At night on the bridge the dull luminescence from the instruments is the only light. We are eight stories up, it's tense and smoky. Officers lurk in the shadows squinting through binoculars, ready to act swiftly on any command from the Captain. The radar is awash in a sea of yellow, testament to the scores of ships plying the sea lanes below. There's a din of broken English from the radio. It's not a place for the faint-hearted.
I am a passenger on board the Alexandra Rickmers, a 26 thousand-tonne freighter out of Hamburg, Germany. Tonight we are departing Singapore, sailing the infamous Strait of Malacca, the stretch of water separating Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore from Sumatra, the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago.
Our Romanian Captain is educated, young, dark and handsome, not the salty sea-dog I'd been expecting. "Look at this vessel, the Champion Pleasure" he laughs, pointing at a name above a splash of yellow on the radar. "Probably carrying condoms for Singapore" he adds, before reaching for the telephone to get an update from the engine room. I take this as my cue to leave.
I grab a bottle of beer from the fridge in my cabin and head outside. The lights of Singapore are melting into the sea behind us as we cut a furrow north-westward toward the Indian Ocean. The beer is cold and there's a tang of salt on the breeze. Not every day on board has been this enjoyable.
My journey had begun almost two weeks earlier with a 12-hour delay in Melbourne. Unfazed, I'd stayed awake well into the night staring in childlike wonder as brilliantly lit gantries filled our deck with containers. A scene that in the coming weeks was to be played out again and again in Adelaide (Australia), Singapore, Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Damietta (Egypt) before my disembarkation in La Spezia (Italy).
I had a month ahead of me, no itinerary and only a faint idea of what to expect. If nothing else I hoped for a little adventure, a chance to sail away from the everyday.
The swell in the Great Australian Bight had picked up markedly in the 12 hours since departing Adelaide. I'd spent the night like a pinball bouncing off the containing walls of my single berth. In the stairwell on my way to breakfast I literally ran into Arpelito, the ship's infectiously happy, Filipino cook.
"How you sleep?" he asks.
"Not too bad." I lie.
"Nights like this I sleep on floor, there is nowhere to drop but further to roll."
"I'll remember that."
"Remember too, always piss like a lady when the sea is a little crazy." I look at him strangely. "Make sure you take a seat." he adds, before bursting into high-pitched hysterics and carrying on down the stairs.
When I arrive at the officers mess Dragoş, the ship's young Romanian electrical engineer was picking up a toppled bottle of ketchup from the table. "For the first week I am home I am constantly moving glasses and bottles from the edge of tables and benches." he remarks, "My wife, she thinks I'm crazy. Maybe she is right." he shrugs. "I think you're all a little crazy." I add, before gingerly taking a seat and contemplating a breakfast of bacon and eggs.
Meal times were the closest thing I had to a schedule on board but my days were always full. I read, occasionally I wrote and when the ocean allowed I played table tennis with Patricia - an Austrian passenger who had boarded in Wellington, New Zealand. When I was tired, I napped in the shade on a deck chair or on the couch in my cabin. I drank coffee, asked too many questions and studied maps on the bridge. I savoured the solitude and eerie quiet of the foc'sle.
Often I stood on deck mesmerised as flying fish by the dozen shot off the bow break and flew for anything up to a hundred metres. One day I watched a sea hawk methodically picking them off one by one, until belly full, she flew away. Of an evening I'd drink duty-free beer and sing bad karaoke with the Filipino crew. I rarely grew bored.
It was early on a morning toward the end of the voyage, when the guttural rumble of the engine coming to life shook me from a deep slumber. After 12 hours at anchor in the Gulf of Suez, amid a flotilla of vessels of all shapes and sizes, we'd finally entered the Suez Canal.
Later that morning I grabbed a strong, black coffee from the galley, chose a vantage in the shade on E deck and settled in. Onshore, Egyptian life carried on as normal, almost oblivious to our presence. Calls to prayer were answered at the myriad of Mosques, men gathered in groups to talk animatedly and smoke cigarettes by fires in barrels, and children played in the dust. At wider sections we shared the canal with plucky fishermen plying their trade in the chop we'd created while at intervals car ferries make the mad dash shore to shore between vessels in our convoy. Not long after an incomparable, ochre dessert sunset we'd arrived in the Mediterranean - Europe to my way of thinking - where within days, my journey would come to an end.
As I stood on deck on a drizzly October evening and first made out the hazy lights of La Spezia in the distance, I knew that over the past month, if nothing else, I'd certainly had that little adventure.
Paul booked his freighter trip through Kevin (and his friendly staff) over at The Cruise People.