Working aboard a cargo ship
Cargo Ship Cruising: Working Passage
You know this is not your typical cruise when the alarm clock rings at 6 am and you dress up in old sweat pants and a raggedy T-shirt for breakfast…

We had signed up for working passage on a German-owned freighter, which was registered in Liberia and had an all-Burmese crew along with two Polish deck fitters.

We had spent months traveling overland from Europe to South Africa in our Land Rover, and now it was time to return. But we didn’t want to simply put our Land Rover in a container and buy airline tickets for us. Instead, we wanted to take the waterways back home ourselves.

This, however, was easier said than done, because many shipping companies refuse to take passengers these days. Sure, they have plenty of empty cabins in this age of computers and automation, but they are afraid of lawsuits and sky-rocketing insurance premiums. It took two weeks of making phone calls up and down the Yellow Pages to eventually find a shipping company that would accept us.

freighter cruising
The “Green Cape” freighter ship cruises the waterways.

Now, our car was safely tucked away in a blue container that we could actually see from our scuttle window sitting on the bow of the ship. We were assigned the pilot’s cabin. When a cargo ship needs to sail through difficult waters with dangerous reefs and treacherous sand banks, the captain takes local navigational specialists on board to guide the vessel through. Sometimes that can take a day or two. Hence the need for a special cabin reserved just for the pilot.

But the pilot was not needed now, so we had been assigned the pilot’s quarters. They were simple and quite narrow with a queen-sized bed, a small wooden table, a chair and a tiny bathroom. But it offered a fantastic sea view! A fresh salty breeze blew through the open window, billowing the white drapes, as we readied for our first day as ordinary seamen on the multi-purpose vessel “Green Cape.”

It is about 6,200 nautical miles from Cape Town to Rotterdam. Our final destination was the Netherlands ― a voyage that would take 16 days. Apart from having to work five days a week and half-a-day on Saturdays, we also had to pay US$ 10 per day each for food.

As we entered the crew mess, the cook asked us if we wanted to eat “European-style” like the two Polish sailors. Not wanting to be regarded as picky, we boldly opted for Burmese cuisine, a decision we dearly regretted after a couple of days. We are not particular about food, but this unique mix of fishy meat dishes and meaty fish dishes with sticky rice was hard to get used to. The chocolate toffees from the duty free shop on board saved us. And there was always toast and marmalade for breakfast.

Curious looks from the crew quickly turned into big smiles when we asked what we could do to help. My husband, Hans, was assigned to rust chipping, painting and sweeping.

I was put under supervision of the steward. Women were not allowed to work on deck, he explained to me in broken English ― “many dangerous” ― and handed me a cleaning rag, which was going to be my tool for the next two weeks. He assigned me the job of scrubbing the staircase walls. But the artificial neon light, no windows and the rolling of the ship was a bit too much for the first day.

Dolphins chase the bow waves of the cruising multi-purpose vessel.

I soon grew seasick and the color of my face turned into a peculiar shade of green. Everyone passing by was quite concerned and the steward quickly gave me dried lemon peel to suck on.

This did not really help, so he told me to take a break whenever I felt like it and step outside for some fresh air.

I liked that idea. So I cleaned for 20 minutes and then went for 10 minutes on deck to look into the clear blue waters. This soon grew to be my daily rhythm. The ocean constantly changed color: inky blue, greenish, brownish, light blue.

I saw dolphins chasing our bow waves. Flying fish jumped out of the water and giant sea turtles slowly lifted their ancient heads to watch us passing by. There were three dorsal shark fins in the distance. One day, I even saw whale fountains before the horizon.

But, we missed the magical moment of crossing the equator. Shortly before passing the 0º latitude point, the batteries in our handheld GPS gave out. By the time we had finally fetched replacements from the cabin, we had already sailed back into the Northern Hemisphere. That was a little bit disappointing, so we listened to the European weather report on our short wave radio instead. While we were sailing under sunny skies, it was raining back home, the radio said. That was at least a little bit of a consolation.

The sea was calm on most days. On a freighter almost the size of a small island, you hardly feel a gentle swell. At night we saw fluorescent algae shimmering off the West African coast. And the light of a million sparkling stars and the full moon reflected on the water surface. We dreamed of submarine worlds and ― cleaning. Hans talked about deck sweeping in his sleep. And after a couple of days of constant scrubbing chores — floors, walls, tables and then back to the floors again — I could hardly lift my right arm any more.

But we certainly couldn’t chicken out after hearing stories of other working passengers who had given up and just stopped doing their work. Certainly we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves. We also didn’t want to abandon our newfound friends who had to tend to their monotonous routines as well. Modern seamen life is not as romantic as one would think…

I was the only woman on board, but no one pinched my behind. However, there were a couple of suspiciously empty spots on the wall of the crew mess. I’m sure that’s where some raunchy posters had hung before. The Burmese preferred to sit inside in their spare time, watching Karaoke videos. Perhaps being surrounded by all that water gets boring after a while.

cargo vessel at sea
The informal atmosphere of a cargo vessel is a unique alternative to luxury cruising.

As we cruised through the Canary Islands, we would have loved to stop for a swim in the dark blue waters. There even was a swimming pool on board. But it had no water, because most of the Burmese sailors did not know how to swim. Maybe that was the reason why they did not like to gaze at the endless sea…

If You Go

Working passage on a freighter — swapping labor for your passage — is not easy to find today. Try contacting shipping companies or shipping agencies directly.

If you prefer the informal atmosphere of a cargo vessel to luxury cruise ships and don’t mind paying your way, you will have many options to book non-working passages on freighters through a variety of travel agents.

Maris Freighter Cruises

Freighter World Cruises

Cruise Vacation Navi-Gator

Go World Travel Magazine

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