© 2012; 1996 Connecting: Solo Travel Network & Neville Cox. Information.
Note: This article is reproduced here for inspirational value alone and will not normally be updated.
Therefore, all facts, figures, and author's opinions are subject to change as time goes on.

Slow Boat to China

By Neville Cox

Helped by Kerry of TravLtips (agency specializing in freighter cruises), I booked on the Lykes Eagle, Lykes Eaglea freighter sailing round-trip from Vancouver, British Columbia to Tokyo, Japan; Tianjin, Qingdao, and Shanghai in China; and Pusan, Korea. With a favorable doctor's report, yellow fever shot, China visa, and travel agreement taken care of, I boarded the Eagle in March, 2004 at Fraser Surrey Docks. I was welcomed by the genial Captain Cruz Dalmaida of Chennai (Madras) India. I also met my learned and interesting ship companion, Peter (78; I'm 79), a retired lawyer and Supreme Court judge.

Built in 2000, the Lykes Eagle is 177 meter (580') long, 30 meter (98') wide, is licensed to carry 2,078 TEU containers to a capacity of 30,000 dead wight tons. Owned by C P Ships, the vessel is managed by Anglo-Eastern Ship Management of Wanchai, Hong Kong.

The amiable and dedicated master, Captain Dalmaida, leads a happy, young, and competent Indian crew of 3 deck hands, 5 engineering officers, 1 cadet, and 12 other hands. The ship sparkles and shines with cleanliness, evidence of a well-managed, effective team effort.

Spacious Cabins

My good-sized cabin was mahogany-paneled and had a comfortable sitting area with sofa, chair, table, and mini-fridge, twin beds, and separate facilities. I had a clear port side view. The passenger lounge is equipped with TV, VCR, DVD, stereo system, and exercise machine. A small outdoor pool is available.

My mealtime jaunt down and back the five decks to and from the officers' dining room provided my pacemaker 140 stair-steps of exercise at least three times a day.

Soon, we were at sea, and following instruction by the third officer, the captain sounded the fire alarm, and we joined the crew in our first fire and survival drills. We participated in these every week, whenever we were called.

Captain Dalmaida gave us permission to visit the bridge, day or night – with the understanding that the ship's business comes first, especially when a pilot is aboard.

To ensure the safety of the $50 million ship plus its cargo, pilots with detailed knowledge of local conditions are taken aboard (either by boat or helicopter) to bring the ship into port through the hazards of crowded shipping lanes, changing tides, reefs, and currents.

Delighted to be invited by Chief Engineer Sharad Bhatt and fitted with earmuffs, hard hats, and gloves, we visited the Eagle's engine room. A six-cylinder Sulzer Two-Stroke diesel engine provides the 24,050 horsepower that drives the huge ship and its cargo non-stop across the ocean.

Tokyo Japan

Our first call was to Tokyo after 11 days at sea. The captain and second officer, dressed in dazzling, crisp, white shirts with gold epaulettes and black ties, welcomed the Japanese harbor pilot delivered by picket boat. Smartly dressed in a business suit, round hat, and carrying a briefcase, this gentleman was all business. Barking instructions, talking constantly over his cell phone while scanning the water with binoculars, he guided the Eagle through dozens of freighters, tugs, fishing boats, etc to anchor overnight to await a berth.

Next morning, in drizzling rain, a different pilot maneuvered the almost 600 foot- long Eagle sideways into a vacant berth where giant cranes waited to unload our containers.

With unloading and reloading completed in less than 12 hours, we left Tokyo; there was no time for shore leave.


Docking at 0300 in this busy, modern port on the Yellow Sea, the unloading cranes went to work right away. Freighters make money with quick turnarounds, so we were already heading south by 1100 hours – again I never stepped ashore.

Qingdao China

We tied up at 1230 hours two days later in this Chinese port, but it was 1430 before the paper work was complete and we finally climbed down the gangway to grab two-and-a-half hours of shore time. Our visas and shore leave passes checked by a uniformed soldier of the Peoples Republic, P J and I joined members of the crew. Nine of us plus driver crowded into a taxi and were off downtown for shopping.

Somehow we got diverted to the Manila Bar to sample the beer. Then several long- haired crew members wanted haircuts. Finding a salon, a blonde Japanese artist in male coiffure put on a real show with shampoo, massage, and flashing scissor showmanship. But our dallying left only minutes for shopping.

At a market, we two gray-haired gents attracted a crowd while we tried to find some suitable presents. Time up, we grabbed a taxi and raced back on board just in time.

Shanghai China

Arriving early at this ancient seaport at the mouth of the Yangtze River, we again had to wait to enter the docks. Only ten hours later we were heading north for Pusan, without putting a foot on terra firma.

Pusan Korea

This pretty city is built on a hilly location overlooking the ocean. The many high-rises share a magnificent view of the busy marine traffic plying the fine, protected harbor. Again, we anchored and waited until evening before getting berthed. I finally got ashore about 2200 at this last port of call.

Taxied into town, I was directed to the Texas Road, supposedly an area with night shopping. However, the cab driver delivered me to a seedy quarter with narrow streets, large, blonde Russian night strollers in short skirts, countless gin mills, and endless mini-eating places. What shops there may have been were long since closed. Just a little unhappy finding myself alone in the back lanes, I went about finding my way back to safety on board the Eagle.

Ship's Company

A ship's body may be made of steel, with its muscles the powerful engines, but there is no doubt its heart is the ship's company. In our case, led by our hard working, considerate captain and a first-class team of deck and engineer officers, the crew men (and sometimes women) spend months away from home and families. Truly, they are dedicated to their work and respect the seas they sail upon.

Our Man Harish

Our steward, Man Friday, and Jeeves was a diminutive, smiling, young Indian from Gujarat – his full Indian name is Harishchandra. He made our beds, kept the cabin tidy, brought us tea each morning at 0600 and again at 1530. He also waited table and always with his searchlight smile. With all of his duties, Harish always found time to help us – great guy, good friend.

Ship in a Bottle

Mr Ismail Fakir, bosun of the Lykes Eagle, is responsible for maintaining the deck and its equipment. His crew of ordinary and able seamen attend to the ship's docking and sailing procedures under the direction of Chief Officer Fernandes.

Ismail is also skilled at fashioning miniature sailing ships from wood, with sails made from fine cloth and all painted in detail. He makes them collapsible enough to pass through the neck of a bottle. By gentle manipulation of many finely braided threads, the hinged masts are raised and the rigging set, then permanently glued into position.

What a Party!

When Chinna Bondi, the engine room fitter, learned that his 21-year-old son Lakshminadh had been accepted by the company as a trainee seaman, the captain agreed we should celebrate the occasion.

Peter and I were invited to the party in the crew lounge where the activities planned included games, singing, and dancing. The first game featured a hefty potato, which was hung on a string from the back of your trouser belt, the object being to swing the spud between your legs and drive a pop-can through goal posts made of more cans six feet away. Not easy! We old-timers tried our luck and in spite of encouragement, laughter, and clapping, we couldn't match the young crew – even with a little help by kicking the can.

Next came the old party favorite "Pin the Tail on the Donkey," except that once the blindfold was on they turned the picture of the donkey on its head, butt, or back. Great gales of laughter and kidding teased the poor unsuspecting contestant.

With plenty of pop, beer, and goodies from the galley, the party got into a musical mood. Nikhil, an engine oiler, played his harmonica to lead singing of favorite Indian songs, and even a version of Red River Valley. Then individual crew members sang Indian ballads and love songs – I'm sure stirring nostalgic memories of loved ones left at home.

With a boom-box to provide the music, dancing began. The young crewmen whirled and weaved, arms flying as they danced alone. Eight or nine of them were caught up in the insistent rhythms – Indian and Western pounded out without respite.

We left them to continue their party, happy to have shared the celebration with our new family of friends.

Homeward Bound

The steady throb of the Eagle's powerful engines soon began to eat up the miles as we sailed from Pusan, heading home. But aboard a freighter you don't take things for granted. From the managers we learned of a tugboat strike in Vancouver, and we were diverted to Portland, Oregon.

Sailing 120 kilometers up the Columbia River was a bonus, with details of the beautiful countryside and pretty hillside villages narrated by a friendly pilot.

We finally headed for Victoria, British Columbia to pick up the pilots who took us up the Fraser River to our starting port, Fraser Surrey Docks, near Vancouver.

What an adventure! We had traveled about 18,500 kilometers (11,500 miles), and I learned so much about the life of the ocean-going freighter man.


NOTE:The above trip is still operating (January 2005), but with a slightly revised expected itinerary: Vancouver, Anchorage (alternate voyages), Tokyo, Qingdao, Xiamen, Hong Kong, Yantian, and return to Vancouver. As with any freighter voyage, the ports can be changed and passengers must be flexible in their schedule and expectations. For details on freighter travel and other unusual cruise opportunities, contact TravLtips at 1-800-872-8584. Their bi-monthly publication contains first-hand accounts, like Mr Cox's, on freighters, small ships, and unusual trips on traditional cruise ships. Or visit their web site and sign up for a free trial membership: www.travltips.com.

See also:
Freighter Travel 101

Comment on this article

>> Brenda Matteson: I'm 52, and although I was looking for information about how long it takes to freighter from the U S west coast to Japan, this also sparked my interest in ways to see the world. I love being at sea, and both the observations/thoughts of the writer of this article and the accommodations he described were inspiring. I'm going to have to look into this!

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