All good Slow Travelers like to talk about when they did some really slow traveling, whether it be walking, biking, or just staying in the same place for a really long time. At the same time, we mostly use planes to take us to our destination, although we like to take it slow once we are actually there. I just came back from a trip where the mode of transportation was real slow as well; I traveled on a car carrier ship from Gothenburg, Sweden, to Southampton, UK, via Zeebrugge, Belgium. I have just started working in the maritime industry and part of the introduction to the company was to travel with one of the vessels to gain a greater understanding of the core product of the business. My colleague Maria and I boarded MV Toronto in Gothenburg on the afternoon of Saturday, July 7. We were to stay on until arrival in Southampton the following Tuesday. Not a terribly long trip but hopefully enough to learn something about life aboard the ship and the work both on sea and in the ports.
We were warmly received upon arrival in a rainy and gray Gothenburg. An enormous, red ship spread out before us and while I knew that this was a particularly large ship (she is only two years old) I was stilled flabbergasted. The crew looked happy to see us and it seemed that everyone had been informed that two women would be joining them for a few days! Two crewmembers carried our bags upstairs and introduced us to the administration officer, Junne. One of his many duties is to welcome visitors, guests, and officials who come aboard for various reasons. We filled out some paperwork and he made copies of our passports, before introducing us to the captain, the chief engineer, and other officers. There are 24 officers and crewmembers on this ship, all from the Philippines.
We took a short tour of the upper decks before dinner. As is normal in these kinds of settings, one’s place in the mess hall was corresponding to one’s rank. Maria and I were seated at the table for those outside of the rank system, along with the traveling cargo super intendant and two cadets training to be engineers. I once traveled on another car carrier, MV Texas, and I remembered the good food. This proved to still be true and we enjoyed the meal very much! The cook seemed particularly interested in us having enormous bowls of ice cream!
Admin officer was a most gracious host and when he realized that we like karaoke, he quickly assembled people for an evening of singing and even dancing. Being Saturday, many would be off the following day and they seemed to enjoy our little party. We had a great time and sang, danced, and ate chocolate with about half of the staff.
I slept very well and although I noticed I was moving from side to side I did not get sick. According to the officers, they had rough sea between 2am and 7am (when turning the tip of Denmark) and I am glad that was when I was sleeping! Then again, summer is the best time of the year for any kind of crossing like this, whether it is the Atlantic or the North Sea. I even slept through breakfast! Sunday turned into a beautiful day and we got to enjoy time outside, just looking at the horizon or using the binoculars to look at other ships or oil platforms.
The third officer gave us a very thorough and very enjoyable tour of the ship. We were thrilled to don white company overalls that the chief officer provided us with! He also gave us earmuffs for the engine room – which proved very necessary! It was fascinating to see the car decks and the different cargo mixes that we had previously read about, along with all the other parts that make up the ship. We also spent some time sitting in the lifeboat, which really looks more like a space shuttle than anything else. In addition we visited the CO2 room, the Suez crew room, and all sorts of other rooms.
It was beautiful being out on the ocean and very different from the pace on land, especially since it was Sunday. Many of the crew members played basket ball, others ping pong, some slept – I guess trying to enjoy some off time in a place where there is really nowhere else to go…
Sunday night was a lot quieter than Saturday, as many officers and crew had to be up around 3am to enter Zeebrugge. When I popped my head out at 6:45 Monday morning, they were already lowering the ramps. I had decided to skip the early morning entry and rather see the area during our Monday night departure. Monday was spent entirely in port, unloading and loading cars, trucks, tractors, buses, and other cargo. It was, as expected, great fun to see the stevedores drive the cars in, one by one, secure them, jump into the transportation car and then repeat the process over and over again. It was also very nice to learn from the supercargo about how he plans the space. Many things – I say things because I had no idea what was inside the heavily wrapped packages and crates – were moved around or taken outside to accommodate other cargo, then brought back in later.
We also walked a little bit around the Sea-Ro terminal, which is kind of like an ocean of cars, trucks, heavy equipment, tractors, buses… Very different from the previous day’s big blue calm ocean! We enjoyed another great dinner – dessert was chocolate ice cream this time – before hanging out with different people, sharing travel stories and talking about life on board and life on land. Many were interested in learning about the company’s central offices and the work we do (or will be doing when we become operative!) there. We also admired their new basketball uniforms and learned that they play against other ships when possible. Before leaving Belgium, the crew performed a very thorough stowaway search. We didn’t really know that this was a problem but it is. Shortly before ten we marched once again up on the bridge to see the local Zeebrugge pilot guide us through the lock. After going through the first lock I decided it was bedtime.
Wearing overalls is cool!
We both got up early Tuesday morning for the arrival in Southampton, and we were both delighted that we were running late! It meant more time on the ship for us. We had a last great breakfast and then spent time on the bridge. The Southampton pilot arrived at 10am and we enjoyed the entry into Southampton, through what I as a Norwegian would call a fjord but I am not sure what they call it there! Lots of sail boats and other small vessels were out and the captain had to use the horn a few times to warn the small boats to get out of the way! Interestingly, even 200-meter ships have to give the right of way to sail boats, which can be a little annoying, as maneuvering ships like Toronto is a somewhat slow affair.
Luckily we had a last lunch on board as well, before an almost teary farewell with the mess man and the cook. No more Philipino food! A little after 1pm we said goodbye to everyone else and our new friends accompanied us to the ramp, carrying our things all the way. It was really strange how sad it was to say goodbye! I was going to miss these wonderful people who had shown us such hospitality – and they were fun, too! We both would have liked to spend a couple of more days on sea, because there was such a difference between the sea days and the port days, and it would have been interesting to see how we reacted to several days of seeing no land.
We spent the rest of the day in the Southampton office which was also nice. In the evening we had Indian food, as one must in England. As we were walking back to the hotel, we walked by the Seafarers’ Mission, where we knew that some of the crew had gone earlier. We jumped up to see if any of our friends were there, and they were!! We were absolutely delighted to be able to spend a few more hours with them, before they had to go back for another stowaway search…
My favorite part of this trip was the kindness of the people. Everyone was warm and friendly and I am so impressed with the fact that they spend nine months sailing. One officer was about to have a baby but will not be able to go home for another three months. They all make great sacrifices for this job. The captain was wonderful, witty, and very warm hearted, and we were treated like queens throughout the duration of the trip.