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Slow Boat to Singapore: Cruising by Freighter

By Nan Robertson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 27, 2000; Page E01

It was the sunset hour of our 30th day at sea out from Tahiti. Dead ahead were the mountains of Papua New Guinea, rearing straight up from the Solomon Sea. Dolphins leaped before our freighter's bow, a lone outrigger fishing canoe drifted far astern, the sinking sun lit clouds afire in gold, pink, lavender, 360 degrees around the sky. It was a travelogue cliche. Yet only a clod would remain unmoved by such majesty.

We 10 passengers gazed, stunned, from a windswept open platform high above the waterline. Then one of us, a Yorkshireman named Ken, voiced our common thought: "I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be in this place."

Spectacular scenery is commonplace on a South Pacific freighter cruise. (Photo by William W. Ross)

My husband, Bill, and I had boarded the Arunbank, a British-owned, round-the-world cargo ship, in Papeete, Tahiti. For seven weeks it was our floating world. We traveled 11,000 miles westward, visiting some of the remotest ports on Earth before disembarking at the southern tip of Malaysia.

The Arunbank stopped to load and unload in 10 ports between Tahiti and Singapore: in New Zealand, New Caledonia, Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) and Papua New Guinea. Toward the end, we felt as if we had reached the back of beyond. There were tribes totaling a million people so sealed away in New Guinea's mountains that they had never seen a wheel or a white face until 1930; they thought the first Australian prospectors were ancestral ghosts. European explorers, 400 years earlier, had only nibbled at the coastal edges of this gigantic island, 1,500 miles long.

The high green islands we visited in the southwest Pacific were sprinkled across a vast, empty ocean. The Pacific occupies one-third of the globe, the largest single feature seen from outer space. We spent slightly more than half the voyage on this watery void, the rest of our time on land. And so this became two trips – the life of the ship and our experiences on shore.

Back home in Washington, when we told our friends we were taking a freighter from Tahiti to Singapore, that the passage would last about two months, and that there would be a maximum of 12 passengers aboard, there were two dramatic reactions. The bigger group grew starry-eyed: "What a fantastic adventure!" The others were aghast: "Two months! What are you going to do all day? What if you don't like the other passengers?"

There is no test of tolerance as stiff as a boat trip with a few strangers, or even friends. You can end the voyage staring at your dinner plate or bonded for life. As it turned out, the 10 of us – six Britons and four Americans – were risk-takers, and we were determined to make it work. We were self-reliant and considerate of one another. We made our own entertainment. We never lost our sense of wonder.

We knew that we were locked in this together – the 10 of us, plus the British captain, the chief engineer and the purser, our daily companions. The officers let us see the workings of a great cargo ship, commanded mainly by Brits with a Russian crew. And they introduced us to the South Pacific, where the Bank Line has traded for 100 years.

The Arunbank carries both bulk products and containers, and usually needs a whole day or more to load and unload. This meant that we spent up to three days exploring each port and its surroundings. (Container-only vessels and mass-market cruise ships rarely stay in harbor overnight.) The cost of our voyage, spread over almost eight weeks, came to about half that of a popular cruise line.

On our first day, Desmond Brookes, the purser, greeted us on the dock and ushered us around the Arunbank. The first surprise was our living quarters – a double suite, two big outside cabins on the top deck with a sitting room, a bedroom with toe-to-toe bunks and a bathroom with a small shower. This is the norm for couples on Bank Line's four round-the-world ships.

We lunched in the dining saloon with the British captain, Peter Stapleton, and the chief engineer, David Heatley, as we were to do for every meal of the trip. It was first names from the beginning. In my youth, I had known only the remote captains and correctly gracious officers of transatlantic liners. Peter, David and Des became our friends.

At dinner we met all but one of the other passengers (the last boarded in Auckland, New Zealand). Seven had already spent a month at sea, embarking in France. They had obviously coalesced. The three British couples, also retired or semi-retired, were Jean and Brian, a homemaker and an accountant in Liverpool; Brenda and Ken, a teacher and a community activist from Doncaster; and Jean and Ken, a homemaker and a municipal official from Kent. The two single passengers – Janice, a retiree from outside San Francisco, and Richard, a writer and actor from San Francisco – were freighter veterans; each had traveled on five other cargo ships.

Any given day on the Arunbank began with sunrises, some of gold so molten they hurt the eye. It ended with fire-opal sunsets and black night slamming shut with tropical abruptness.

I often rose at 6 for the first display, climbing to the open platform over the bridge that soared nine stories above the sea. Richard would be doing tai chi exercises on the bridge deck. Brenda and Ken would be swimming uphill and down as sea water sloshed around the tiny indoor pool. Jean and Brian were scrutinizing the chart in the wheelhouse. Bill was sweeping the sky with binoculars. Jean and Ken, members of the World Ship Society, were videotaping a passing ship, scribbling down its details. Janice was sleeping in. We all trooped to breakfast at 7:30. It was copious and tasty, with fruit, kippers, eggs, bacon, toast and cereal served by our solicitous Russian stewardesses.

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