WRITER'S GUIDE : Freighter Fancier Alex Haley's Penchant for Unconventional Cruising

Alex Haley is completing a new book, "Henning, Tennessee," to be published by Doubleday this fall.

Many of us are familiar with the world's luxurious cruise ships, but scarcely a handful among us are acquainted with the considerably lower-keyed, yet generally more adventurous vacations that are available aboard freighters. For a variety of reasons, most freighter lines spurn passengers, preferring instead to focus on their priority function: moving cargo.

Those cargo ships that do welcome passengers nearly always provide staterooms of comfortable size. Indeed, on some freighters the furnishing, decor and general appointments are superior to passenger quarters on some big liners. The freighter cabins feature air-conditioning; there are clothes washers, limited libraries, deck chairs and, on some vessels, even a swimming pool.

The major lure of freighter travel is its cost as compared with cruise ships. This and a sense of adventure, what with uncertain and flexible itineraries. In the cost area, American President Lines ships sail every two weeks from Singapore to Columbo (Sri Lanka) and Fujairah (United Arab Emirates), then back to Columbo and Singapore, then to Kaohsiung (Taiwan) and return to Singapore, averaging about 28 days round-trip at fares of $2,600 per person in a double stateroom.

On certain freighters, reservations must be made at least six months--if not a year or even more--in advance, so great is the demand for the relatively limited number of staterooms available.

APL's highly touted Vagabond voyage is exciting in that it has no specific schedule. The freighter's itinerary is dictated entirely by the vagaries of available cargo along the way--this over a period averaging 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 months. Sometimes longer.

Most freighter passengers are members of a fraternity that tends to average two or preferably more voyages annually; they maintain regular and close mail and telephone contact with one another and frequently book future voyages together. As an example, there were the 11 passengers with whom I shared 52 days on a trip to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, stopping briefly in Barbados and San Juan, Puerto Rico, on our return to New Orleans. Among these "sailors" were longtime marrieds, an ex-Bethlehem Steel executive, former Los Angeles court clerk Irma Smith and retired U.S. Navy Capt. John Pepper of Carmel (Pepper served as White House dentist for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson). The voyage was a joy, with a great deal of camaraderie and fun.

I've been a freighter buff since my retirement--after 20 years--from the U.S. Coast Guard, on whose ships I got hooked by the sea. It was as a young seagoing sailor on lonely patrols that I began to write. Since "Roots" was published, I've received multiple invitations for free luxury voyages on cruise vessels, but it's on the quiet freighters, with their limited activities and distractions, that I'll produce more worthwhile pages of manuscript than I could on a big ship. It is for this reason that I choose freighters, putting to sea with research memos, notes and a typewriter.

Once you're at sea for a couple of days, time becomes meaningless. "What day is this?" becomes a frequent query, and the days tend to become identified by their characteristics of weather and sea, or by some special event, such as "The day after we saw the giant school of green turtles--"

Here's an excerpt from my notes on a voyage of the S.S. Charles Lykes from Seattle to the Far East and back: "Today, we saw a few spouting whales (of the few whales we've left living); there are occasional silvery flying fish, surfacing and skittering; we see few other ships, as silhouettes, so distantly that only seldom, through glasses, can we distinguish their diverse flags of nationality . . . . "

Between port stops, the average pastimes are playing cards, reading, ocean-watching and eating (generally too much). And there is always excitement among the passengers when, at forever last, a really big and intricately cut jigsaw puzzle gets finished, and its conquering champions are likely to be toasted with champagne.

The ship's pickup or discharge of cargo dictates its port stops, which today might average one day or less, whereas before as much as a week was not unusual. This was a period when most freighters carried either bulk or loose cargo, which required unloading by bales or bags or cartons. But the 1950s saw the swift development and widespread usage of containers--in which cargo is loaded and locked inside sealed metal containers, which are unloaded directly off the ship onto truck bodies or railroad cars--and now a container ship can discharge its major cargo within one day.

This has made both voyages and port stops less lengthy, so veteran freighter passengers precede a short stop with exchanges of information about ideal places for bargain-shopping and sightseeing. Back on board, there is spirited group discussion about who managed to luck out, or who got taken by some wily taxi driver or shopkeeper.

At least one freighter company--the Norwegian Ivaran Line, operators of the passenger-carrying sister ships M/V Santa Fe and M/V Salvador--includes for passengers' enjoyment a gratis guided tour of major stops.

Trying to finish my next book amid the majestic ocean's sunrises, horizons and sunsets--each more beautiful than the last--can be distracting. Usually I spend my midsummer and midwinter "vacations" at sea--blocking out the requisite four to six weeks of time, often aided by the presence of major holidays. Christmas, for me, is when I get my writing finished.

I shared the 1985 Christmas and New Year's with the M.S. Patty's Yugoslavian officers and crew as we approached Rotterdam, having sailed from Savannah, Ga. The previous year I celebrated the same holidays off Lima, Peru, aboard the S.S. Brinton Lykes.

During daytime, I will visit the bridge or the galley and the cooks, because in the Coast Guard I was a ship's cook for six years--and I think I could still hold my own if necessary. I simply love sailors and ships, and particularly the unlimited abundance of peace and quiet throughout the voyages. Conversely, anyone who tends to be up-tight, fretful or a worrier should travel by other means. But if you can calmly book a reservation that involves as much as a year's waiting, and then accept that your ship's arrivals, departures and projected destinations cannot be absolute, you can enjoy a memorable freighter voyage.

It is easy to get hooked by the sea. It starts the very first time you find yourself up there on any big, deep-water ship's deck as it is arriving or leaving, tugboats whistling, their propellers boiling, forward or backward, pushing or pulling, to aid the great ship's movement through the tugs' incredible power.

Gradually, then, the big ship starts inching clear of the pier. It is sheerly majestic. You are high over the crowd and you study their faces. No matter if they are grade school kids in Peru or corporate executives in Germany, you can recognize their yearning--that "I wish I could go, too" expression.

Just about then, your ship's big, hoarse horn blasts a deep-voiced notice to the world that the last tethering line has been cast off. Then it's starting to draw out into the water, nudged, nursed, pulled by straining tugboats. And purely instinctively, involuntarily, you sort of languidly, lazily wave down there toward those wistful, pier-bound faces--and they instantly, eagerly wave back to you. Standing up there, feeling proud and tall, if you've got any heart and any sense whatever, you're feeling grateful that He has let you be at least a little facet of this wonderful experience.

How does one ideally book reservations for freighter voyages? Most often the booking is performed by a few knowledgeable agencies whose specialty is freighters. For an example, we 12 passengers on board the M/V Salvador learned that although we came from all across the United States, 10 of us had made our reservations with Freighter World Cruises Inc., of Pasadena. This is obviously among the best of the agencies, not only because of its international personal contacts with passenger-carrying freighter lines, but also because its president or vice president actually sails on these ships for a personal evaluation before recommending them.

Freighter World's vice president Mary LeBlanc sailed on the M.S. Patty one-way to Rotterdam. By our arrival there she had explored all of the passenger facilities with the room steward, and she had discussed passenger interests and needs with Capt. Milan Popovic, Yugoslavia's champion weightlifter and gymnast before his 1957 graduation from the Yugoslavian Naval Academy (since then he has sailed a distance equivalent to 45.6 times around the world on 22 ships). LeBlanc suggested gently that U.S. passengers might prefer toast and scrambled eggs or omelets to such Yugoslavian breakfast fare as sardines, black olives, salami, cheeses, potato salad and coffee.

After the Patty was tied up to her pier in Rotterdam, I was invited to join LeBlanc at dinner with one of the ship's owners, Anton Pols. Pols told how he had finally agreed to permit the Patty and a sister ship to carry passengers.

At first he scoffed when Freighter World Cruises approached him. "I asked them, 'What in the world can we offer passengers . . . we haul cargo, not people?' "

In the end he relented. "We decided to try. Twelve passengers. So we hired an extra steward and fed the passengers the same menu as our officers and crew. And we cleared enough to cut our sea-running costs by a few hundred dollars a day."

He was astonished when the first ship sailed full. Now, with a fleet of 18 ships and others being constructed, Pols and his partners can be counted upon to be "carefully favorable" to the idea of carrying passengers.

As for myself, on my return home I called Freighter World Cruises immediately, requesting that I be booked on the first possible 1986 midsummer and midwinter freighter voyages they could schedule. I even put in a bid for APL's adventurous "Voyager" trip in 1989. My bag is always packed; I'm always ready to go . . . anywhere.

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