Sunday, June 22, 2003

Charlotte Phillips

Be a seafaring vagabond
on a trip to anywhere

Preparing for any trip is a hassle, but packing for five to six weeks at sea on a freighter where the only shop on board is a "slop chest," and doing that while in pain is daunting. A debilitating case of shingles is adding to my woes as I try to get ready for the unknown, but I am hanging in there with tenacity -- and agony.

My dream trip is finally close to becoming a reality. I have my passport, Chinese visa, shots, the required emergency evacuation insurance and a two-month supply of medicine. My final packet from the booking agent for Transeste Schiffahrt includes my boarding papers and one more set of forms to sign. There is an agreement in German (not a language I have studied), then a short English translation, with a proviso that pulled peals of laughter out of my pain-wracked body: "Only the German wording is binding for this contract. The translation into English is only meant to provide some assistance without commitment to such passenger who may not completely be in command of the German language."

What? Whatever. I'll sign anything at this point.

The English translation says the company disavows any responsibility for routes, ports of call and schedules because the vessel Trade Bravery is in the tramp cargo trade, so this voyage to China and South Korea could end up anywhere.

An advisory warns me to wear flat, rubber-soled shoes at all times. Umm, guess I'll have to unpack the ball gowns and sequined spike heels. It says to hold onto safety ropes or hand rails if the ship is pitching and rolling. Also, it says ship doors are very heavy and to avoid holding the frames as the motion may cause the door to shut on your hands or fingers.

More advice: Hold onto the table if the chair should move while you're eating; do not stand on chairs, beds or any object for any reason. I can't think of a single reason why I would want to do that. And it warns: Do not trip when going up high steps and thresholds and do not slip when you're on the wet decks.

Then there's the advisory about theft on land: Do not venture out alone. Well, I'm traveling alone so I can't heed that advice. But the rest is common sense: Don't take large purses, a passport, driver's license, a lot of money, credit cards or jewelry on port calls. But it adds, "These words are not meant to deter you from having an enjoyable time ... but to remind you to be watchful for the bad people of the world."

General information includes a note that the ship does not provide soap, washcloths or Kleenex -- although detergent is provided for washing clothes -- and items for purchase from the slop chest are very limited.

IN THOSE Howard Pease seafaring adventure books I read as a kid, some young, unwitting boy/man would end up on a ship with only the clothes on his back, and he would have to buy "dungarees" and such from the slop chest before getting involved in solving murders and unraveling webs of intrigue. I am delighted that they still call it that. Although I doubt there would be anything in the chest that I could use, I will find something to buy just to have something from the slop chest. The ship notes that travelers cheques, credit cards and checks are useless; only cash is welcome on the ship.

The company informs me that European vessels do not provide desserts and tells me to take along candy for after-dinner consumption (chocolate-covered macadamia nuts might win me a few friends) and to leave my shoes at my cabin door to avoid tracking in soot and oil from the decks. It cautions that being allowed on the bridge is a privilege, and if a person is inconspicuous and does not distract the officers on duty, there is a better chance of being invited back. They won't even know I'm there.

It is made clear that when you leave the ship in ports, you are on your own and you had better be back before the ship leaves or it'll go without you.

Although the ship's weight allowance is 200 pounds, the airline's maximum is 40 pounds. I had hoped to buy bulky items in Long Beach before boarding to avoid taking them from here. But at the last minute, the freighter's departure date moved up by two days, leaving me mere hours or a short night in Long Beach, instead of the three days I had booked on the Queen Mary, a luxury liner from Titanic days that is now a first-rate hotel, with rooms starting as low as $99 a night. I felt lucky that I had managed to snag one of those, but now, who knows?

Just in case we sail immediately, I will take everything with me. I'll go light on the clothes. After all, I have free detergent so I can wash and rewear the same things. By the time I pack my iBook, surge protector (that the line says I must take), adapters, blank CDs, camera, battery charger, first-aid kit (there's no doctor on board), books, tablets, note cards, pens, six weeks worth of toiletries, medicines and cosmetics, necessities such as scissors, needle and thread, after-dinner candy and my trusty Associated Press Stylebook, there will be little room for clothes.

Fortunately, my iBook has the wonderful World Book, which will entertain me for hours and will keep me from having to take along an Atlas, as I always do on trips. It also has a chess game and other things I haven't yet discovered. I'll store music and a few language programs, with the help of my computer-literate friends, so I can brush up in my spare time. Actually, all my time will be spare time. My only job on board will be to eat.

TRADE BRAVERY carries a maximum of seven passengers, with three double cabins on the fifth deck and my single cabin on the second deck, all by itself. I will have a bed, desk, chair and bathroom (truly a blessing), with an unobstructed port view and an aft view partially blocked by a lifeboat. I won't mind having a lifeboat in my sights. As far as I know, I am the only passenger.

The ship is of German ownership and Antigua registry. The officers are German and I will eat my meals with them, three times a day, or as often as I can climb the many sets of steep ladder-type stairs to the dining room. The crew is Filipino. I will be totally incommunicado, except in case of emergency, when the ship can be contacted via Inmarsat satellite.

My passage cost $3337 for about 35 days on the freighter, which breaks down to about $100 a day for cabin, transportation and three meals a day.

Regular cruise ship prices vary greatly, depending upon the level of luxury and the route being traveled, but begin at about $120 a day.

But freighters are not a dependable means of transportation. Port calls are short and can be canceled. Their appeal is strictly for would-be seafarers who just want to be out in the middle of the ocean for several weeks on a working freighter, soot and oil and all.

Delays are to be expected in freighter travel. If the voyage lasts up to 10 days longer than it is supposed to, the freighter company will assume the additional cost of a passenger's food and cabin. If it is delayed beyond 10 days, however, the passenger will be charged. So the cost could increase, but will not decrease unless the voyage is canceled entirely.

We will tentatively head to Huangpu, Hong Kong Chiwan/ Shexou, and Shanghai, China, and then Pusan, South Korea.

I have a sentimental attachment to China. Besides, the first old Pease book that I located a while back on the Internet was "Shanghai Passage," so this Shanghai passage of mine fits like a glove. If we go to China, that is.

Charlotte Phillips, a copy editor with the Star-Bulletin since 1996, is leaving to embark on her most excellent adventure. Her freighter departs July 2 (maybe) for five weeks (or longer) at sea.


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