It's not Love Boat, but freighter travel is very likeable

September 06, 1992|By Rick Sylvain | Rick Sylvain,Knight-Ridder News Service

ABOARD MV PACIFIC SPAN -- As Gwen and John May of Lincoln City, Ore., were boarding their cruise ship, they stopped cold in their tracks.

Six men in handcuffs were coming off.

"Disconcerting, to say the least," said Ms. May.

Days later, a Canadian labor strike would leave the Mays and the rest of us passengers high, dry and shipbound in the middle of Vancouver Harbor for 36 hours.

Oh, well. Nobody said freighter travel would be the Love Boat.

Welcome aboard the MV Pacific Span, where you cruise with screws -- and car parts and transformers and crates of salmon.

Now in Long Beach, Capt. Friedrich Wilbertz focuses on the business at hand: cargo stops in Oakland, Seattle and Vancouver, then downbound to Oakland and Long Beach before the long homeward passage to Germany.

Tagging along on Pacific Span for part of the route, I learned that cruises don't have to be aboard luxury liners to be enjoyable.

Cargo is king aboard these ships; passengers are literally along for the

ride. Which means that in order of importance to the shipping line, you fall somewhere after a load of lug nuts.

This was fun. This was a lifelong dream. Aboard passenger-carrying freighters you can sail away on a tramp steamer -- for two or 200 days.

Living the sea dog life, I learned as many don'ts as do's about freighter travel. You don't have to bunk with bananas. Every day is not an Indiana Jones adventure. Crew members are not scuzzy lowlifes; my sailors were downright friendly and seemed genuinely happy to have the company.

Sometimes freighter ports are richly exotic, palm-fringed locales the big cruise ships can't ruin. Your anchorage can be for days, oblivious to time and schedules.

The U.S.-Canada coastal leg of Pacific Span's itinerary works for cruisers wanting the romance of freighter travel without endless weeks at sea.

Aboard container ships like Pacific Span there are only a handful of passengers, no rigid agenda or demanding dress code, and you can pass the long hours reading and relaxing, not racing to deck games.

Instead of decks mobbed with passengers, my cabin looked out on Span's bellyful of cargo containers -- "cans" in the parlance of the trade -- stacked like building blocks.

"Everything you could need for your life is here," said Captain Wilbertz, "soap, TVs, video recorders, fruit, salmon, film, chocolate, rye, paper products, all sorts of chemicals -- you mention it, it's here."

We were only five passengers, from backgrounds as diverse as John May, who flew warplanes for Winston Churchill in World War II, to lawyer Dorothy Loeb of Washington.

Three times a day we would descend the polished tile stairway to the officers' mess. Mealtimes weren't the ultra-chic affairs of some ships, but off a typewritten menu we ordered dishes like omelets, fresh salmon, beef stew and chicken legs prepared by Jaime de la Cruz. We could always count on hearty soups, and breads, cold cuts and cheeses were never lacking.

Morning tea featured, tea. Period.

When we sat down to pizza, passenger Hank Sullivan of Daly City, Calif., was skeptical. "Should be interesting," he deadpanned. "A Filipino cook on a German ship doing Italian pizza."

Our cabins were clean, serviced daily and at least twice as large as those on conventional cruise ships (twice as cheap, too). It didn't matter that instead of opening your curtains on a tropical rain forest you'd be staring at a container of plywood.

If you felt like it you could climb the forward mast, tour the engine room or take a walk around deck to hang out on the bridge with the captain. And you had a box seat in port as huge overhead cranes plucked 20- to 40-ton containers off the ship -- or put them on.

Captain Wilbertz had only one rule. Never say "fog," only f-o-g.

Pacific Span takes up to eight passengers. (Modern liners can handle more than 2,000.)

For Captain Wilbertz, 54, who started as a deckhand at age 16 and has mastered vessels for 27 years, freighters are his first love. "I wouldn't work the cruise ships. Eight is enough.

"Freighter passengers are different. They don't want to dress up, they don't want the high life, they don't want dancing; they want to be sitting in their jeans and T-shirts and be able to go all over the ship. They live together with us. We talk of our families, show them our pictures. Who can afford two months on a ship like the Love Boat? You can't."

"My friends would go stark-raving mad after three hours on a freighter but this is so relaxed," said passenger John May.

"You're always barging into people on the big ships," said Gwen May. "It seems the bigger they get the worse they get."

The Mays have sailed their share of gentrified ships like those of Royal Viking and Sea Goddess. But the freighter life is winning them over; they already had bookings for Buenos Aires-to-Baltimore and two weeks in the remote islands of the South Pacific on a supply ship.

Before disembarking in Vancouver, Britons Eldrid and Ursula Retief reflected on a cruise that started four weeks earlier in Bremerhaven, Germany. Where the time went, they hadn't the f-o-ggiest idea.

"You don't have life completely organized for yourself," Mr. Retief said of freighter travel. "You are a much closer family, eight to 12 passengers at the most, and it's very informal."

"Wonderfully relaxing time," said Ursula Retief. "I read 12 books."

On my final day, we were 14 miles off the California coast. The gray vastness of the Pacific stretched before us. But suddenly, white-sided dolphins, then a seal, were off our starboard.

Then an awesome sight filled my binoculars: a spouting whale.

Cruising with lug nuts wasn't bad, I decided. Not bad at all.

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