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Lawrence and the Pirates


Hopping a freighter isn’t what it used to be.  Which is to say it takes a great deal more planning and bother than the adventure of my imagination.  Maybe I could find a tramp freighter if hanging around in a down-at-the-heels port, preferably Asian, with no schedule to keep were in the cards.  But while I aspire to meandering about the planet from place to place with no plan I’m not quite there yet.  Nor, sadly, at my current rate of development in that direction, am I likely to be in this lifetime.  

The other difficulty seems to be that in this age of high security any ship one might consider worth boarding is behind high fences and gates and miles from access by non-professional seagoing personnel.  That would be me, foiled again.

Loading at Port Kelang.

Ever since seeing ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ for the first time I’ve imagined myself alongside The Man when he saw the ship moving across the desert and crawled up the dune to discover the Suez Canal.  I figured if I couldn’t time travel I might still get a bit of the flavor of that movie moment by going through the canal on a freighter.  So that was one of the criteria for a proposed voyage, it must go through the canal.  Hoping that the current danger of the approach from the eastern end wouldn’t preclude finding a ship on which I could book passage I began to look online for likely possibilities.

Rigoletto's Captain on the bridge.

Google turned up several agents, fewer than I’d expected, and the short list was soon reduced to one in New Zealand which specializes in freighter travel.  Called appropriately, Freighter Travel, it’s run by Hamish Jamieson who I soon discovered was an enthusiast as well as a salesman and we began an on & off 2 year correspondence that ended, finally, in the fulfillment of my heart’s desire.

Escape pod on deck, outside officer's mess.

Shipping companies who will even consider taking passengers these days require a mountain of paperwork and certificates and a promise that one will not die while on their ship.  My thought was what a great way to go, including the opportunity for a burial at sea, thus saving one’s loved ones all the bother of a body.  But I promised Hamish and he facilitated the documentation so I could send money and book my sailing.  He advised me on numerous occasions throughout the process of the most important fact to keep in mind, that one should not make inflexible plans nor expect the ship to keep to a schedule, yours or it’s own, as I found out.

Booked on the CMA CGM Cendrillon, I sailed ultimately from Tanjung Pelepas, across a bridge from Singapore, on the Rigoletto while the Cendrillon cooled it’s rudder somewhere in China.  From there the only stop was up the coast at Port Kelang before heading through the Malacca Strait, around Sri Lanka and south of India, across the Arabian Sea and into the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia.

Turquoise water in the Port of Jeddah.

Port of Jeddah at night.

Pirates are a fact of life for ships in that part of the world, and it’s the policy of the French flagged CMA CGM line to defend their ships with speed.  While the tactic has worked as far as I know they still prepare passengers and crew for the unlikely event of a boarding by having a safe room deep in the hull.   It’s equipped with supplies and communications equipment but no guns.  On my first day on the Rigoletto I was taken to the bottom deck, outside and back in, through several doors, down steep ladders and eventually to the large space that would confine us safely, one hoped, should the worst happen.  I was assured that in case of such an event a crew member would fetch me and show me the way, a good thing as could not possibly have found it again at the calmest of times.

Container crane operator loading Rigoletto.

As we sailed at increased speed though those dangerous waters I climbed the stairs to the bridge as we were welcome to do any time.  I was looking from the enclosed area through the windows to the outside part of the bridge on the starboard side when a young officer behind me said in a quiet matter-of-fact voice, “pirates”.  I hadn’t been looking at anything in particular but as my eyes snapped into focus I said eloquently, “really?”.  He smiled and said really.  We’d passed fishermen earlier, stopped and one to a boat, obviously at work.  These boats were longer, fast, with 6 to 8 men in them and going at speed in the opposite direction.  If the young man beside me hadn’t said something I may have hardly noticed them but now I was fascinated.  Several of the small speedy vessels went by, obviously together and on their way somewhere.  I was told that it’s oil tankers and not container ships that are the main targets and was happy to have it verified by the experience of that moment.

Officers on the bridge.

We sailed on toward Suez, passing Djibouti and Eritrea, between islands which are part of Yemen, then Sudan on the port side until arriving at Jeddah.  The water in the port of Jeddah was the most astonishing turquoise color, as the water would be again when conditions were right in the canal.  The captain asked but we were denied permission to leave the ship in Saudi Arabia as we also would be in Port Said.  It was considered unsafe because of political unrest in Egypt and maybe it’s never a good time in Saudi Arabia.  But I didn’t book the trip for the ports but for the experience of being on the ship, in this case 1 of only 2 passengers on this portion of Rigoletto’s westbound voyage from China to Europe.  Given the nature of the ports along the way I’m pretty sure leaving the vessel would have been more complication than holiday.  I didn’t mind.

We arrived in the holding area at the eastern end of the canal at Suez then waited some hours until pilots boarded the ships to proceed in convoy through the canal.  Had we been late for the scheduled group passage the ship would have had to wait a day until the next opportunity at considerable cost to the company.

Car ferry, Suez Canal.

Though not as potentially exciting as the possibility of pirates, the 12 or so hours spent passing through the Suez Canal did not disappoint.  It was the details I found so fascinating, watching life along the banks proceed as if we weren’t there.  Towns and villages and farms drifted past, or rather we past them.  A neighborhood hangout seen from above with men lounging outside.  A railroad bridge swung to both banks, half on each side.  On the ship's bridge the rotating pilots were entertained by the captain, served meals and snacks and plied with cartons of Marlboros, apparently the universal favorite brand.

El Ferdan Railway Bridge.

We arrived at Port Said in the evening for another all-night round of unloading and loading.  Like anything finally accomplished after many years of imagining, there was a feeling of let-down, not for anything wanting in the experience but, I suppose, simply because it was over.  Next day we sailed into the Mediterranean but for me the voyage was already complete.

We Will Die for Egypt.



To read more of PortMoresby’s contributions, click here.


Images (11)
  • ©Vittorio Ottonello.: CMA CGM Rigoletto.
  • Loading at Port Kelang.: Clouds with Crane, Port Kelang.
  • Captain on the bridge.: Rigoletto's Captain on duty on the bridge.
  • Escape pod.: Pod on the deck outside the officer's mess.
  • Port of Jeddah.: Turquoise water in the Jeddah port basin.
  • Port of Jeddah.: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia port at night.
  • Crane operator.: Loading containers on Rigoletto from above.
  • Officers on the bridge.: Young officers on duty on the bridge of the Rigoletto.
  • Car ferry, Suez Canal.: Car ferry at a canal crossing point.
  • El Ferdan Railway Bridge.: Half of the El Ferdan Railway Bridge.
  • We Will Die for Egypt.: Message in the sand.

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Comments (6)

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Thanks for letting me as close as I'll probably get to the tramp steamer fantasy so many of us grew up with--and which is now, apparently, more civilized than in the fantasies...but still with an edge of danger. 

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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