm but unreal to the violent ballet of the waves observed from the inside of this giant.

What probably surprised me most was the food. Expecting simple canteen food I was completely amazed by our journey through the French culinary landscape. Every meal consisted of at least three to four courses, accompanied by a bottle of wine. EVERY MEAL! It was like living in a five star kitchen. Not that I would know what that would be like, but anyway. The snails and intestines may have challenged my stomach, but Albert “too funny” Garcon would always make up for it with his huge plate of fromage. He somehow reminded me of “Dinner for One” as he tumbled around like a drunk in the rhythm of the waves. After crossing tnto the tropics there was even a BBQ party on deck. When thirty seamen start to dance the YMCA there is truly a awkward moment, but once the French engine supervisor (who looks like Trubadix from Asterix and Obelix) goes bananas, the party has started. You just can’t make that stuff up.

The journey brought a lot of free time with it; to read, play cards or catch up with my thoughts. But the crew also made a big effort to give us a great insight into their everyday lives. Spending time with the crew, visiting the kitchen, learning about the navigation and the cargo business. The tour to the engine room was just insane. The room itself is like a five story building; hot as hell and with a main engine the size of a house. And let me remind you, this is a small boat compared to its big brothers. The Fort St. Georges with its 195m length fits about 2250 TEU’s. The biggest vessels today carry up to 18’000 containers! On trucks, they would form a line from Zürich to Paris! In this business, bigger is better. The fuel efficiency increases with the increasing tonnage the freighter can carry. There is no cargo transport (per tonnage) more efficient than by sea. Think about that for a moment. The energy needed to transport one container on a ship over the Atlantic for 5000 Kilometers is equal to the energy needed by truck for 250 Kilometers and by plane for 40 Kilometers!

The cargo experience definitely earned a recommendation from my side. It’s interesting to get an insight into the world of cargo, or in other words, to see how all our stuff is carried to us. It would also be a pleasure for the weak sea folks out there who like to spend time at sea but like watching from a safe distance. Having said that, I am now in the Caribbean so where are those crazy smaller boats to sail south?

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