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Bex Hall recently completed a rather unconventional journey, traveling from Athens to Hong Kong on a container ship. Between being the only female on the ship, completely cut off from the online world and passing through the pirate corridor of the Gulf of Aden, this was a pretty unique journey. I had to interview her to hear more about this incredible travel experience!

You recently travelled on a container ship from Athens to Hong Kong.  What inspired that idea?

It’s not my first time!  My dad is an ex-merchant navy man and I grew up with tales of the high seas since a young kid.  In 2004 I took my first voyage across the Atlantic from Europe & back on a container ship as a passenger. I taught the crew English and loved it so much (being at one with nature, the extended family feeling being with the crew) that I decided to try a different route later.

How long did it take to complete your journey?

37 days in total!  I travelled from Athens, Greece to two ports in Italy, two in Spain, back to Athens and then the long journey through the Suez Canal and Indian Ocean to Singapore, and eventually Hong Kong.

Ship in dock at La Spezia - Italy

Ship in dock at La Spezia – Italy

And you didn’t experience sea sickness/home sickness or culture shock?

Hmm, that’s a tough one.

Sea sickness: I think I’ve been blessed with my father’s genes so no, I didn’t.  The Indian Ocean was undergoing monsoons so it was a little rough, but the best way to deal with a slightly squiffy stomach is funnily enough to eat a lot of food (no problems for me, I love eating!)

Having travelled a lot in my life, I wasn’t homesick—maybe a little bored sometimes (see next question).

Culture shock?  No.  They were an international crew: European Officers (Swiss Captain, Polish Chief Officer and German Engineers) and Filipino crew.  It was lovely to have such an international mix—and seeing everyone work together so well as a team, irrespective of nationality.  A true lesson in International Relations.

What’s it like traveling on a container ship – describe an average day.

Breakfast is very early: 7am – 8am!  I would go down at 7:30 and eat: a huge breakfast laid on with fruits, eggs of choice and porridge (for me – the cook saw I liked it and prepared it daily for me).

Then I would go back to bed for about an hour, wander to the front of the ship (the ‘castle’) where I resisted the urge to do a Kate Winslet ‘Titanic’ moment and sat and read my Kindle instead.

Back in time for lunch at 12:30pm (again, a HUGE cooked meal) then a nap until about 3ish.  I would then go and swim in the pool, write some of my book/travel articles, chat to any crew who were around and at 5pm I would go ‘on watch’ with the Chief Officer (he became like my uncle).  Depending on location, I would often spot dolphins, and near Sri Lanka I spotted a whale spouting!

Chief & I would go for dinner at 7pm (yes, you’ve guessed it, a huge cooked meal again—starters & main!) then up to the Bridge to watch sunset.

I spent the evenings playing table tennis with the Cook (after he made the Galley spotless), chatting to the crew, playing Patience with my pack of cards, writing, reading or watching a movie.

Mediterranean Sunset

Mediterranean Sunset

It’s obviously a lot different to everyday life in the Western World – was it easy to adapt to this environment?

Hell yes!  I always thought I didn’t like routine, but when on a ship you get used to it, and actually, when we docked in Singapore and the Chief and I went ashore for a while, I couldn’t wait to get back to the quiet of the ship’s environment.  It was so gentle, relaxing and calming compared to the rush, rush, rush of every day life.

I’m sure that’s why ship’s crew are such gentle natured people: they aren’t exposed to the every day hassles and aggression of land.

Did anything about the experience change you?

I had no access to internet at sea, so I learnt to go ‘back to basics’ almost and respect and enjoy things such as looking and tracking the stars at night, reading (I read—a LOT) and talking face to face to people, which seems these days to be lacking with the advent of social media.

What kind of people were you travelling with?

As I said, the senior crew were European, the crew Filipino.  Regardless of rank, everyone was incredibly inclusive and friendly.  I often sang karaoke with the Filipinos’ at night in their Mess Room, discussed life in Poland with the Chief Officer, put the world to rights at dinner with the Captain, etc.

On a ship, your world is what you make it…and it was made it an enjoyable environment for everyone.  This was due to excellent people management skills from the Captain, who had no illusions or pretences about himself and believed in treating everyone with respect.

Just as I was getting used to the company on board, going through the pirate corridor of the Gulf of Aden required us to have security on board, so a team of three joined us for 10 day.  This didn’t upset the equilibrium at all and the British ‘lads’ were incredibly professional, respectful and interesting.

I am not a nationalist by any means, but their presence, respect for other cultures and openness as to describing why they were needed on board really made me proud.  No matter that I was a passenger (and a female one at that): I was present for every briefing, drill and exercise.  It was fascinating.

Captain making a speech at the BBQ Party

Captain making a speech at the BBQ Party.

So you were the only female on board??  What was that like?!

I was a little afraid at first—and certainly got my fair share of teasing from narrow minded people before I left!  But as I mentioned earlier, the crew are very gentle people and respectful.

I felt like a councellor (from the things we talked about), sister and niece all in one!  And as I say, it was nice to talk to the security team who were from my home country: the UK.  We’d swap stories from home and played cards a lot!  I think they were a bit shocked at my Blackjack and Poker skills.

Did you learn anything from the people you spent time with?

See above re: my comments about the security: I learnt a new found respect for the people who undertake this work.  And I learnt even more to not let nationalities divide us.

Looking back what was the highlight of the whole journey?

Ohhh, that’s hard!  There was just too much I enjoyed and gained from it!  Highlight?  The food (it was seriously 5*) , the BBQ on deck the Captain arranged to thank the crew for all their hard work, and the kind, gentle people I met.

Would you recommend this form of travel to others?

If you’re all about the journey, not necessarily the destination and like being at sea, but don’t want to be around crowds of people on a cruise…if you want to experience REAL life at sea, and meet people from different backgrounds, understand their culture, then this is the trip for you.

My cabin (Super Cargo).

My cabin (Super Cargo).

Bex is an unconventional British lass with a degree in International Relations. She’s the wrong side of 35 and only just the right side of 40 and when she’s not off gallivanting around the high seas and writing about it, she’s based in the unconventional country of Greece ( a country that suits her nature very well! ).

She’s travelled to, lived and taught English in various places around the globe. She describes herself as a jack of all trades: she’s worked at LHR airport—dealing with high profile passengers, organised people’s lives through her role as P.A. to various individuals and returned to full time education in her early 30’s. All experiences have helped to shape who she is today.

Follow Bex on her site, FacebookTwitter & Pinterest.

    18 Comments

  1. Interesting interview! It’s so different from the usual travel story. I’d be too worried about possible seasickness to try this, though. :)

    • Hi Deia,

      The thing with big ships isthat seasickness isn’t really issue as the ships are so massive. It’s in the smaller boats you’d need to worry – or extremely heavy seas.

      Thanks for reading, glad it inspired you and thanks for taking the time to comment :0)

      Bex

  2. Hi Bex,

    You know, I have an apartment in San Francisco that overlooks the Bay. And I often see the freighter boats come in to the Bay to go to the port … even the Hanjin ones … and wondered about them …

    I had no idea it was possible to be a passenger on one. What a fascinating experience. How amazing not to have internet for so long, almost unimaginable to me now. And I run an internet-dependent business so immediately you got me thinking … how could I pull that off?

    Thanks for sharing :)

    cheers,
    Erika

    • Hi Erika,

      Some ships do have internet – but not the Hanjin ones. So interesting that you see them in the Bay Area! The one I was on (Hanjin Boston) used to run the Bay Area to Japan route – now it does the route I took – Eastern route.

      It was an amazing experience and as you can see, not as basic as you might have thought.

  3. A really awesome post, and great story. Something else to add to the list. I once did the Navimag cargo ship cruise in Southern Chile…4 days, and we were supposed to see ice bergs. No, complete cloud cover the entire trip. Lots of beers and card games instead.
    Thanks guys.

    • Yep! Loads of card games, and Karaoke too! It was good fun and I loved every minute of it. Your trip sounds interesting too – did you write about it?

  4. This sounds amazing! I would really love to do this at some point. Can I contact you privately to get more details on how to go about getting aboard one of these ships?

    • Hi Kanannie,

      Check out my blog about the trip here (hover over my name) and it’ll give you my contact email address.
      Would love to hear from you. Glad I’ve inspired you.

  5. A great insight into a very unusual travel experience. It is very refreshing to read a ‘real’ travel experience rather than the manufactured tourist trail ones which are so prevalent in the travel media. Interesting interview Bex.

    • Thanks Fiona. It really was a journey in many senses of the word: physical and emotional.

  6. Cool interview. That is a mad trip. I never thought being on a container ship could be so relaxing and comfortable. I had it in my head that you almost had to sleep in a container or on the floor of the ship! It actually sounds like a great way to travel.

    • I had never really thought about it as a way to travel either until I heard about Bex’s adventure – and was also pleasantly shocked when I saw her amazing accommodations! I thought maybe dorm rooms lol slight upgrade from the floor but still not quite the luxury which it actually is!

  7. Very interesting article! How would one go about on traveling like this ?

    • Hi Pat,

      Thanks for the comment. I suggest you head over to my site http://www.leavingcairo.com and look at the Adventure Travel – Overland to Hong Kong section & there I have diariazed my whole adventure with info, etc about how to go about it, plus link backs to my agent who booked it.

      You can also contact me via my site if you have any further questions.

      Enjoy!

  8. Very interesting post – I worked for a large Canadian exporter and we would sometimes go to the port and watch our cargo get loaded. Oftentimes we would be invited for lunch by the captain and get to spend time with him and the senior officers in the mess hall. I remember on one occasion having some of the best Indian food ever on board a ship. The Captain was Indian as was much of the crew. Filipinos often part of shipping crews as well.
    But if often amazed me what these people do and how long they stay away from home, often for stretches of over 6 months. And the routes they take, most of the time without knowing what their next destinations will be. We once had a ship leading in Montreal. It was about -20C with a wicked wind. Felt like -35C. The ship was caked with a layer of ice which the Bangladeshi crew was trying to chip away with pickaxes. They were taking our cargo across to Lagos, Nigeria. Can you imagine sailing down the St. Lawrence, into the Atlantic, crossing the Atlantic, and arriving at your next port of call where the temps are 60C warmer than where you last saw land? I think these guys are the last true travelers.

    I’ve always wanted to travel by cargo ship. It’s hard to do these days, a lot more paperwork than 20 years ago. But a great experience if you can manage it. Sounds like Bex had a great experience!

    Great story!
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Wow Frank what a story! Thanks for sharing – I agree; huge respect for those men – they really do sound like the last true travelers.

      I think everything has become so easy for us in the Western World we have no idea what it’s like to have the responsibility of having to work and spend 6 months away from home to provide for a family.

      I hope you do manage to organize a trip on a cargo ship. Sometimes all that paperwork and red tape is worth it in the end!!

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your memories :)

  9. thanks for sharing your story. i looked into doing something similar last last year and it looked REALLY expensive!

    • I’ve heard from Bex since that it can be very very expensive, which is funny because I totally wouldn’t have thought so. But would definitely be an amazing experience if you could get yourself on one. Would love to just have days to spend out at open sea!

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