Here is a kind of ‘what we wish we had been able to find on the internet when we were planning‘. our ro-ro shipping Europe to South America. It’s written with the vast experience of a single trip from Hamburg to Montevideo in October 2015, but hopefully it may be of help to someone considering the voyage. For a more descriptive blog of day-to-day life on the voyage (see To Montevideo… by freight ship). We’re sure the experience will vary depending on the ship, crew, fellow passengers etc, but if you have any questions that are not covered on these pages, we’d be happy to answer emails (see Contact)
First things first… you need to think well ahead for ro-ro shipping Europe to South America, particularly if you want a cabin and are not sending the truck unaccompanied! We are not in the habit of such forward planning and found out only fortuitously from another traveller that around one year’s prior notice is normally required to get a cabin. When we contacted the shipping line Grimaldi directly, they told us to use an agent.
We were travelling in Zimbabwe at the time (Aug 2014) and had limited internet/phone resources to hunt around the market for UK shipping agents. So we contacted the only agent we knew of (Seabridge in Germany) and managed to get a cabin from Hamburg around 19th Sept ’15. As it’s a freight service, the schedule isn’t fixed until a few days before departure and we were warned that the date could change by a week or so either side.
Over the next year we received occasional missives from Seabridge wanting copies of documents e.g. insurances, yellow fever certificates, vehicle documents etc. We also received periodic emails updating us on changes to the departure date and ship name. There are agents in UK that can book for you, and one of the British passengers on our ship did manage to book with Grimaldi directly, but Seabridge did an ok job for us. The staff speak enough English for the booking emails, but if your German isn’t up to scratch, you may have to get some of the detailed instructions, forms and declarations etc. translated.
Where to sail from?
We, plus two other German couples joined the ship at Hamburg. This suited us as we wanted to visit friends in Leipzig before leaving Europe. Another British passenger joined in London, but he was sailing without a vehicle. As far as we know, it’s not possible to board a Grimaldi ship in London with a vehicle (commercial freight is driven on here, but there seems to be no facility to process private vehicles), so the only other option for vehicle drivers is Antwerp. Unless you have reason to be in northern Germany, we would say that Antwerp is probably the preferred boarding port. The six days between Hamburg and Antwerp are an unnecessary extension to an already long voyage.
Choosing a cabin
An internal cabin, external cabin or the suite (‘owner’s cabin’). Our external cabin is not de-luxe or stylish, but it’s reasonable and functional. There are two good-sized single beds, a double wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a desk/chair, a fridge, a telephone (to on-board only) an en-suite shower-room (clean with white bath-towels and nice soaps provided). It is air-conditioned, the floor is carpeted and most importantly for us, there is a good-sized window/port-hole.
At the time of booking we wondered whether it was worth the extra expense for the simple benefit of an outside view. What we hadn’t realised is that it is not just a window that distinguishes the internal from the external cabins. The internal cabins are not only dark and dingey (obviously due to the absence of any natural light) they are smaller, with bunk-beds rather than separate beds and little space to swing the proverbial cat.
For solo passengers the size is probably just about bearable as the top bunk folds against the wall and creates some space. But we would advise anyone travelling as a couple to think carefully before choosing an internal cabin. Think about the many, many hours you will be on this ship, a large proportion of which will probably be in this cabin. Remember it’s not a cruise ship with a selection of comfortable lounges and leisure areas to enjoy your time.
There is one spacious but rather uninviting common-room where you can sit and read (or when it’s nice you can sit out on deck if you take your own chair with you). Fine if this suits you, but we cannot overstate how happy we are that we had an external cabin. The pleasure of looking up from your bed to see the stars in the clear sky outside at night; waking up in the morning looking out to sunrise over the ocean (obviously it’s a 50-50 chance whether you get the port or starboard side of the ship); sitting during the day with the window open for an easy breeze and the gentle sound of the water against the hull as we sail along. We think the extra cost is definitely worth it if you can stretch the budget.
If you really want to splurge-out, the ‘owners cabin’ is a suite with a separate lounge and bedroom. It is much more spacious than the other cabins and has a double bed rather than two singles, but it didn’t look any more luxurious in terms of quality.
2. Countdown to boarding day
About 3 weeks before the most current departure date of 26th Sept, Seabridge sent our ‘e-ticket’. Two weeks later, we had to contact Grimaldi to (allegedly) receive our reporting details, but these didn’t materialise at that point – we just received a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ kind of holding-response. In an attempt to ‘guesstimate’ for ourselves the departure date, we started tracking The Grande Nigeria on the internet maritime tracker www.marinetraffic.com . On 23rd it was still sunning itself just off the south coast of Portugal. With a school-boys’ ‘rough and ready’ speed/distance calculation, we realised that it couldn’t possibly get to Hamburg by 26th. Eventually Grimaldi gave us 24hrs prior notice to report to Hamburg docks between 10:00-11:00 hrs on Tues 29th Sept.
Vehicle prep – ro-ro shipping Europe to South America
Over the last 24 hrs in Hamburg we did the final preps: – discharging all the gas from our gas-bottles; having Cuthbert washed; cleaning inside; stripping the beds and ‘hiding’ personal possessions. We had received all sorts of instructions about how to prepare the vehicle, all of which had been firmly enforced at the port when we shipped Cuthbert from Bremerhaven, Germany to South Africa 18 months ago. This time in Hamburg, no one paid the slightest attention to these things. Arguably we had wasted our time with most of the preparations, but had we been unlucky enough to encounter an officious inspector at the docks, it would have been a major inconvenience to have to correct everything at last minute in the port compound. It is therefore probably best to carry out the vehicle-prep instructions as best you can, if only as a precautionary measure.
3. Boarding day, Hamburg
From the port office at around 09:45 hrs, we were taken to the ship loading area. Cuthbert was parked-up nearby and we were taken on-foot by friendly chaps onto the ship, through the short admin procedures and to our cabin on the 12th floor, port side of the ship. As a matter of Hamburg port procedure we had to leave a key in the truck ignition (we locked the living-cabin from the driving-cab) but we’ll be called back later to drive Cuthbert onto the ship ourselves.
On-board, we wandered around the decks to familiarise ourselves with the living area, then lunch was served in the Officers’/Passengers’ dining room where we meet some other shipmates.
After lunch we hoped to be able to get to our vehicle – if not to load it onto the ship then just to get our personal luggage – but this wasn’t feasible due to the volume of heavy-duty loading traffic on the ramps and loading decks. We didn’t get to drive Cuthbert onto the ship until after 19:00 hrs. In case you need one, this is another reminder that this is a freighter, not a passenger ship; passengers are the second priority of their business and the cargo will usually come first.
This waiting made for a pretty dull day, sitting in our cabin with no personal effects – just the few items that we had on our person when we unwittingly walked from Cuthbert at 10:00 hrs – ‘unwittingly’ because had we known how long it was going to be, we would have grabbed a bag with a few things to keep us occupied during the day. Nevertheless, our cabin-boy Salvatore and the rest of the crew were very friendly with a great attitude.
4. On-board practicalities
Extras to take on board
Obviously you will be sailing through a range of climate zones, so a selection of clothes for all seasons is recommended. In addition we found the following useful:
- Pillows: the ship provided only one tiny square pillow per bed, which for us does not make for a good night’s sleep. Soooo glad to have our own soft, fluffy pillows on the first night 🙂 . The bedding is sheets and blankets; if you like to have a duvet, then take that with you.
- Travel kettle, tea, coffee, powdered milk and mugs: you can get hot drinks from the dining room at mealtimes, but there is nothing in-between and no self-service tea/coffee station. It’s nice to have your own cuppa in the cabin when you want it.
- Extension lead with additional plugs: there are 2 sockets in the cabin, but if you have as many phones, iPods, iPads, laptops as we do, this isn’t enough.
- A lap-top & hard-drive: loaded with films & tv series to watch, and plenty to read.
- Extra towels: they give you one medium size bath-towel each, but no hand-towels. Some extras of your own are nice to have.
Food and dining
The Officers and Passengers share a common-room and a dining room which is separate from the dining/rest area for the junior crew. In our dining room there were four fixed tables: a large table for the Captain and senior officers; a smaller table for the junior/trainee officers and two tables for passengers.
Meals are served by a waiter (the cabin-boy) to a fixed schedule: Breakfast – 07:30 to 08:30 hrs, Lunch – 11:00 hrs (a bit early for our liking but it fits with the crew’s schedule), Dinner – 18:00 hrs. The food can be described as, shall we say, ‘adequate’. Breakfast is coffee/tea, cereal (a wide choice of one low-quality cornflakes), fresh bread with jam/honey and cheese or ham. Occasionally there is an extra option of cold pizza 😐 . The coffee is ok, but not the best quality. If you want a decent cup in the morning, you can bring your own ground coffee and they will put it in the machine to make your cup. There is no opportunity to get tea or coffee outside of the strict mealtimes, so if you want an early morning or mid-afternoon cuppa, bring all your own stuff to make it in your cabin.
Lunch and dinner are always four courses, usually soup or pasta to start then a meat and/or a fish course. The third course is sometimes a ‘wild-card’ comedy addition to the meal (see details in our daily diary blog of some of the strangest plates served) but there is always fresh fruit for desert plus your choice of red or white wine and coffee.
No Michelin stars will be awarded for the fayre, but it’s freshly cooked and we have no serious complaints. The quality of the food preparation will no doubt depend heavily on the chef, but we presume that the catering budget is the same for all ships. A small criticism is that the diet is a bit low on veg and heavy on carbs (pasta and white bread); there is plenty of meat and fish but it’s not the best quality and wasn’t to all the passengers’ tastes. There was a piece of fruit to finish every meal, so you’re not tempted with unhealthy desserts. Vegetarians would certainly struggle with the menus and you should probably give them plenty of notice if you have any dietary requirement.
We originally hoped that as the food was not temptingly delicious, we might be able to lose some weight during the voyage. But although the food is of decidedly mediocre quality, there is so much time to waste on board that we tended to linger and socialise over meals, thereby eating more than necessary. Add that to the limited opportunity for exercise and it becomes clear that a weight-loss strategy requires some discipline and planning. In anticipation of the ‘worst case scenario’ of inedible food, we brought with us lots of snacks and biscuits etc., but we didn’t need them.
If you want to know something, you have to ask! It is not that the crew are secretive or unhelpful; they are friendly and very forthcoming with information when asked. But unless we ask specific questions they seem to assume that we don’t want or need to know anything. No-one showed us ‘what’s what’ when we boarded the ship; we wandered around the anonymous corridors to find the dining room, the gym, the laundry etc., but to be fair, it’s no great hardship and it didn’t take long to find everything from the plans posted on the walls of the corridors.
Access to vehicle and vehicle security
In terms of access to your vehicle, the vehicle deck was open all the time we were at sea and we could pop down there whenever we wanted. We later found out that apparently we shouldn’t have done this and we should have asked prior permission from the 1st Mate. Whatever 🙂 !
Vehicle security on such a voyage is a big concern for many people. All West African ports are renowned for dock workers taking opportunities to purloin a few motor accessories from the transit-vehicles on the internal decks. Many travellers refuse to ship their cherished overlanding truck via any West African port for this reason. However we can say that Grimaldi’s security during our Dakar stop-over was very impressive. For the whole time in port, the ship was locked down like Fort Knox; there was no chance for local workers to get to where our truck was parked.
Health on board
There is no doctor but apparently someone on the crew is first-aid trained. There is a door marked ‘Hospital’ on the top deck, but we have no idea what facilities are in there. We took our own routine medical supplies: pain-killers, sticking plasters etc.
Malaria – Before boarding we spent lots in Hamburg on Malarone malaria tablets in anticipation of the stop-off in West Africa. With hindsight this wasn’t necessary as the 3rd Mate distributes anti-malarials free of charge every Sunday evening. They offer Mefloquine (Lariam) which is not to everyone’s liking and you can decline the offer if you don’t want it (they ask that you sign to declare whether you accept or decline the tablets).
Obviously whether you take any anti-malarials and if so which ones, is a personal decision, but we strongly advise that you take this seriously and do your research before you decide. West Africa is one of the world’s worst zones for malaria and with ship delays you could well be in the region longer than originally scheduled. Also, you could be on your way out to sea again, well away from any professional medical help by the time you realise that you have contracted the disease. Marcus spent time with the UK military in West Africa during the Sierra Leone war, where more troops were lost to malaria than to enemy fire; we were definitely not going to take any risks.
5. Underway on The Voyage
As far as we know, there is a slightly different schedule of ports for each voyage depending on Grimaldi’s cargo requirements. With ro-ro shipping Europe to South America, you never know exactly what schedule you’ll get, particularly with the stops in west Africa. Below are the ones which we visited and seem to be the most common.
The Channel Ports
Day 1 was sailing from Hamburg to London, then Days 2 & 3 were docked in Tilbury. Here you can go ashore if you want and the train station (into London) is just 200m outside the port gate. Day 4 is sailing to Antwerp.
Days 5 and 6, plus most of day 7 was spent in Antwerp. Again, you can go ashore if you want to, but it’s not so easy to get into town from the docks. There is no public transport and a taxi costs E50-60. Antwerp seems to be the ship’s main port for loading-up and re-supply of provisions and fuel. Once you leave Antwerp, it’s down the English Channel and out to sea. Next stop… Dakar.
The days are punctuated with a regimented schedule of dining (and we mean ‘regimented’ – there is no flexibility with meal times) in between which we filled our days with rounds of reading, watching DVDs, learning and improving our Spanish, watching for dolphins/flying fish/whales, playing ping-pong, in the gym, table football, South America route planning, scrabble, sunning ourselves on-deck and of course… writing this blog-diary. It would be stretching the bounds of artistic license to say that it’s a ‘roller-coaster of excitement’, but we manage to keep occupied and weren’t really bored.
Dakar is an interesting and chaotic port. The docks are fairly central so it is possible to walk into town if the ship’s schedule gives you time. We only had 2 hours spare by the time the admin was resolved, so we decided to stay on board and watch the loading from the deck, which was an entertainment in its own right!
In Vitoria the dock is well away from the town and in any case there is apparently not much to see there, so we stayed on board for the few hours that we had there.
We had two full days scheduled in Rio de Janeiro but ended up with just one day due to pilot delays. A combination of taxis and public transport take you into and around town. It’s a huge city and you can’t do it all in a day; buy a guide-book and do your planning as to what you want to prioritise.
Santos is the (rather grim) port town for Sao Paulo and it’s apparently not the safest place to wander around. Nothing to see here… stay on-board!
If you are fed-up on-board by this stage of the voyage, then Zarate town is an ‘ok’ short excursion for a few hours. Taxis can be ordered from the main port gate. There is free wifi in the Plaza Café in the main square. It’s not really feasible to go into Buenos Aires from here as the journey apparently takes around 3 hrs by bus.
6. Arrival Montevideo
All pretty simple. Grimaldi’s local agent takes you through the process. The Uruguayan authorities were not troublesome, but they were quite thorough checking papers, looking in the vehicle etc. Insurance doesn’t seem to be available at the port, so make sure you arrange this before you arrive. We used Speiser Seguros in Buenos Aires, but there will probably be others if you Google around.
7. The General Experience
Overall, it wasn’t too bad. It did get at bit frustrating towards the end when our arrival date was extended due to changes in the port schedules; the voyage ended up being 37 days rather than the expected 31 days. With hindsight we should have boarded in Antwerp rather than Hamburg and reduced the voyage by a week.
The quality of the experience relies more on the random chance of the other passengers than on Grimaldi, the ship or the crew. Contrary to our expectations, it is not a ‘muck in with the crew’ experience where you are mingling with them, chatting over the dinner table etc. Passengers rarely see the junior crew at all. And although you share a dining room with the officers, there are strict separate table arrangements, so there are few opportunities to chat with them (although see Rene & Sylvie’s blog who look to have had a bit different experience to us).
Meals are served at a very leisurely pace and over the three meals each day, at least 3 hours each day is spent sitting with your fellow shipmates at the dinner table. We consider ourselves to have been very fortunate in this respect. With less amenable shipmates our voyage would have been a much less bearable experience.
All in all, on-board with the ro-ro shipping Europe to South America was an interesting and pleasant experience. Would we do it again? At the moment, being only 5 days ashore, we’d sit on the fence and say “Maybe”. It was a most interesting experience that we certainly do not regret and we would recommend anyone to take once. But it is not without its frustrations and had we not been so fortunate with our shipmates, it is easy to see how the voyage could have been a less enjoyable experience.