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On a Freighter Even the Routine is Extraordinary
And the Destinations are Some of the Most Exotic in the World

High Seas Adventure: A Personal Saga

A firsthand story

By Connie Barnard

"Beware of aging men with time on their hands. They come up with wild ideas.

Not long ago the Fates presented us with a gift of unanticipated leisure. Just as I was trying to figure out how to con him into re-doing the master bath, he walked in one day and said, “Why don’t we get on a freighter ship and go around the world?” Without missing a beat, I replied, “Have you lost your mind?” as I clicked over to HGTV’s “Extreme Bathroom Makeovers.

Connie and Howard Barnard

Flash forward six months. He takes me out to dinner, smiles into my eyes, and says, “Okay, why don’t we get on a freighter in Savannah and go to Jamaica, the Panama Canal, Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand ?” Call it madness, ignorance, love – all of the above. I smiled back at my boyfriend of 40 years and said, “Sure, why not?” And thereby hangs this tale.

I am writing from the middle of the Pacific Ocean where for the last 37 days we have been passengers on the CMA CGM Matisse, of a French company with Romanian officers, a Filipino crew, and a passenger limit of six.

CMA CGM Matisse
If you don’t know exactly what a freighter is, next time you cross the Ravanel Bridge into Charleston, look down on your left. See those great big boats with stacks of metal crates? Yep, that’s a freighter, and a few of these ships have cabins available to a small number of passengers. I know, you’re thinking just as I did: “Why in the world would anyone want to do that?” Amazingly, our ship’s three cabins are so in demand that they are usually booked at least a year in advance.

Our personal Odyssey began on September 22, 2011, at the Port of Savannah, Gate 5, Berth 9. As our port-authorized cab pulled up next to our new home away from home, we saw two couples standing on the tarmac in the ship’s shadow. I knew at a glance that they were the other passengers on our ship – and that they were seasoned travelers who do stuff like this all the time. They had that look, you know: sturdy utilitarian clothing, collapsible hats, investment cameras in durable cases hanging around their necks. And there I was: Scarlet O’Hara dressed for the ball. Well, not exactly, but you know how we Southern women have a thing for coordinated outfits and make up. I had spent three months trying to figure out which clothes to bring on the two month trip and was quite proud of myself for cramming everything into one suitcase and a carry-on.

As I watched the ship’s third officer and steward struggling to haul our luggage up the 38 steps of gangplank’s ladder, I knew deep inside that these women had put everything they’d ever need into a bag the size of my pocketbook.

Their names were Irene from Denmark and Angela from England. With their husbands, Hans and Mike, they had met on September 8 when the ship departed from England. They’d made stops along the way in Rotterdam, Le Harve, Dunkirk and New York City. They were waiting for a cab into Savannah, eager to visit the Waving Girl and an internet cafe.

First gathering upon boarding in New York
on the CMA CGM La Tour (sistership)

Waiving Girl
After checking our paperwork (medical clearance, passports, visas, shot records), the Third Officer had recovered sufficiently from the luggage episode to give us a tour of the ship and introduce us to each member of the crew. The required language of the workplace is English. The ship’s captain, Laurentiu Melniciuc, is a crusty, no-nonsense boss, but in the evenings after dinner, he shares marvelous, often hilarious, tales of his 33 years at sea, the best one involving a raccoon in the engine after a stop in Miami.

Passengers are given free reign of the ship, including its operational center, the bridge, which is manned 24 hours a day in four hour shifts. An open deck above the bridge, nicknamed “Monkey Island,” is where we passengers all stood to wave at the video cam as we passed through the Panama Canal. We waved at the cameras and the visitors on its observation deck waved back to us, Monkey-see, Monkey-do.

The gymnasium/library on board is a large room with two walls of paperback books. About half of these are in French, but there is a surprisingly impressive collection of English titles, many donated by previous passengers. The room also contains a ping pong table, dart board and treadmill. Meals are served in a sunny dining room designated for officers and passengers. The ship’s masterful cook, David, also prepares Philippine food for crew members who have a separate dining room. Elsewhere on board there is an indoor swimming pool and a small ship’s store which provides wine, beer, soft drinks, snacks and toiletries. I’ve been told that somewhere there is also a coffin – just in case one of us is unable to complete the voyage…

The owner’s cabin, which we leased, is a spacious suite about 10 by 15 feet with its own tiled bath. It has large double porthole windows with a nice view, partially blocked at the moment by stacks of those colorful metal crates mentioned earlier. There are two other cabins, the super cargo and second officer. These are not as large but otherwise much like ours with nice carpeting, sturdy blond furniture which includes built-in beds, cabinets, desk, wardrobe and a small refrigerator. Next door is a large passenger lounge with tables, chairs, sofas, a coffee pot and a nice flat screen television for watching videos. At the end of each hall is small deck with metal chairs. We refer to this as “the porch” and spend a lot of time here soaking up the view and the sun.

Speaking of time, yes, there IS a good bit of that. The ship averages about 20 knots an hour. I’ll let you do the rest of the math. This is not a trip for people in a hurry. It is much more about the journey than the destination. We do not have live television or internet (though we do have access to the ship’s e-mail system), and I am truly amazed that the world has survived almost 40 days without our watching the news or reading a newspaper.

What freighter travel does provide is the rare and precious gift of total leisure. Our culture tends to measure the value of life by how busy it is. On board, it doesn’t take long to get beyond this. Between Panama and Tahiti, we went ten days without seeing land. Spotting a distant fishing boat or freighter off in the distance is often the big excitement for the day. That and watching the radar screen coordinates switch from N to S as we celebrate crossing the Equator into the Southern Hemisphere. This actually WAS a pretty big deal, as was crossing the International Date Line. Currently, we are 16 hours ahead of South Carolina, which just goes to show how our concept of time is both nebulous and artificial.

Our fellow passengers are an interesting lot, each with a unique personal story. A retired English midwife is traveling with her husband to New Zealand where she worked thirty years ago. They got off in Sidney and were replaced by a British engineering professor returning to the UK after seven years in Darwin working on a water project. This trip tops his Bucket List. An Australian woman who doesn’t like to fly is meeting her family in England where she will travel for several months before heading home via the Trans Siberian Railway and a Russian freighter. Two in the group are recent cancer survivors. Hans and Irene from Denmark have visited remote spots all over the world. They got off in Melbourne and will travel around Tasmania for a month.

Despite its Spartan aspects, freighter travel is not cheap. (And no, we don’t have to swab the deck to pay our way.) Passengers pay a daily rate which includes three meals with wine and steward service. The amount seems quite reasonable until you consider the number of days involved – 43 for us. Compare this with costs of flying in to a posh resort or going on a conventional cruise. You may be surprised – as I was.

CMA CGM Matisse, April 2011

Obviously, traveling on a freighter is not for everyone. If you like to dress for dinner and need to be constantly entertained, don’t even think about it. If you don’t enjoy reading or otherwise entertaining yourself, this trip could be pure torture. It requires flexibility as well. The ship’s primary purpose is to deliver the goods. Weather and port delays often complicate arrival and departure schedules. For certain people, however, this is a unique and enjoyable way to go. Passengers get to know one another and the officers and crew as well. Often they are invited to tour the huge engine room, impressive even for someone who doesn’t know a piston from valve. When the ship approaches a port, passengers gather to watch the port pilot arrive by small boat. He climbs aboard the moving ship via a rope ladder dropped over the side of the ship, and then takes charge of the ship as he guides it into port. Pretty amazing stuff.

In a couple of days our adventure at sea will end. Forty days and forty nights on a boat is long enough – even for Noah. We will spend the next month aboard planes, trains and automobiles exploring both islands of New Zealand and both coasts of Australia. It is an amazing opportunity which has taught me something very important: TIME is the greatest luxury of all – that and the freedom of not even knowing what day it is".

Two more firsthand stories from these voyages:

Crossing the Equator Ceremony
Around-the-World by Freighter -- a few longer excerpts from the 160-page book, offering you much to learn about the ship, ports, oceans, and the world while leisurely navigating with Mr. Hartley -- published in 2004, the book and our newsletter, which was then still in printed form. Look for the book at, and search for Bob Hartley.

The CMA CGM offers the following sailings, approx.every 5-6 weeks:

Rotterdam, NL; Tilbury, GB (Day 1); Dunkirk (2) and Le Havre, FR (3); New York (12) and Savannah, USA (14); Kingston, JM (17); Cartagena, CO (19); transit the Panama Canal (21); Papeete, Tahiti (31); Noumea, New Caledonia (37); Sydney (41) and Melbourne, AU (43); Tauranga (48), Napier (50) and Lyttelton, NZ (51); transit the Panama Canal (67); Punta Manzanillo, PA (68); Savannah, 2nd call (72); Philadelphia, USA (74) and Rotterdam (84).

CMA CGM Matisse and Utrillo
Passengers: 6
Containers: 2,262 TEU
Deadweight: 30,508 tons
Length: 195.6 m
Speed: 20.5 knots / 37 km
Built: 2002
Owners: CMA-CGM, French
Officers & Crew: International

The Owner’s forward-facing twin-bedded cabin, bed sizes 2.00 x 1.10 m each, has an area of 26 sqm - €110 per person double, €135 per day, single occupancy.

Two double bed cabins, one facing forward the other facing aft, bed size 2.00 x 1.40 m, each having an area of 22 sqm - €110 per person double, €120 per day, single occupancy.

Each cabin has a fridge and private facilities with shower, and all are located on “E” deck, one below the Captain’s. The dining room, library and exercise room are located on “B” deck, lounge on the Captain’s deck and a small indoor swimming pool on the Main deck.

CMA CGM Brochure (2 PDF pages, 128 KB)

General Information and Reservations

Passenger cabins and shared facilities, such as the dining room, lounges, exercise room and swimming pool are located on various decks. Passengers must be fully mobile and able to negotiate the stairs. Front and aft views may be obstructed by the containers stowed on deck.

Self service laundry facilities are available. The electrical current is 220/50 AC. A two-prong round adapter and converter are needed for North American appliances. A steward will clean the cabin once a week, or more often if necessary.

A small onboard shop provides a limited selection of beverages, cigarettes and toiletries at duty free prices. Onboard expenses may be paid for with cash in USD. Tipping is at the passenger’s discretion; USD 3-5 per person per day is recommended. Telephone, fax and email connections are available through the Captain’s office. The average port time is one day.

Reservations can be made by completing a Registration Form and providing a 25% deposit. The balance of the fare is payable 70 days before departure. The fare may be paid for by check or wire (by exception only, credit cards may be accepted) in either the basic tariff currency, as quoted by the steamship line, or in USD/CAD at the prevailing exchange rate, subject to a final adjustment at the time the ticket is issued, a few weeks before departure.

Passports must be valid for at least 6 months beyond the anticipated return date, and a visa for the USA and Australia must be obtained, depending on the citizenship and voyage. A Medical Statement of Good Health and International Health and Accident Insurance are required on all voyages, as is a vaccination or exemption cerificate against yellow fever. The age limit is 79.

Cancellation fees are as follows: over 60 days, loss of deposit; 30-59 days, 50% of the fare. No refund will be made within 30 days of departure. To protect your investment, Cancellation and Interruption Insurance is highly recommended. It protects your investment from the moment you buy the policy at the same price as it would be one day before the voyage. And if you take it within three weeks of your initial deposit, pre-existing conditions are waived. Travelex Insurance packages are available to Maris customers worldwide on page Before You Sail.

Passengers Mr. and Mrs. Lilly, Mr. and Mrs. Doerr, Mr. and Mrs. Hanekroot
and Capt. Zunic of Maris Freighter Cruises visiting on board the CMA CGM La Tour

Please contact us through the Initial Contact page.

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