RTW crossing from China to UK on a cargo ship

The CMA CGM Kerguelen was two years old, practically brand new. The china had never been used. The sheets had never been slept in. * Needle scratch * No, not that new. And no, not that ship. But it still had that new container ship smell, hardly any rust, and overall much less grime than typical of these types of ships.

I wrote two posts about booking my passage onboard and making all the necessary arrangements, but even then things kept changing. Originally I was meant to take the ship from Yantian China to Algeciras Spain, with a port of call in Singapore, but I ended up taking the same ship from Ningbo China to Southampton UK, with ports of call in Singapore and Tangiers. The only constant is change. And how much I enjoy traveling on container ships.


As I didn’t fancy trying to find the port and correct place to board by myself, in Chinese, I had booked transport from my hotel in Ningbo to the ship with the port agent. The pick up time was postponed a few times, as my ship was coming in late but I was finally picked up from my hotel right on the latest schedule at 7 pm by a taciturn Chinese man, with word that the port agent would meet us at the port. It was raining and it took about an hour to the port. The port was like a vast city, with avenues and alleyways made up of stacks and stacks of containers.

We got to the immigration building and waited for the port agent. The ship was again late, and was going to be alongside around 9 pm. I had my Kindle and I was almost at the ship, so I was in no particular hurry. When the agent got there, we drove to the ship, which he first boarded alone to get the paperwork and passports from all crew while the driver and myself waited outside in the car. When we got to waterside, we drove alongside the ship and it just went on an on. Four hundred meters long and almost sixty meters from water level to the top of the bridge, the Kerguelen just dwarfed all my previous ships.

We then drove back to the immigration, which was a rather quick affair. The immigration agent looked cursorily through my luggage, checked my face against my passport and said I was good to go. By the time I got onboard it was 11 pm, and got checked in quickly. I found my lovely private cabin with a large double bed on deck F, two floors below the bridge. I checked I had the essentials – drinking water and toilet paper – and settled into my first night onboard, happy as pie.

The ship

I got an introductory tour of the ship with the third mate on my first day onboard. While the ship was bigger, the ship’s super structure was very similar to that of the other container ships I’d been on, so there was little new. Each floor had a mini laundry, there was one or two floors more, but in essential it was the same. The upper deck was the level you enter on. Deck A had the swimming pool (which I never used, and don’t even know if it was filled at any point or not), the gym and the outside area where we had our barbecues later on. Deck B was the galley and the crew and officer mess rooms, and the ship’s main laundry. Decks C-E had crew cabins, deck F was the main passenger cabin, deck G had the captain’s cabin and the admin office, deck H was just a half deck with the elevator, and above that was the bridge.

What was different was the location of the super structure. As i thought from the photos of the ship, the super structure was toward the front (150 meters from the bow), and the separate tower with the engines was two hundred meters toward the back. It really made a difference, and for a much quieter and cleaner ship. A few days later, the captain asked me after lunch if I wanted to go see the panic room, The Citadel. This was the room where we would hide if we were boarded by pirates. We met at the ship’s office with a whole host of the young cadets. The Citadel is not far from the ship’s office on upper deck, one and a half floors down. It had long shelves on one wall, a table tennis table and nothing else. When I asked, they pointed out a chemical toilet in a box, some inflatable beds (I think there was more than one..) and some emergency rations and boxes of water bottles. That should be cozy!

Life onboard

I had boarded on the 23rd of May, and we only departed Yantian midnight on the 24th May, so we spent one full day at port. For the purposes of this blog, I count days onboard from the night I boarded, so the 23rd was day 1 for me.

The days quickly became a comfortable routine. I usually woke around 6:30 am, went down for breakfast at 7:00 am, and was on the deck for my 2 hour walk by 7:30 am. On very hot and sunny days I would walk back and forth on the shaded side, on the few very windy days I walked on the lee side of the wind, and on two days when the wind was too strong for it to be safe outside I swapped my outside walk for an intense walk on the treadmill at the gym. I would then have my shower, and perhaps read until lunch, which often was followed by a nap for an hour. Or three. Then it was tea breaks on the bridge, watching the world go by, chatting with the captain, reading, writing, doing laundry, sitting on the side deck on our floor, reading, and napping some more.

I don’t know what they put in the food on the Kerguelen, as not only myself but all the other passengers as well, had naps almost every day. We agreed it was the luxury of not having to fend for ourselves, with having our private room and three meals a day. Add to that zero travel arrangements to worry about and it allowed us all to relax into the comfort of it all. We had all been traveling a long time, and were now going home. The busy but friendly crew helped us feel pampered and as I was alone for a week at the beginning of my passage they all took very good care of me. The biggest problem I had was trying to get them to call me by my first name instead of “ma’am”.

Part of the reason for our slothfulness was also the fact that we started to turn the clock backward an hour at a time after Singapore. We needed to go back five hours to get to main European time, so we turned the clocks back by one hour every two days out of three for almost two weeks. With that schedule our body clocks couldn’t keep up, and most of us passengers ended up waking up around 4 am for days on end. I really don’t know how the crew managed to keep up with it and still be alert enough for their duties. Long practise, I guess! I was a wreck, and had even more and longer naps than before.

Passengers and barbecues

Three passengers boarded in Singapore, on the eighth day of my journey. We were originally scheduled to get alongside in Singapore port around 10:30 am, but there was delay after delay and it was finally almost 8 pm when we were finally berthed. I had planned to go have dinner with friends of mine who live in Singapore, but that plan was scuppered by the delays. As immigration and other formalities always takes time, I knew that it would be too late for dinner by the time I got off.

While I was waiting in the ship’s office for the agent, when I still was hoping to get on shore, the passengers boarded. First three crew members came in, carrying three large backpacks, then a couple, a Swiss girl and a French guy, followed by a Swedish guy. We were a very international bunch! I greeted them and informed the crew that I would not be going onshore and went into my cabin as the office was getting pretty crowded and I would have just been on the way. We would have weeks onboard together, so there was time enough to get better acquainted later.

It was around this time that I started to hope that I had booked passage as far as Southampton, as I wrote in my earlier blog post. Luckily it all worked out, so I could settle in for the rest of the journey. All the other passengers had been on their own around the world tours, ranging from eight months to a year to my fifteen months, and their destinations had included everything from South America to South East Asia, to Easter Islands, Galapagos and the Antarctica! It just goes to show that no matter how long you travel around the world, you always see just a small slice of it. We had fun meal time chats together, with anecdotes about poor wifi, good food, cheeky wildlife and amazing sights from all around the globe.

We had three barbecues onboard, the first one the day after we departed Singapore, and two more back to back the day after we had passed through the Suez canal and into the Mediterranean. The second one included an actual suckling pig! As typical in these things, I flexed my normal mostly-vegan diet to include seafood and cheese, washed down with lots and lots of wine. It was pretty hot and humid in Singapore, and when we had our first BBQ on the Mediterranean we were between Sicily and Malta, with just a sliver of Maltese coast visible. Sweet.

With four passengers onboard now, we got two tours of the ship. The first was a general tour of the ship with the captain, including again the Citadel, and the ever intriguing long corridor that runs just above the keel of the ship. The second was a tour of the engine room with the second engineer. It never ceases to amaze me how relatively small engines and turbines manage to move a ship of this size. Sure, the engines are enormous, the spare pistons we saw were my height! But still, it seems comparatively small. And don’t get me started on how in the world a ship with almost 200.000 tons gross tonnage manages to stay afloat!

Ports and changes

We arrived in Yantian on day four, but I chose not to go ashore. We did need to go for a face check at Chinese immigration, though, that is myself and about six of the Filipino crew. Of course the visit was at a super convenient time, at midnight. We loaded into two cars and drove at least 10 minutes through another container village. It just went on and on! We got to the port gate, went out and walked about 5 minutes to a big immigration building. The guard at the door was sleeping with his head in his arms, but woke when we got there. The Yantian port agent helloed the immigration officer, who then checked our passports and faces one by one. And then we were done, and we reversed order back to the ship. This was my last few minutes on Chinese soil, at least for now. The stop in Singapore was my last view of Asia on this trip, but I didn’t actually get to go onshore as I mentioned above.

On my 18th day onboard, the day before we arrived at the south end of the Suez Canal, our captain had surprising news. We would not be making a stop in Algeciras, but in Tangier, across the Strait of Gibraltar. We had a good laugh about that one. “Slight change of plans. You’re not disembarking in Europe, but in Africa!” Seasoned travellers all, the three other passengers who were due to disembark in Algeciras, took it all in a stride. The couple were actually going to Tangier anyway so for them it wasn’t much of a change, but our Swedish passenger had to make some changes.

There is a ferry between the two towns that takes about two and a half hours, the immigration is a bit more involved, and the Tangier Med port is 40 km from Tangier Medina old town. But you know, you learn to roll with the punches. I was very excited about seeing Tangier, but in the end we arrived there late one night and were due to depart before noon the next day, so there was no chance of getting onshore. Dammit.

I wrote a separate post about the Suez crossing, and once we were through, the weather changed from the hot and humid to lovely cooler and clearer weather. There were some glorious sunsets on the Mediterranean, and I was excited about our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar which would happen around sunset. Alas, the exhaust fumes of the many many ships passing through the canal had created a lingering murk that almost fully obscured our views of the Rock of Gibraltar on one side, and Morocco on the other. But, I can say that I have actually passed through the Strait, so there is that. And there were quite a lot of dolphins around which always makes me happy!

Tangier Med port was an effort and a half to get in and another to get out, apparently. I missed some of the excitement, but there was just delay after delay and poor communication, further complicated by Ramadan regulations, completely upsetting our usually calm and jolly captain.

My three ship mates departed finally around noon on my 25th day onboard, and I was to learn that a French lady of about my age had boarded already the night before but we had managed to miss each other before then. Good to have company! As it was her first container ship voyage, I took her around the super structure while we waited our departure from Tangier. The next day I took her around the decks, and like every other passenger I have ever met, she fell in love with the view of the sky and the ocean from the bow of these great ships.

Disembarking and journey’s end

I woke up around 2 am and couldn’t sleep. I finally gave up around 5:30 am, went on the bridge and was rewarded by a fabulous sunrise. Pilots were boarding at 8 am, which meant I had time to go for proper breakfast while we waited for them to show up.

It was lovely sitting there on the bridge, watching us getting closer to the UK. It was a glorious day, sunny with a cool breeze, but it got really hot later. We passed by Isle of Man, curving from south to north on the east side. The pilots were a hoot. I had a great chat with one of them later, where he called me a miserable moaner like all women, and I called him a sexist wanker. We had a good laugh and parted the best of friends. God I’ve missed the Brits!

While we were manoeuvring to our berth, I went down to have a shower and pack. And then I waited. Finally, around 2 pm, I went to the ship’s office to check what was going on. Apparently we could disembark at any time, but I still needed to get my passport and pay my internet and slop chest purchases. We located the captain and got it sorted and then we were free to go. My French fellow passenger was going to explore Southampton for the day so we left at the same time.

The walk down the gangway was as terrifying as ever. I had saved a pair of cotton gloves from the engine room tour a few days earlier so you can imagine me walking down like a little princess in my gloves, followed by a Filipino crew carrying my luggage. Very colonial. We waited around for about ten minutes for the service car, which came just when five of the younger crew came down. Us passengers got a scolding from port security about having waited for the taxi at the bottom of the gangway instead of in the ship’s office. It was a bit scary there to tell the truth, with the huge cranes moving back and forth and only a narrow strip of safe pavement between the cranes and the water’s edge. So the security had a point.

A short shuttle ride to the gate and a taxi ride later, and I was buying a ticket to a train to Waterloo. Back on actual UK soil, my Grand Adventure was finally over. I will have more to say about that later, but for now I was glad to be back.

p.s. the needle scratch worthy quote in the beginning of the post is from the movie Titanic.




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