Montevideo from Hamburg by cargo ship… Done! Yes, we’ve spent October 2015 on a cargo ship bringing our camper-truck Cuthbert to Uruguay to start our tour of the Americas. No scrubbing of decks, peeling of potatoes or climbing of rigging – we took one of six fare-paying cabins on the Italian Grimaldi freight ship ‘Grande Nigeria’. And in anticipation of the obvious question… we’re doing it because we can, and because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
So was it such a good idea… over five weeks at sea with minimal facilities and no internet??!! Well… at least we had plenty of time to write all this bog-blurb stuff 🙂 Read on and see what you think.
It seems a loooong time since we booked the trip back in August 2014. Our reservation for mid-Sept 2015 came with a warning that the departure wouldn’t be fixed until a few days before and that the ship’s schedule is ‘flexible’. We had an estimated date of 26th September and as the big day drew near, we started tracking The Grande Nigeria on the internet maritime tracker www.marinetraffic.com. Three days before our expected departure, the ship was still sunning itself off the south coast of Portugal. With a school-boy’s ‘rough and ready’ speed/distance calculation, we realised that it couldn’t possibly get to Hamburg on schedule. Eventually, three days later than planned, we received 24hrs notice to report on Tues 29th Sept. Finally!
Boarding Day: Salvi and the Shipmates
Big Day as we are introduced to our cabin and home for the next month. It’s fine… not ‘super de-luxe’ or stylish, but reasonable and functional. It’s on the 12th floor on the port side of the ship; a bit bigger than we expected but then any room seems big to us when we live in Cuthbert 🙂 ! We wandered around the decks to familiarise ourselves with the living area, then lunch was served in the Officers’/Passengers’ dining room. Here we met our first shipmates, Renate and Heinz a German couple heading to Montevideo with their small campervan.
After lunch we hoped to collect our luggage but this wasn’t feasible due to the volume of heavy-duty traffic on the loading decks. We didn’t get back to Cuthbert to collect our things until after 19:00 hrs. In case we needed one, this was another reminder that this is a freighter, not a passenger ship; passengers are the second priority of their business and the cargo comes first. This made for a pretty dull day waiting for our stuff, but our cabin-boy Salvatore (“Eh! Pleeeease… Meeester and Meeesiss you call me Salvi… yes?”) and the rest of the crew – mostly Italian, but also Bulgarian and Filipino – were friendly. At dinner we met our next shipmates, German couple Marina and Uli also heading to Montevideo.
Day 1 – Weds 30/9/15 – At sea: Hamburg to London Tilbury
The False Alarm
Day 1 of the voyage: full steam ahead from Hamburg to London Tilbury Docks. Yes… London! Don’t ask! It would obviously have been much more convenient for us to board there, but apparently “Computer says No!”. Reasoning was futile, so Hamburg it was.
With glorious sunny weather and very calm sea, we got our own chairs from the truck and sat outside in a sheltered spot on the deck. Above us on the external car decks was a selection of ropey second-hand cars heading to the less discerning markets of West Africa.
In the afternoon I decided to give the small (and actually pretty rubbishy) gym a test-run. Mid-blast on the running machine I was rudely interrupted by an evacuation tannoy, but when we got to the Muster Station, it was a crew-only drill. Oh well! Back to a few more kilometres on the running machine…..
Mealtimes are proving to be a source of amusement. Salvi our cabin-boy and waiter, has a cheerful demeanour but lacks the requisite planning and coordination skills to set a dinner table for six. So far without fail at every meal, the table is missing some item critical for the menu. But Salvi’s cheerful smile as he runs around correcting all his oversights, is rather endearing and the performance gives us an amusing topic of conversation each mealtime.
Late afternoon the sea-state is a bit rougher. There’s a bit of rolling, but not enough to disturb our after dinner game of table-football with the Germans. Naturally we played in accordance with the England soccer team’s typical performance standards and the Germans won convincingly 🙂
Days 2-3 – Thurs 1/10/15 to Fri 2/10/15 – In Tilbury London
Operation ‘Hunt for Green Paper’
Arriving in London early on Day 2, we went outside to watch the loading and noticed there is no access ramp deployed. We watched a Tilbury Port Officer in an open cage being craned from the dockside, up 12 storeys onto the deck to board the ship. Hmmmm…… not sure we’re keen to get into that contraption to go ashore 😐 Learned that we will be moving docks in a few hours where it will be possible to leave the ship in a more civilised manner – phew!
After lunch a pilot comes on-board and we relocate to another dockside. It’s an interesting exercise obviously requiring great skill to manoeuvre a 200m long, 57,000 tonne vessel through a sluice-gate lock system with literally less than one meter of clearance either side. Once through the lock our Grande Nigeria was then, with the aid of nippy little ‘Thomas the Tug-boat’, turned on a sixpence to moor-up alongside a selection of huge ‘Tonka-style’ trucks and around 700 new cars to load (mostly Range Rovers, Land Rover Discoveries and various Hyundai cars).
We have now started thinking about what we’ll do when we arrive in Montevideo. So far, all we have planned is to head south, arrive in Tierra del Fuego around Christmas then (hopefully) find a stand-by cabin on a cruise to Antarctica. We have studied the maps to establish that from there, the only way will be north! Clever huh? The British tax payer can rest assured that all the money they spent training Marcus as a professional RAF navigator has not gone to waste 🙂 To expand on this rather vague plan, we’ve now hung a huge map of South America on our cabin wall, adding ‘pointer-stickers’ to highlight the key destinations across our initial target countries of Argentina and Chile.
For our second day in Tilbury we disembark (without the aid of the open-cage crane-lift contraption… the vehicle ramp was now down!) to go shopping. Our mission was to find: (a) some pale green A4 paper; and (b) somewhere to print our South American insurance documents (received yesterday by email) onto said green paper. Apparently the policy won’t be accepted in Uruguay unless it’s on green paper. Mission accomplished in Grays! Only when we get to Uruguay will we know whether we have selected the correct shade of green paper!
A new shipmate joined us today: a very nice and interesting young chap, Jonny is travelling without a vehicle, hence he is allowed to board in Tilbury. He will be with us only as far as West Africa where he disembarks to start a new life. The combination of his work for the Christian Mission and his love of wave-riding has prompted his inspired blog-spot name: ‘Serving and Surfing’.
After dinner the 3rd Mate Giuseppe is looking worried that two of the Germans have not returned to the ship from their day out in London. It’s not yet critical as we don’t set sail until the middle of the night, but no-one seems to have their phone number and Giuseppe’s face is starting to crinkle 😐 We retire to our cabin hoping that they’re back in time for departure.
Day 4 – Sat 3/10/15 – At sea: London to Antwerp
Gastronomy in Tilbury
Good news… the previously absent shipmates are not AWOL in London; they are at the breakfast table, raving about the amazing meal they had in Tilbury last night. It is often said that England lacks a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ when it comes to gourmet food, but pictures are produced of an attractive rare rump-steak and a delicious looking slice of cheesecake with blackcurrant coulis. Never thought we’d be envious of a night on the town in Tilbury – there’s a first time for everything 🙂 So proud of their gastronomic experience are the Germans that they wave their foodie-photos under the cook’s nose to demonstrate exactly how a steak should be. Hmmmm…. chef doesn’t seem to mind!
We have identified a subject that seems to be missing from Grimaldi’s training programme: Communication Skills. It is not that the crew are particularly 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. We have also still not received any formal safety instructions. We’re not sure exactly what level of briefing to expect, but they could at the very least have mentioned in passing: “If you hear this sound, go take a swim…”. So far… two days at sea… and nothing.
Arrival in Antwerp around 17:00hrs – a beautiful sunny evening and we go out to watch passing through the lock; nowhere near as tight as the arrival in Tilbury lock a few days ago.
Days 5-7 – Sun 4/10/15 to Tues 6/10/15 – In Antwerp
Two whole days planned in Antwerp, so we waste some time with a wander around the dockside.
Now… a ramble around Antwerp docks doesn’t make the list of the few highlights that Belgium has to offer the casual tourist. What did fascinate us however, is the large number of decrepit vehicles lined up on the dockside ready to be loaded onto Africa-bound ships. Obviously African standards of road-worthiness aren’t quite what they are in Europe and it’s not a bad idea to recycle our used cars to Africa. But these are not just your average slightly dodgey second-hand motors that Arthur Daley is struggling to shift off his forecourt. These are truly battered cars and mini-vans with flat tyres, smashed windows, crumpled body-work, missing bumpers… and, and, and… You get the picture. Several of them are loaded-up (God knows what with!) to such an extent that the rear suspension is on the bump-stop. We are no experts in the international second-hand motor trade, but two things puzzle us about these vehicles: first, surely many of them won’t successfully negotiate a ramp onto the vehicle deck? And secondly, even if they make it onto the ship, surely it can’t be commercially viable to take these wrecks half-way around the world to sell? But what do we know? 🙂
Our final shipmate joins us here: Phil is a Brit solo biker on his way to tour the Americas. We now have a balanced complement of four Brits and four Germans. We Brits try hard to resist the urge for the childish but inevitable ‘Fawlty Towers-type’ jokes of what not to mention 😉
The ship is seriously loading up here, both with freight and re-supply of provisions. We watch pallets of food and drinks being hoisted externally up to the deck outside the galley. There is some concern amongst the shipmates as we see no beer or red wine arriving! We consumed the last of the red-wine stocks yesterday and there has been no beer since Hamburg. The kitchen has been assuring us that both of these critical supplies should hopefully be restocked here in Antwerp, so we keep our fingers crossed that they are on the pallets somewhere.
Tanker-barges come alongside and refuel us for the next stage of the voyage. The whole Antwerp experience seems to be rather stressful for the crew; the 3rd Mate mutters under his breath about the problems that they always have here and the Captain explains to us with patent frustration that he can’t be sure when we will be departing… it will apparently depend on when the final fuel barge and the galley supplies bother to turn up.
Early on Day 7 we were scheduled to leave, but late afternoon and we are still moored-up in Antwerp… clearly all is not going to plan! It seems we have missed our time-slot in the lock to exit the docks. We’re starting to get bored of the view out of our cabin window now! Finally around 19:00 hrs we head through the lock towards the English Channel. We later learn that the delay was due to a collision in the estuary… our Captain seems bemused as he explains that two ships, each under the control of a local pilot, had managed to collide in broad daylight in calm water and fine weather conditions.
Super Mario meets Fawlty Towers
Now that we are eight shipmates at dinner, we have been split between two tables: the ‘natural’ divide of Germans and Brits. Talk on the Brit table has identified that: (a) the Captain bears more than a passing resemblance to the computer game hero ‘Super Mario’ – we imagine amongst ourselves with some childish humour, how the ship’s bridge might be managed with Super Mario at the helm; and (b) the conduct of the dining room dining room staff is not dissimilar to that of Basil and Manuel in Fawlty Towers – the similarities are sometimes uncanny 🙂
Our lunches and dinners consist of four courses plus coffee, but there is a lack of predictability as to what each course might consist of. The nightly game of ‘What’s next?’ was thrown a wide-ball tonight: pasta to start with (fine), then a small steak (fine, but nothing with it, just steak), and then for third course… wait for it… fried eggs!! Yes – two fried eggs each. Nicely cooked, but served with nothing else… just fried eggs. We decide that so far, the fried eggs hold the accolade of ‘World’s Strangest Dinner Course’.
There is also another mildly amusing topic of conversation for the dining room: the crew are under the impression that the Italian mealtime greeting of ‘Buon Apetito’ can be literally translated for its equivalent use in English as: ‘Good Appetite’. The German shipmates, speaking rather better English than the Italians, confirm with us their understanding that this is not the conventional English mealtime salutation. Not only does no-one correct the Italians’ mistaken use of English, but a certain Brit shipmate decides to consolidate the misunderstanding by confidently reciprocating with the same greeting. And so it continues at every mealtime. “Good Appetite!” has now entered the lexicon as a general greeting to each other throughout the voyage.
Days 8–14 Weds 7/10/15 to Tues 14/10/15 – Antwerp to Dakar
After leaving Antwerp and cruising down the English Channel, we had our last sight of the English coast. As we passed the Isle of Wight, we had half an hour of Chris Evans Radio 2 in our cabin before the signal crackled-out. We’re now going ‘full steam ahead’ towards that fearsome bowl between France and Spain: the Bay of Biscay, very much not famed for its mill-pond sea-state 🙁
The sea-state is rising a bit. We become gradually accustomed to the rolling for normal walking around the ship, but it certainly makes the daily trot on the gym’s running machine slightly more sporty than usual! Running on a laterally rolling treadmill is a truly unbalancing experience, but you get used to it. And we guess that by the time we go ashore in Dakar in a week’s time, it may take us a while to adjust back to terra firma. With great relief, we can report that the Bay of Biscay did not lived up to its fearsome reputation, but we’ve got the South Atlantic crossing to come next week… 😐
Day 10 provided unprecedented activity and excitement! At breakfast around 08:15 hrs, we receive a verbal invitation from the Captain (aka ‘Super Mario’) to attend the common room at 10:00 hrs. The invitation was mentioned to be for cocktails, but we collectively take this to be a joke and assume that it will probably be a (long-overdue) safety briefing. Wrong! No joke… rather bizarrely at 10:00 am the Captain introduces us to some of his senior crew over some curious sour, pink alcoholic (Campari?) cocktails and canapes! The Captain is a nice chap and explains, in a novel combi-language of Italian, Spanish, Portugese and English, that they had been too busy to introduce themselves properly in the first week due to the hectic schedule in the Channel ports, but we are now welcome to visit him on the ship’s bridge anytime.
During the ‘party’ a collective suggestion was made for the officers to challenge the passengers at table football. We fielded our most talented combined British/German team who diplomatically finish with a score of 8/10 to the Captain and Chief Engineer.
In the one hour gap between breakfast and the cocktails, the British shipmates initiate an expedition to find and assemble the table-tennis equipment. The mission was a success and the short intro-round identified that Jonny is not only one of the ship’s table-football stars, but also a mean hot-shot at ping-pong (signs of misspent youth, Jonny 🙂 ).
The Safety Drill
Mid-afternoon… more excitement. After a whiz on the running machine, I was just in the shower with a hair full of shampoo when the ship’s tannoy chirped: “This is a drill… all passengers and crew immediately to the meeting point”. Oh great! Of all the times to hold the training drill! Without drying properly, I pull on my clothes and turn up to the drill with sopping-wet hair, looking like the proverbial drowned rat. Anyway… better late than never. At least we have now had a safety briefing of sorts, with a demonstration of the immersion suits and life-saving equipment should we be required to pop overboard at any point.
By Day 11 the chill has gone out of the wind and it is warming-up nicely. We visited the ship’s bridge where one of the officers attempted to explain what’s what. With his extremely limited English it was very difficult to understand the ‘what’s what’, but the few words that we understood, combined with Marcus’ understanding of radar and communication systems, we pieced together a vague idea of what goes on up there.
Canary Phone Signal
Meanwhile… it is a curious sign of the times that a group of intelligent, well-educated (and with one exception, middle-aged) European travellers are getting so excited at the prospect of hopefully receiving a phone signal tomorrow. Yes! For a few hours as we pass by The Canaries, we may receive not merely a phone signal… if we’re really lucky the signal may be strong enough for a data-connection too! We all once lived without the 21st century phenomenon of a mobile data signal, but now… Internet! Emails! Facebook!
Overnight Day 11-12 we move our clocks back another hour onto Senegal time, ready for arrival in Dakar and it’s now light and warm in the mornings. Around 06:30 hrs with our morning cup of tea, we opened our cabin window to watch the moon and planets disappear from a crystal clear sky, followed by a stunning sunrise from horizon to horizon. Not a bad way to start the day 🙂
In the afternoon, it is clear that it’s not only the passengers who are eagerly awaiting the phone signal. As we came into range of The Canary Islands, the crew start gathering on the starboard deck, heads down, excitedly focussing into their smart-phones. The signal lasted a few hours as we cruised between the islands and mainland Africa, then gradually faded away as we headed south. We learned at dinner that Captain ‘Super Mario’ had instructed sailing a course sufficiently close to the islands that we could all pick up the signal – what a nice chap 🙂
South of The Canaries, our GPS tells us that we are passing The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic… Uh??? It’s a tiny strip running inland from the coast between Morocco and Mauritania, plus a chunk running north behind Morocco. This seems to be part of the patch formerly known as Western Sahara when we were at school.
The Ham Sandwich
Mealtimes continue offering a random selection of courses and form the main social events of each day. Today we had a novel innovation at the lunch table: something called… ‘A Menu’! It’s Day 13 and this is the first menu we have seen. What’s more, we didn’t receive it until we had almost finished our meal, so it served only to inform us of what we had just eaten. Thankfully the food presented was a bit better than that indicated on the menu. We showed the piece of paper to our waiter, Salvi who seems as bemused and puzzled as we are. We can only conclude that someone must have been very bored in the office this morning.
And in the evening we had another ‘You-couldn’t-make-this-up…’ moment. The course of fried eggs served for dinner last week has now been relegated to No.2 in the Hit Parade of ‘World’s Strangest Dinner Courses’. The new No.1 all-time ‘World’s Strangest Dinner Course’ is….. stand-by for the drum-roll please…. the humble Ham Sandwich! Yes ladies and gentlemen… you heard us right … tonight our dinner consisted of Spicy Butternut Squash Soup for starters (very nice), followed by Pork Schnitzel with Peas and a Mushroom Gravy (tasty), followed by a Ham Sandwich! Nicely made, with fresh bread, mayonnaise and good ham, but nevertheless, an unconventional course for a dinner menu. We looked around for the hidden lenses… we’re not on Candid Camera are we???
Over Day 14 we progress further south past Mauritania. We’re well into the tropics now so it’s warming up, and we are still blessed with calm seas. But we don’t like to count our chickens… the South Atlantic crossing comes after Dakar and we’re keeping everything crossed for that!
All the shipmate passengers get on quite well together, particularly us four Brits: we will all miss Jonny when he disembarks in Dakar. This was expected to be on Day 15 tomorrow, but this evening as we said farewell to Jonny over a glass or two in the common room, Captain ‘Super Mario’ put his head around the door and announced that we would not be docking in Dakar tomorrow after all!! The pilot who was meant to be coming out to steer us into port tomorrow is apparently washing his hair in the morning, or some equally lame excuse 😉 He has stood us up and won’t be on board until the day after tomorrow. There’s nothing to be done… we can’t go into the port without the local harbour pilot. This international marine freight traffic malarkey is all very slick and finely tuned you know… like the proverbial well-oiled cog!
Days 15-17 – Weds 14/10/15 to Fri 16/10/15 – Dakar, Senegal
Waiting for Dakar
Just off-shore Senegal at ridiculously early o’clock on Day 15, we were woken by a phenomenal lightning storm and torrential rain lashing the side of the ship. The flashes of light illuminated our cabin but the sea-state remained quite calm and the rumbling thunder seemed quite distant. We guess that the West African rainy season isn’t quite over yet then 🙂 As the sun comes up, the Dakar peninsula comes clearly into view on the horizon and we get our first sight of West Africa.
Today we should have been ashore enjoying the full-on retail experience of Downtown-Dakar. Instead, we simply sail around the headland and drop anchor amongst a flotilla of other ships hovering outside the port, waiting for a pilot.
The Chief Engineer had previously advised us that when the engines are running, the noise levels reach over 100 decibels and the temperature reaches over 45C down in the engine room. So this afternoon we decide to take him up on his offer of a guided tour of the engines whilst they are shut down. Quite interesting… that is if you like that kind of thing 🙂
During breakfast on Day 16 we finally chug into Dakar port. Rain is again lashing the boat and the flood-water on the dockside looks almost as deep as the water in the port itself. We had hoped to go ashore here for the day to sample the Senegalese retail and culinary experience, but the weather isn’t great. And in any case, we have to wait for the completion of the considerable African officialdom before we are allowed to go anywhere. Whilst waiting for it all to happen, we wander out on the deck between the rain-showers… wonder why there is a French naval assault-ship and frigate in town????
The Senegalese customs and immigration officers come aboard and the crew are understandably getting stressed with the bureaucracy. We are all called to the ship’s meeting room and stand in an inspection-row whilst the immigration officers review our passports against our faces. Even after this, they are still not sure whether we can go ashore, and more importantly if we leave, whether we will be allowed back into the port to re-join the ship. Of course re-joining the ship is no concern for Jonny who is now leaving us to start his new life in Africa. Bye Jonny, and Good Appetite! 🙂
It is gone 15:30 hrs when we finally get the all-clear to go ashore. We decide that it’s not really worth the hassle for the short time that we have; instead we watch the comedy muppetry that is the Senegalese port workers at-large. One chap raised himself up high in a digger-cab and was then unable to get it back down. A rescue mission extracted him from the (unintentionally) high-rise cab, but nobody seemed able to bring the cab back down to earth 🙂 Another entertaining antic was the off-loading of the second hand cars by crane from the top deck. Several of them were in such bad condition that the engines wouldn’t start and had to be pushed onto a precarious looking framework-contraption for craning off the ship. It was an amusing afternoon witnessing the various loading practices of Dakar port and we’re pleased that we didn’t use the time wandering around town.
We had expected to set sail by early morning on Day 17, but at midday they are still loading containers. We go out on the top-deck to survey the goings-on: enormous 40ft containers are flying aimlessly in the airspace above the front deck, eventually being guided and plonked in high stacks on the deck below us. Of course, all the local workers are wearing the appropriate protective footwear, helmets and reflective jackets…. NOT! Friday must be the local Health and Safety Officer’s day off 😉
One aspect of the stay in Dakar that has particularly impressed us is the level of security on the ship. All West African ports are renowned for dock workers boarding the ships to ‘liberate’ a few motor accessories from the on-board vehicles in transit. Many travellers refuse to ship their cherished overlanding truck via any West African port for this reason. But for the whole time that we were in Dakar port, the ship was locked down like Fort Knox thwarting any hope that local workers may have had to supplement their no doubt meagre salary.
Finally at exactly 15:00 hrs on a very beautiful Day 17, we set sail out of Dakar heading south-west across the Atlantic. We ventured out of our air-con cabin into the baking heat on-deck to watch Africa disappear into the distance. On our way out of the harbour we passed another Grimaldi ship waiting to dock in the space that we had just vacated. Having heard the other ship blast its considerable horn as it passed a few hundred metres away we should, with hindsight, have been prepared for what followed. But we weren’t… prepared, that is. It must have been an amusing moment to see us all jump out of our skin when the mega-horn on our own Grande Nigeria reciprocated the greeting, blasting with full force from the funnel right behind us. Eeeeish, that was loud!
Days 18-22 – Sat 17/10/15 to Weds 21/10/15 – Across the Atlantic
Between the regimented schedule of dining, we continue to fill our days with rounds of reading, watching DVDs, learning and improving our Spanish, watching for dolphins and flying fish, playing ping-pong, in the gym, table football, South America route planning, Scrabble, sunning ourselves on-deck, photography around the ship 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 have yet to be bored.
On Sunday, unbeknown to us Brits, the Germans decided we should all have eggs for breakfast and ask Salvatore in the kitchen to oblige. The eggs were duly served just as we finish our regular brekkie of cereal and bread rolls. Proud of their initiative, the Germans sought our appreciation which we tried to share with a modicum of enthusiasm, but lunch is served in just over 2 hours and we are stuffed!!! Monty Python’s Mr Creosote with his ‘just another waffer-thin mint’ springs to mind.
At Sunday lunch Captain ‘Super Mario’ announced that we will be crossing the equator tonight and there will be another cocktail party at 10:00hrs tomorrow to mark the occasion… more shocking-pink cocktails no doubt!
Monday (Day 20) around 09:30 hrs, we are all summoned to join the Captain up on the Bridge. We shipmates gather in the corridor amongst a buzz of curiosity and speculation as to what this could be about. The cocktails are not due for another half an hour! As we head up-stairs, Cadet Officer Angelo arrives in a t-shirt and beach shorts… hmmm! Captain ‘Super Mario’ is there (in his normal uniform) to greet us, together with one of the other officers dressed in a rather odd toga-style gown, with a cotton-wool beard, a tin-foil crown and a home-made trident in hand. We are introduced to Neptune!
Neptune is carrying a bucket of what looks like muddy water and a paint-brush. We all go outside onto the deck and one-by-one we are summoned by Neptune to kneel before him for our heads to be daubed with the muddy-looking water which, on closer inspection, smells remarkably like chocolate (my first thought is that if there is chocolate of any kind on board, why is it being poured into my hair and not onto my desert plate)! After all the passenger shipmates have undergone the ritual, it is the turn of the cadet officer and our cabin-boy, Salvi. It is their first crossing of the equator, so they receive not only the daubing of chocolate-water over their heads with a paint-brush, but the remaining contents of the bucket thrown over them and a thorough dousing from 3rd Mate Giuseppe with the fire-hose. Captain ‘Super Mario’ naturally stands well back and observes with patent delight, taking photos of the proceedings. It’s a light-hearted way to celebrate the equator crossing, but we have yet to establish the connection between the ritual and the chocolate-water. Most peculiar!
After the Neptune shenanigans, we filter back to our cabins to shower the chocolate-water out of our hair and to prepare for the drinks party. Here, the Captain ceremoniously presents each of us with a ‘Certificato di passagio delta linea equatoriale’!! A tray of the anticipated Campari cocktails is produced and we chat sociably over some tasty bruschetta – but it is still only 10:30 hrs in the morning! We note that the crew are not required, indeed are not permitted, to drink the bright-pink chemical concoction: for them the ship is ‘dry’. It does cause one to wonder slightly whether this whole cocktail palaver isn’t merely a little light-entertainment for the crew – “He, he! Look… ze passaggeros… they drink ze petrol-cough-medicine… again!!” We wouldn’t blame them! They are after all, a long time at sea with little else to amuse them but a spot of ‘bait the passenger’ 🙂
Salvi our cabin-boy/waiter continues to serve us in a random fashion but with such a smile and cheerful demeanour we can only overlook the occasional lack of attention to detail. We Brits make humorous comparisons with Manuel of Fawlty Towers, a likeness which is exacerbated by our perceived similarities between Salvi’s boss (the ship’s 1st Mate) and Basil Fawlty. OK, it’s pretty lame humour and doesn’t transfer well to our German shipmates, but in our defence we have been on-board for three weeks now… some desperation is creeping into our efforts to amuse ourselves.
Like Manuel, Salvi’s command of English is extremely limited although not as limited as our command of Italian. Communication between us often relies on much hand-waving and exaggerated facial expressions. Today we had a lengthy conversation with Salvi which we understood to concern the prevailing headwind causing him to be allocated extra cleaning duties. Puzzled, we tried to establish from him why in such calm conditions the light headwind was affecting such a large ship and even if it did, why it had resulted in him having extra duties? The confusion continued for some time, but it eventually transpired that ‘headwind’ was in fact his colleague Edwin who had spilled the Captain’s coffee in the corridor, for which Salvi had been blamed and punished with duties to clean it up 🙁 It’s a tough life at sea!
The Good News and the Bad News
Wednesday, Day 22, is a day of some bad news and some good news. At breakfast, some bad news: the ship’s alcohol store will be sealed today at 16:00 hrs ready to enter the Brazilian coastal waters (arrgh!!!). But the good news: before it closes, we can buy at ridiculously cheap duty free prices, a few bottles to tide us over the next few days in the Brazilian customs zone. Hurrah!!
At lunch, more bad news: a delay with the harbour pilot to take us into Vitoria (Brazil) means a further 24 hrs delay to our schedule. We are now running over 4 days behind our original schedule and, having reached our ‘3 Week’ milestone on board, this extra delay is a massive ‘aaarrggghhh’!!! After Vitoria we are scheduled for Rio de Janeiro, then Santos (still Brazil), then Zarate (Argentina)… each with off-loading and on-loading antics and significant potential for yet further delays. Even if we stay on the current schedule, we will be 5 days late into Montevideo. But hold fire… there’s also some Good News… the ship is now going to make an un-scheduled stop-off in Montevideo before Zarate. We can disembark there, avoiding 3 days at sea, plus a further 2-3 days of watching container loading in Zarate! We’ve not only made back our original schedule, we’ve gained a day and will now be arriving in Montevideo one day earlier than originally planned! A spiffing ‘Hurrah!’ for that, what??!!!
Days 23-24 – Thurs 22/10/15 to Fri 23/10/15 –Vitoria, Brazil
The New World
New activity: a spot of whale watching on our way towards Vitoria. Initially we see lots of splashing and water-spouts, plenty of dorsal and side fins waving at us from just above the water-line. Then eventually in the distance, some leaping hump-back whales doing the kind of back-flips that they usually reserve for Attenborough. Quite amazing, but unfortunately our photographic skills aren’t quite those of Attenborough’s crew and there is only limited photographic evidence of the whales’ performance.
Just before reaching Vitoria we get our first sight of South America – nick-named by Chris Colombus and chums as: ‘The New World’. By late afternoon we’re anchored-up just off Vitoria (yes, waiting for a pilot… again!) and we watch the town light-up at sunset.
Waking up on Day 23 to see a coastline view from our cabin is a welcome change: an extended line of high-rise towers along the sea-front of Vitoria/Vila Velha. From a distance off shore, it looks a bit of a concrete jungle but there is an amazingly long beach running the length of the shore from horizon to horizon.
At lunch-time we head down the estuary between Vitoria and Vila Velho. The course takes us between some shiny-posh tower blocks and some less distinguished but very colourful favela-type settlements climbing up the rocky shore along the river. We slip under a super-highway bridge crossing high overhead the river then, in the narrow waterway, two tugs help us make the delicate manoeuvre through 180° to get us into our mooring.
Coming up the estuary, the river was sufficiently narrow that we could see into the town on each side and for the first time it really felt as though we’re almost there! There is of course still some way to go (a whole week actually), but we are now at least on the destination continent of The New World!
Day 25 – Sat 24/10/15 – At sea: Vitoria to Rio de Janeiro
The Curse of the Absent Pilot
We were due to set-sail at 07:00 hrs but when we woke up at 06:00 hrs we were already well out at sea. Apparently we left at around 00:30 hrs, so we are now ahead of schedule for arrival in Rio this evening, to be followed by two whole days in Rio!! This city has been on our ‘bucket list’ for a while, so we’re getting just a wee bit excited about Sugar Loaf Mountain, Copacabana, Corcovado.
On nearing Rio around 19:00 hrs, we received the news that is now familiar on approaching a port… ‘The Curse of the Absent Pilot’ strikes again! Holding at anchor out in the bay within sight of Sugar Loaf; our Sunday in Rio is hanging by a tenuous thread. Monday still has some potential, but one would be foolish to hold one’s breath with these things…
Days 26 and 27 – Sun 25/10/15 to Mon 26/10/15 – In Brazil: Rio
Sunday, Day 26 started with a stunning sunrise, followed by the most frustrating day of the voyage so far. Unpublishable expletives spring to our minds, so we will limit our comments by suggesting a potential definition of the term: extreme exasperation – ‘sitting in view of one of the world’s greatest cities with the most iconic tourist attractions, yet being unable to reach them due to some Brazilian port worker enjoying a Sunday lie-in’. So close but soooo far! 🙁
Late afternoon, we pull-up anchor and collect a local pilot to take us into the docks. The route takes us around the city, past Ipanema, Copacabana and, allegedly, under the eye of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado. I say ‘allegedly’… unfortunately the extensive cloud-cover not only obscures Mr Jesus for all but a few moments when he appears briefly through the mist, but also makes for a very dull vista of all the other sights across Rio. Sailing into the bay, it is disappointing to have such a privileged position from which to view these spectacular sights, but have them veiled by the inconsiderate climactic conditions. Hey ho! Such is the life on the ocean waves 🙂
Meeting Mr Jesus
On Monday morning we wake to see from our cabin window, a clear view across the city to Mr Jesus on the hill behind. A lovely start to our 13th Wedding Anniversary, which we celebrate in style with (at last!) a day out in Rio!
First we head with shipmate Phil to Corcovado mountain top to see Mr Jesus. By now the views have become hazy but it is still breath-taking up there. As one of the world’s most iconic tourist attractions, it is obviously very crowded with everyone wanting that shot of themselves with ‘The Main Man’ standing behind them; but even with the crowds, it didn’t disappoint. The three of us thought of our absent shipmate, Jonny and sent him a selfie of us all in case he is missing us 😉
The Case of the Disappearing Duck
Back down the Corcovado hill, we decide to take a chance on a local bus which we hope will get us to the famous Copacabana Beach. This would obviously be a major tourist attraction in its own right, but we had yesterday from the ship spotted what seemed to be a giant yellow rubber duck on the beach front. Yes… that’s a rubber duck, yellow, sitting around 4 storeys high in front of the Copacabana sea-front tower blocks. Just to be sure that this had not been a figment of our imagination, we head down to Copacabana for a closer inspection. But when we got there it had gone! “OK…” you’re thinking… “a giant, yellow, rubber duck, right?… These guys have been at sea faaaaar too long!” Well it was there yesterday, we saw it from the ship, Honest Guv! Must have moved-on. Anyway, with or without the giant rubber duck, it was a thrill to sit on the world-famous beach and to mark the occasion with a traditional Caipirinha cocktail (or two).
In which Phil inadvertently gets a ‘tattoo’
And it was while we were enjoying an al-fresco lunch at a beach bar that we were approached by a local hawker offering henna ‘tattoo’ drawings on arms, legs, noses… whatever. Unfortunately, with the benefit of two rather strong Caipirinhas, I somehow managed to give him the impression that shipmate Phil might like to sport one of the designs on his arm. Quick-as-a-flash, the hawker whipped out his ink-pen and was scrolling a sun-design onto Phil’s upper arm. Oh noooo! Poor Phil really did not want this… but once the hawker had started, it was a bit hard to stop him. The design quickly took shape, finished-off with a flourish and the word ‘Rio’ underneath. Oh well… don’t worry, Phil… it’ll only last 15 days! It was verrrry funny at the time… and your sacrifice did make for one of the entertainment highlights of the day (and of the whole voyage, in fact!) 🙂
The entertainment for the afternoon was to visit what was described in our guide book as: ‘One of the most magnificent buildings in Brazil’. Well if Mr Footprint is correct on this point, we don’t hold out much hope for the other buildings across the country. The Teatro Municipal had a bit of glitzy detail, but was otherwise decidedly underwhelming. Nevertheless, we had an interesting wander around central Rio, eventually finding a bar not only with beer (obviously!!!) but also that facility much sought-after by travellers … free wi-fi!!! Hurrah!! A good end to a great day in fabulous Rio! Maybe we’ll come back for a little Olympic visit in summer 2016 when we head north next year 🙂
Back to the ship, where loading of 900 new cars was still taking place ready for departure tonight.
Day 28 – Tues 27/10/15 – At sea: To Santos
Not exactly a ‘must see’
Departure was scheduled to be around 01:00 hrs but it was getting light as we headed out to sea. The ship movement woke us at sunrise and from our cabin we watched the lights of Rio disappear behind us.
By late afternoon we arrived in Santos and for once there was a pilot ready for us! Our berth was quite some distance down the river behind the town, so we had the benefit of examining the city in some detail as we passed through. Let’s be kind and just say it’s not on our list of ‘must see’ destinations when we return to Brazil with Cuthbert next year!
Day 29–32 Weds 28/10/15 to Sat 31/10/15 – At sea: south from Santos
Bad news and (more) Caipirinhas
Overnight in Santos for some container off-loading and by 10:00 hrs we’re on our way on the final leg of the voyage. Hurrah!! Just two more days and we’ll be on the road in Monte 🙂 ! Or will we????
At lunch-time on Weds (Day 29) Captain ‘Super Mario’ dropped a bombshell: he is no longer sure whether the ship will indeed be going to Montevideo ahead of Zarate. Remember the ‘Good News/Bad News’ that he broke to us back on Day 22? Well… he is now standing-by for word from Grimaldi HQ whether they can after all, get us a mooring in Montevideo. If the logistics don’t work out, we’ll be back to original ‘Plan A’ of sailing past Montevideo, down the river to Zarate for off/on loading, then back to Montevideo for us to disembark. After four weeks on-board it is a painful thought to extend the voyage by another five-six days. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for the ‘Fairy Godmother of Montevideo Moorings’ to grant our wish, but ‘Que sera, sera!’ (as they say around here).
Part Two of the Captain’s lunchtime announcement was that in Santos last night, he had personally taken delivery of the makings for some Caipirinha cocktails (yes, the very same as enjoyed by the Brit excursion to Copacabana a couple of days ago). Not only this, but amongst his crew he has an officer highly skilled in the creation of said cocktails. There will therefore be a small party tomorrow to sample these new supplies. Nice. And hopefully Phil will avoid getting a henna tattoo this time 🙂 The only slight ‘snagette’ is that yet again, the ‘party’ is to take place at 10:00hrs. Is there a more un-godly hour at which to serve alcoholic cocktails???? We’ll have to see if we can find a window in our hectic social diary.
Hot off the press on Thursday (Day 30) from an undisclosed and secret location somewhere in Italy… “No stop in Monte… repeat… No stop in Monte”. Bugger! We are going to Zarate before Montevideo after all! This turns our remaining two days on-board now into seven more days on-board. It’s disappointing, but we Brits seem a bit more relaxed about it than the Germans, who are not taking the news at all well. We can’t blame anyone for the delay – Grimaldi never guaranteed any dates and always said that arrival is subject to the cargo schedule.
The irritating hooter
Since leaving Santos and also the tropics, the sea-state has been pretty rough. The significant ship-roll has inevitably made it a bit more challenging to get around the ship and we find ourselves retrieving errant items that have launched themselves around the cabin. The good news is that none of the shipmates is sea-sick yet, but we agree that it is just about on our limits; much rougher and there will probably be fewer shipmates at the dinner-table. Another ‘fun-factor’ is that the conditions have created an additional dimension to our daily game of ping-pong.
Over breakfast on Friday (Day 31) the heavy seas and clear skies transform into heavy seas with dense fog and a lightning storm. The extremely limited visibility requires a frequent sounding of the ship’s horn. This understandably, is exceptionally loud; not at all irritating after the 50th hoot 🙁 But better than mowing down some poor little fisherman, eh?
50% of ‘Full-steam Ahead!’
By mid-afternoon we leave Brazil and start abeam Uruguay but we seem to have significantly reduced our cruising speed. We have read that the Argentinian rural town of San Antonio de Areco is next weekend hosting the annual Gaucho Festival: a genuine, non-touristy event where gauchos from all over the region gather to display their horseback skills, play music and sit around grill-fires consuming volumes of local fayre. Sounds good, huh? We had hoped to arrive in time to see the festivities, but this is now looking increasingly unlikely.
Overnight into Saturday (Day 32) we have very slowly ploughed-on south. Over breakfast we turn west around the southerly point of Uruguay and drop anchor amongst many other ships in the entrance to Rio de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay. This leg down from Santos was originally scheduled to take two days, but it’s now four days since we left. It doesn’t require a PhD in marine navigation to work out that we must therefore have been cruising with around 50% of the engine’s normal out-put. ‘Time is money’ doesn’t seem to apply to this marine-cargo malarkey.
And yet again we’re waiting for a pilot; this time to take us down the Rio de la Plata. We are just 50 km off-shore of our final destination: Montevideo. If we thought that hovering off the coast of Rio de Janeiro was frustrating, this is excruciating! Again… so close but sooooo far!!!
A minor moment of entertainment for the afternoon was provided by the fire alarm sounding. One of the Filipino crew was waving his hand at us dismissively indicating that it was a false alarm, when the siren changed to an urgent tannoy voice ordering Fire Crew 1 to some action-station or other. The Filipino’s dismissive expression leapt suddenly to one of sheer panic as he scuttled off to duty whilst ushering us out on deck. Outside we established that it was indeed only a drill and the officers were using the ‘downtime’ at anchor productively to kept the crew on their toes.
Day 33–34 – Sun 1/11/15 to Mon 2/11/15 – Up Rio de la Plata to Zarate
Don’t wait for me Argentina
Sunday morning… What’s new for Day 33? Not a lot. Still at anchor at the entrance to the Rio de la Plata. The view from our cabin window has swung by about 45° (the hill on the horizon has drifted from the left side of our view to the right-hand side – nothing escapes our eagle-eyes 🙂 !!) but otherwise nothing has changed. German shipmate Marina has been out on deck to count the other ships in view – 26 apparently. This has been moderated, cross-checked and verified by her husband, Uli. We hope this is communicating to you dear blog-reader, the sense of the bleak despondency amongst the collected shipmates this morning.
Not 30, not 31, not even 32… but 33… yes, 33 hours we’ve been sitting here at anchor. We waste the afternoon watching a DVD of the musical Evita, identifying Buenos Aires and the Casa Rosada which we may, if we ever get there, one day see for real.
Finally at 18:00 hrs: progress! The pilot arrives and we set-off down the river overnight. Argentina here we come… mañana!!
Days 34 – 35 – Mon 2/11/15 to Tues 3/11/15 – Argentina: Zarate
21st Century Zarate?
Early on Monday we watch the skyline of Buenos Aires pass our cabin window. Down the main estuary, we turn left through alternating mangroves and derelict industrial zones into the much narrower Rio Paraná. Some delicate manoeuvring turning through 180° in the narrow channel sees us moored-up in Zarate by the afternoon.
This evening’s entertainment is Part 1 of Top Gear’s Patagonia Special. Fans of Clarkson and chums may recall that they famously had to make a hasty exit from Argentina recently. Their ill-considered vehicle registration plate allegedly referred to the Falklands War of 1982 and caused some offence. Setting aside both this and the occasionally rather juvenile humour of Jezza Clarkson & Co., we marvelled at the spectacular Andean roads which we will soon be enjoying for ourselves.
Next: Zarate. A port town some 100km up-stream from Buenos Aires. “Nothing to see here…” we’re told by the crew. But faced with the prospect of yet another whole day sat on-board, we venture into town whilst the crew deal with the cargo palaver.
After the relaxed approach of the port security for our last foray ashore in Rio, the thorough yet efficient Zarate port exit/security procedures are a bit of a shock. What’s going on? We seem to have been suddenly tele-ported back into the 21st Century! Well after a few hours in Zarate town, we would probably agree with the crew that there is indeed ‘nothing to see here’. And maybe our initial assessment of ‘21st Century Zarate’ may have been just a teeny bit premature. But there is a nice café/bar with reasonable food, beer and free wi-fi!!! What more could one want for a day ashore?!
Day 35 (the penultimate???) day ended with Part 2 of the Top Gear Patagonia Special: more spectacular scenery that we are looking forward to, but as for Jezza & Co… plonkers!
Days 36-37 – Weds 4/11/15 to Thurs 5/11/15 – Zarate to Montevideo
Buenos Aires déjà vu
As promised by Captain ‘Super Mario’ yesterday, we set sail during the night back down the river that we came up two days ago. By breakfast there is a smidgeon of déjà vu, cruising past the Buenos Aires skyline again but this time on the starboard rather than the port side. Just 200km to Montevideo now and there is cautious excitement amongst the shipmates at breakfast on Day 36. In eager anticipation of disembarking shortly, we start transferring some of our stuff from the cabin back down to Cuthbert. Maybe we shouldn’t be ‘counting our chickens’ at this stage. By lunch-time it is clear that the pilot will arrive on-board too late for us to disembark today. OK… one more evening of Scrabble Battle to go then!!
Around 21:30 hrs on Weds 4th November the bright lights of Monte appear in the darkness and the collected shipmates go up onto a cold and windy deck to witness the long-awaited arrival.
Buenos Dias Montevideo!!!!
Thursday, Day 37 – the last breakfast! The Grimaldi agent has taken our passport and documents for processing with Uruguayan Immigration. By 10:30 we are saying our farewells to the crew, particularly to Salvi the nicest and most cheerful cabin-boy ever! The arrival procedures with Cuthbert were not too tedious and soon after disembarking, we are taking leave of the other shipmates and heading to the Montevideo supermarket to stock-up. As we come out of the Mall and look over the bay, we see The Grande Nigeria heading out to sea, on its way back to Europe.
Finally……….the million dollar question????
Looking back now over the five weeks as a whole, it was pretty good. For us it was broadly enjoyable and certainly a unique insight into a whole new realm: the world of commercial sea freighting. The experience had its inevitable ‘ups’ and ‘downs’, being at the same time fascinating, tedious, entertaining and dull. And frustrating… let’s not forget the frustration when, towards the end of the trip, our arrival date was ‘rescheduled’. By this stage we really had no appetite to extend the voyage to 37 days from the expected 31 days, but the freight, not the passenger, is top-dog here.
A vital… in fact probably the vital part of the experience has been the excellent company of our British shipmates, Jonny and Phil. We could not have asked for more congenial shipmates with whom to spend soooo many hours playing ping-pong, Scrabble and sitting in the dining room exchanging our shared, uniquely British, humour. Together we saw in everything around us, so many Monty Python, Blackadder and Only Fools & Horses opportunities. And that’s without mentioning the crew’s central characters of Basil and Manuel from Fawlty Towers. None of this would have successfully transferred to any other cultures and we are eternally grateful that we were able to spend so many of our countless hours in captivity, laughing with them. Cheers chaps! Good Appetite 🙂
So now the Million Dollar Question: ‘Would we do it again?’ Well… if we can’t phone a friend or ask the audience, we’d have to sit on the fence with a ‘maybe’. We certainly don’t regret our time on-board and we would recommend anyone to try it once. But it is not without its frustrations. Had we not been so fortunate with our shipmates, it is easy to see how the voyage could have been a far less enjoyable experience. Luckily we don’t have to think about that for now… a little jaunt across the Americas awaits… 🙂
Click here for link to our first week in South America: Gauchos and Pie Town
Click here for link to full South America Blog