A Freighter Cruise

If you want an alternative to a typical sort of cruise ship, check out a freighter. It won’t be as fancy as a cruise ship, and there are various additional things that you will have to watch out for that I will detail, but it can be an interesting adventure. You will either have to entertain yourself or else participate in what the crew members do; there is no catering staff aboard.

Judd Spittler went on a freighter cruise and reported in it in Freighter Bum: Admiral Judd’s Adventure on the High Seas.

His ship was the 491-ft (150-m) German freighter “Katrin S”, which he rode on a trip for two weeks in the Caribbean, taking a trip from Florida to Venezuela and back. More specifically:

Miami, FL, USA — Freeport, Bahamas — Rio Haina, Dominican Republic — La Guaira, Venezuela — Puerto Cabello, Venezuela — Rio Haina, DR — Port Everglades, FL, USA

Like many other freighters, it was clean and spacious and had a pool in it; some also have saunas or gym facilities. And like many others, it had room for passengers, though without anyone assigned the duty of taking care of them.

But JS got along well with his freighter’s crew – 1 captain, 6 officers, and 12 crewmen (all male). Many of them did not like being at sea, but the pay was good compared to what they could get at home. And the captain couldn’t wait to retire; he was getting sick of all the paperwork he had to do.

The passengers’ quarters were rather big and comfy, like the officers’ quarters, and the crew had a VCR and lots of videotapes, which they traded with other crews for variety. But there are some dirty parts, like oily machinery and rusty exposed parts, so everybody dresses casually — even the officers and captain. In fact, JS doesn’t even know if the officers have uniforms.

Don’t expect a freighter trip to be a weekend outing — a typical trip is 2 weeks to a month or more. And don’t expect a freighter to be very punctual; JS’s left a day and a half later, and his was one of the more regular ones. And don’t expect much shore time, either; many modern freighters are container ships, designed for fast loading and unloading. Expect it to cost around $100 a day, so expect to fork over a few thousand dollars for a freighter vacation.

English speakers may have life easy; many freighter crews use English as their common language, because of the international character of their crews. JS’s ship had crewmen from Germany, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, and the Philippines.

Though Rio Haina has a rather narrow port entrance, the ship left rather fast to keep would be stowaways from climbing aboard.

And many seamen dressed up for doing ashore, showering and wearing nice clean golf shirts; there weren’t many bar fights, either.

The crew was divided into a deck crew and and engine crew. The deck crew spent much of its time hosing off the ship’s deck to get rid of salt deposits, and repainting the ship. The engine crew did a lot of cleaning and maintenance of the ship’s engine and associated hardware. The officers were divided into two groups of three, a first, second, and third one for each.

The bridge was almost all automated, with the three deck officers taking turns at being the only officer there, and an extra crewman being present at night. His main task was to watch out for other boats and ships.

Navigation was automated, using GPS; the ship was on autopilot much of the time. JS got some chances to steer the ship, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it responded very slowly. But with practice, he got proficient.

The chief engineering officer was rather territorial about the engine room; he reportedly got furious that JS was allowed in the engine room unescorted. But the second officer was more friendly, and escorted JS through the engine room.

The engine was a giant 13,614-hp (10-MW), 127-rpm, 7-cylinder, 2-stroke diesel connected directly to the propeller without any clutch or transmission. The cylinders had a bore (width) of 0.5 m and a stroke (travel) of 2 m. The engine had to be stopped and restarted to reverse direction, and doing that a lot would drain compressed air. The engine runs on bunker fuel, a bottom-of-the-barrel fuel in a very literal sense, what’s left over from crude oil after the more volatile parts are distilled off. It was so thick that it had to be heated to flow.

There were four auxiliary engines that run on more ordinary diesel fuel, though usually only two of them were running at a time. They run generators that supply electricity for cabin power, the engine-starter air compressors, etc.

The engine room was heavily instrumented and computerized; the computers there, like elsewhere on the ship, were standard-issue PeeCees. In addition to cleaning and maintaining, the crew watched long-term trends in engine behavior, looking for signs of trouble. At sea, theirs was an 8-to-5 job, but they worked long hours in port, because that was the only time that they can do major maintenance.

As mentioned earlier, the ship carries freight in giant shipping containers, which are loaded and unloaded with giant cranes. The ship’s cranes were used only when there were no shore-side cranes available.

JS includes LOTS of pictures and ship details, including some engineering drawings of the ship.