17 Sept – 11 Oct. (Dakar – Buenos Aires)
Having set sail from Dakar, we only had one day at sea before we were due to reach Freetown in Sierra Leone. The plan, so we were told by Chief Mate (also known as 1st Mate and/or Chief Officer and/or Primo), was to set the anchor down approximately 11 miles off the coast of Freetown and wait until the berth had been vacated.
Six days and 18,000 calories later, we finally got the call from port to proceed. Boredom had reached a high. Not only were we stuck on a ship not being able to get off. We were stuck on a ship that wasn’t moving and still not being able to get off. That meant no dolphins to look out for or any new visions of land to set our sights on. We could only see Sierra Leone’s mountainous profile rising up through mist in the distance – breathtaking at first, but quickly became the standard backdrop we hoped not to see each morning. [Emergency boredom pack opened – thank you Tricia!]
One of us was very happy and content reading books and catching some rays.
The other however was playing in a completely different ball game. He paced, and groaned, paced and groaned.
Then, as life was beginning to ebb away and the poor soul was a shadow of his former self, he spotted some of the crew fishing! Eyes lit up and he was there in a flash, not to be seen again for days! For lunch each day we feasted on the catch!
In between fishing and reading, the week long wait was also broken up by an evening BBQ party with all the crew, an ‘unleashing of the lifeboats’ drill and a formal invitation to The Bridge, (control room), with the Captain, despite us having sneaked up there, (daily), with our friendly 2nd Mate, Luigi.
Our daily routines continued and we got to know the other passengers and the crew much better.
All of our new French speaking passengers are of a similar age – all retired, all in their early-to-mid sixties, and all of excellent outgoing characters with an appetite for travel. From France we have Marie-Jo and Pierre, Solonge and Michel, and Alain and Bridget. Loup and Michele also joined in Le Havre but are actually Belgian. All four ‘camping-cars’, (rugged mobile homes), sit next to our motorbikes on deck 6, ready for the South American dream. None, including us, can fully understand how Joop came to be just going round in a circle, and will not be getting off in Buenos Aires.
So we are 11 passengers. The crew number 35, including the Captain (also known as Master and/ or Comadante). The company, Grimaldi, being Italian, means most of the higher ranking officers are Italian. But they only represent 40% of the total crew – the remaining 60% are from India. None of the crew speak French, only a little English so at least we were able to converse with them.
A little about the crew:
Our dedicated ‘Passenger Steward’ (housekeeper, server, mess-boy – you get the picture) is Vicenzo.
A friendly yet entirely dissatisfied crew member. A typical Italian from Sicily, who is fed up of working so hard for so little pay. He looks after us, cleans our cabins daily, and serves us at lunch and dinner. He seems to keep himself to himself out of work hours because his colleagues have had enough of his bemoaning.
Also on the housekeeping-side there is another steward, Ravi, who deals with the officers. Ravi is far more merry than Vicenzo, he is studying to become an Officer, and brings us curry out from the kitchen that we’re not supposed to be eating, much to Vicenzo’s frustration.
In the kitchen there is Chief cook, Nunceo (Italian) and second cook, Stan who is from Mumbia. Chief cook is up at 5am to make fresh bread rolls every day, is hardly ever seen without a cigarette in his mouth, especially while preparing food. Trainee cook Stan is a mild mannered, former pastry chef who fancied his time on a cargo ship, serving 46 people, as a break from the hectic cruise liners and its hoards of passengers.
Of the Officers, there are three 2nd Mates – two Italian and one Indian. They are on a constant ‘watch’ rota on The Bridge where they navigate the ship, (despite it being on autopilot), and watch for icebergs with help from their dedicated Able-Seaman. When in port, all the officers and able-seamen don their overalls and gloves and get stuck into shifting cargo. There are also a couple of cadets, Roberto and Nicolino, both of whom are in Officer Training. They work long shifts and can be found somewhere between The Bridge, Forward, Aft and the cargo decks.
The ship’s engineers are similarly split into three teams lead by the Chief Engineer, all from India. The engineers work hard in the sweltering heat of the engine room. They do not complain and make the well-groomed Italians look like pretty pansies. The deck crew, (Ordinary Seamen), are also all Indian and work beneath the Bosun (Boatswain) on all levels with the cargo, and carry out maintenance throughout the vessel when at sea.
Chris was keen to join the Engineers for their afternoon cup of tea in the Engine room, and with friendship comes knowledge – at an average 16 Knots (28kph), the ship uses 50-55 tons of fuel (Heavy Oil) per day. At $600 per tonne, efficiency is king during an 8 week trip. Anchored outside Freetown the ship guzzles 5-6 tons per day, even in neutral!
The ‘Driver’, Ciro (Italian), has the best role – he works solidly when in port, sometimes for 48hrs with little sleep, driving the forklift trucks and managing the local drivers, but when at sea, he is unemployed – i.e. a passenger! He primarily sits outside the kitchen door sunning himself and passing the time of day with Cook, or fishing.
The Chief Mate manages everyone and everything that happens on the ship, reporting only to the Master. Chief Mate is a large, dark Italian who looks as though he has modelled his facial hair on Jesus, and has a large flag of Christ the Redeemer in his room. Like most Italians, we have come to learn he is a dedicated Catholic, in principle. He’s a young-ish, (late thirties), larger-than-life, works very hard but also plays very hard, and is well loved among his crew.
The Master on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. He talks of hard work but is hardly ever seen actively doing any. Legend has it, he siphons cash out of the crew’s bonus pay-packets, and, as we had firsthand knowledge of a few times, can be an irrationally aggressive character on a power trip – perhaps a perk of being the Master. The Master is a late middle-aged Italian, say sixty-ish, who always has his shirt casually (or scruffily?) un-tucked, and who has his eye on retirement and the young women.
The ship is run with ease of operation and slickness, if you don’t look at the rough edges. The relaxed Italian attitude to everything from prolonged four-course lunches with wine, (good!), to smoking in the kitchen and tardy maintenance (not so good!), comes with the territory.
So! After six days on anchor (and a lot of wasted fuel), we sailed into Freetown. Sadly, we were not rewarded with a trip ashore – we were confined to the decks to watch the action from above due to the lack of security Freetown offers visitors.
The slums run alongside the docks, built out onto the beach that seemed to be semi-submerged once the tide came in. We docked at 7pm and were sailing out again at a similar time the next day, the removal of cargo taking twice as long as it should have done due to incompetent dock workers (apparently).
One interesting point to note – we were docked next to an Aid Hospital ship which had been berthed at Freetown for almost one year. Called the Africa Mercy and managed by Mercyships.com, it had previously been stationed in South Africa. It travels around the ports of Africa, staying for one year, offering much needed medical aid to the local residents – it is soon to depart Freetown, its destination unknown.
Once we left Freetown, the journey across to South America then began! Seven days to cross the Atlantic, heading straight for Rio do Janeiro, Brazil.
The daily routine kicked in again, whale and dolphin spotting now taking the place of fishing. Chris tried his hand at sailing the ship, getting dirty down in the lower depths of the hull, and Fireman Sam got thoroughly involved with work on board.
On the third day a party was due – the Equatorial baptism and shindig. For those of us who hadn’t previously crossed the equator by sea, we underwent a ritual ceremony where King Neptune of the Seas, first name Luigi, baptised us in water, flour and chocolate and pronounced us ‘one of his own shellbacks’. We were then kindly drenched with the fire hose.
Another BBQ party ensued and we were all jolly about now really being on the way to South America.
The first sight of Brazil we wouldn’t have missed for anything. It was then that we realised that by ship is the only way to approach such a continent, or indeed any continent. Flying into an airport, you step off the plane and are suddenly there, in the midst of it, leaving you feeling like you’ve been bundled off and left there in the middle, blind. By ship you are slowly, gradually introduced to the land.
Having never approached an unknown land by sea before, it never occurred to us that it would feel this mysterious and alluring. Everything approaching so slowly you can really take it all in from the outside, before entering into the heartland itself. We saw the deserted mountains, the shores and beaches that are uninhabited, the rainforests and cliffs crashing down to the Atlantic. Like we really were explorers, this unknown and (it appeared) uninhabited land was to be our destination! How exciting! Shame on you, those who thought that sailing would be a mistake! Convinced that we would regret spending weeks on a ship when we could have so easily flown…! And missed all this? Not a chance!
First stop, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Famous for Corcovado, Copacabana beach and the Mardi Gras carnival. We had hoped to get a full day sightseeing but it turned out we only docked in the early afternoon so had to content ourselves with only a few hours before we sailed again that evening. Due to the tight time constraints, our ‘friendly’ Captain arranged a couple of the port taxis to take all the passengers round the sites, bringing us back to the ship at the end of the day.
First the Sugar Loaf – a steep volcanic mound standing at 394m above sea level, on the edge of the coast over-looking the city, reached only by cable cars. Amazing views of Rio, Corcovado and the rounded toothy mountains beyond, although the mist was still lingering.
Next, Corcovado – the statue of Christ on the hill, standing at the peak of a 710m high hunchbacked mountain, the statue itself another 32m high, looking over the city out towards the Atlantic. Erected in the 1920’s, the statue is made of reinforced concrete, clad with triangular pieces of soapstone. Professional opinions on the structure and its aesthetics were discussed, and methods of repair agreed!
We caught the last tram back down the steep decent through the invading rainforest to our waiting taxis. By now it was 6.30pm and time to find a restaurant to eat before heading back to the ship. It could only have been Copacabana!
Although the shops were shrouded in darkness, the beach was floodlit and the main strip was packed with restaurants, hotels, markets and countless taxis. Unfortunately a four-lane carriageway separated the beach from the restaurants and hotels, so we had to settle for a ‘sea view’ of the road.
So, back on the road/ sea, we left Rio late that evening, heading for Santos. Buenos Aires still over a week away.
The next week passed very quickly. We stopped in Santos, Montevideo and Zarate before finally landing in Buenos Aires. In Santos we couldn’t get off the ship because the turnaround was too quick.
Montevideo we traipsed around in the torrential rain and Chris paid £15 for an umbrella (by mistake!). But we then had the most amazing steaks for dinner which made it worth the trip and the £15 (now broken) umbrella!
We jumped off in Zarate for a day but not much to report there… by this time we weren’t taking much in because we were anxious to get to BA!
On the 10th October we arrived in Buenos Aires, 11.15pm. The following morning we disembarked, although only left the port, following lengthy immigration and customs administration, at about 2.30pm. Buenos Aires here we come!
The first stop – Dakar Motos in the suburbs of the city.
… keep following – sorry this one has been so long!
Over & out.
Whales watched: 22
Shooting stars: 3
Fire drills: 1
Electrical fires on cargo deck: 1
BOOKS READ SO FAR:
A Wanted Man – John Le Carre
Contact – Carl Sagan
High Water – Lynn Hightower
Secret Loves, Women with two lives – Sonya Freidman (a must read! ;-))
Adventure Motorcycling Handbook – Chris Scott
The Mission Song – John Le Carre
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
Vanity Fair – William Thackeray
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence
Secret Loves, Women with two lives – Sonya Freidman