Ravannah Allan is hooked on freighter travel. An energetic, retired teacher with ten luxury cruises and three freighter voyages under her belt, she has no intention of returning to a traditional cruise ship vacation. Why? Because, as she says, she has become a confirmed "untourist."
Untourist. Hmmm . . . I was intrigued. I'm a bit of an untourist myself, of the land variety up to now, but I've often thought about going on a long sea voyage.
Ravannah must have read my mind. "I'm just crazy about the ocean," she volunteered before I even asked. We'd met at the Solo Travelers' Café, a monthly event I organize [Editor's Note: not operating in 2010], in the Vancouver area for travelers to meet, talk and exchange info.
Then she began telling me about her last voyage. For three months in the summer of 2002, she sailed around the world on the Pegasus Bay, a ship chartered by P&O Nedlloyd Container Line. The plan was to sail around both Capes, and return to Tilbury, England. But engine trouble forced a change of course.
"It would have been too dangerous to head to Cape Horn in the middle of winter with engine trouble," she explained. Instead, they sailed north through the Panama Canal. "That's what freighter travel is all about. You never know what will happen. Being open to it is part of the adventure."
I wondered aloud what else appealed to her about freighter versus luxury cruising. She smiled, saying, "When you travel on a freighter you're not one of hundreds of tourists on a floating resort. You join a small community made up of the officers and crew."
Recalling the friendly Filipino crew aboard Pegasus Bay, she continued, "When there was a crew birthday or other special occasion, they would invite the passengers to join in the celebrations and sing and dance to the Karaoke machine.
"Every crew is different, of course, and some can be friendlier than others. Sometimes it's possible to get to know the Captain and the officers because passengers eat in the officers' dining room. And, the longer the voyage, the better the opportunity to get to know both the Captain and the crew."
Even a non-cruiser like myself has heard raves about the quality and quantity of food on cruise ships, but Ravannah warned that I should expect something quite different on a freighter, more like home cooking. "The quantity is good," she said, "even though it may be basic. It really depends on the cook, and it can get a bit monotonous."
"Speaking of monotonous, don't you get bored?" I asked. "After all, once you've walked around the ship a couple of times, what do you do for entertainment?"
"Well, you have to be pretty good at entertaining yourself, to say the least," she replied. "Freighter passengers are pretty independent people. Chances are, you will hit it off with some of them, especially if you like to play bridge, but you have to be comfortable with your own company and not depend on others to entertain you."
Ravannah likes to paint and spend solitary time dolphin-watching up front in the bow where "it's quiet." She enjoys walking around the ship, especially the larger ones. "It's a great way to get fresh air and exercise," she says, "and some ships even have a saltwater plunge pool."
"Being fit is a big part of being a freighter passenger. There are usually a lot of stairs to negotiate. There may be an elevator on the superstructure, the large white building on the deck of a freighter, but you can't depend on using it exclusively."
Ravannah's enthusiasm had aroused my interest in a trip by freighter, and I decided to check further with Ed Kirk of TravLtips, an agency specializing in booking freighter cruises for more than 30 years.
Have you dreamed of running away on a tramp freighter to no fixed itinerary? Destinations come and go as contracts are picked up en route.You can still go with the flow on tramp freighters from the Great Lakes to Europe, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.
Like Ravannah Allan, Ed Kirk emphasizes flexibility when planning freighter travel.
"Make sure your airline and hotel reservation dates allow for changes," he cautioned. "Ports of call can be canceled on short notice, rendering useless an expensive visa you bought before departure. Bad weather, loading or unloading delays can postpone your return."
Ed suggested I pose myself this list of questions as a primer.
After acquainting me with the basic physical and psychological requirements, Ed revealed more serious considerations that even a dedicated untourist should consider well beforehand.
Such drawbacks as these are insignificant to people like Ravannah Allan. When I asked her if freighter travel is worth the hassle, she replied passionately and without hesitation.
"Absolutely! The middle of the ocean is one of the few places on earth where you can still have a primordial experience of the stars, the wind and the sea."
Spoken like a true untourist. Drawbacks are reasons to go not reasons to stay. And besides, freighter travel has other practical advantages not yet mentioned.
With all this information to absorb, I think I must ponder a little longer whether to go to sea myself sometime soon or just admit that I am a landlubber at heart. Meanwhile, Ravannah Allan eagerly anticipates her fourth freighter voyage.
Documents: Valid passport with an expiry date at least 6 months beyond your return date; visas for each port, even if you aren't planning to go ashore.
Insurance: Adequate cancellation, luggage, and medical insurance for the duration of the trip.
Missions to Seamen are situated in ports around the world. Run by charitable organizations, they support and assist seamen, but passengers are invited to use them, too. They provide pick up service from the ship, exchange currency, postage stamps, and sell telephone cards, and often a restaurant is on the premises. Some missions provide reasonable accommodation when in port (In Tilbury, Ravannah stayed at the Stella Maris, run by the Catholic Church, for £22 night.)
Tipping: Officers do not receive tips. No set policy for crew members as is usual on cruise liners. As a guideline only, allow for US$3-$5 per day for cabin and dining room stewards, usually offered every week or ten days.
Toiletries, beer and wine (duty free), snacks and souvenirs are available at the ship store.
>> From Oscar Svanelid: I have done freighter travel myself. For people who are looking for an European freighter travel agent, I have booked through Sea Travel Ltd in London. Hope that helps.