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Six weeks at sea on a diet of bortsch

The Komsomolsk was late. Nobody, even the agents, knew when it would arrive. So we waited in Fremantle getting increasingly twitchy since our three-month Australian visas expired at the end of April.

Fortunately, the Komsomolsk's black hull loomed into harbour on 30 April, and we scrambled aboard. It was a 34,000 ton cargo ship, property of the Baltic Shipping Company of Russia; a ro-ro built, ominously, in a Baltic shipyard. Its cargo was loaded and unloaded over a huge ramp at the stern that descended at an angle on to the dockside in port, but which stuck up like a motorway to heaven while at sea. Since the Komsomolsk had proveduneconomical, the owners had recently decided to take passengers in addition to cargo. Our trip to Felixstowe would take a month, with calls en route at Jeddah and Genoa.

We had already sailed with several cargo ships serving different parts of the world, and enjoyed the voyages. Usually only a handful of passengers can be accommodated, there are no "entertainments", and a very relaxing voyage is guaranteed providing you hit it off reasonably well with the other passengers. In this case they were Australian and numbered five and a half, the half being a farmer who was shepherding 166 containers of Tasmanian onions to Europe, so he was half crew, half passenger.

We had been warned before embarking on the Komsomolsk that these Russian ships were pretty basic. There was, however, a reasonably sized swimming pool (for crew as much as passengers); the newly equipped cabins were adequate, and thanks to the ingenuity of Nicolai, the chief cook, the meals were interesting, though even he couldn't make hard bread and cold beetroot soup appetising.

The main drawback was our failure to communicate with the crew. Most of the officers could speak English but seldom bothered. The dark, sinister doctor couldn't, which was tough if you went down with something peculiar. Nicolai, the First Mate - known as Nickers to differentiate him from the chief cook - had a hearty, laughing approach to the language which usually descended into gobbledegook when he was fielding awkward questions. Information, like most things in Russia, was in short supply.

The Indian Ocean and the Red Sea gave us some superb nature shows. Dolphins - or were they porpoises? - could often be seen nearby, arching their backs in gracious curving leaps. Hunting, or just showing off? Or you could walk the deck round the stacked containers to the distant sharp end of the ship and there watch the amazing flying fish take off to avoid our silent prow, eventually subsiding into the sea sometimes 30 or more metres away. As daylight faded, the horizon would cloak itself in layers of gold, red and purple.

Arriving at Jeddah, passengers were not allowed off the ship and we were not allowed to take photographs. Before reaching port, all alcoholic drinks had been confiscated and secreted away into bond (the ship was "dry" so passengers had to bring their own refreshments with them). We thought the ship and its contents belonged to Russia, regardless of location, but the Captain was taking no chances with Saudi laws.

Egypt, fortunately, was more secular, but our arrival off Suez brought a different problem: money. Specifically the Suez Canal toll of $205,000 which amount was, er, not to hand immediately. One day's delay became two, three, eventually five. We thought of a whip-round, but seven and a half passengers couldn't make much of a dent in the sum needed. So we indulged instead in a trip to Cairo and the pyramids while the Komsomolsk waited.

This turned out to be not a good idea. The drive across the awful desert, with only a few sad Army camps breaking the monotony, was made in two hired mini-buses. The drivers - in the red corner, Stirling Moss, in the blue, Nigel Mansell - competed furiously all the way, and got us to Cairo in record time and in a record state of hysteria.

The Canal was eventually negotiated, and friendly Europe hove in sight. All problems solved? Not a bit of it. We were arrested in Genoa. The ship, that is, not us personally. The reason for the arrest, it seems, was that a sister ship, carrying paper from Brazil to Italy some three years before, had discharged its cargo in a dirty and damaged state, and had been fined by the Italians as a result. The fine had not been paid.

"But Komsomolsk is registered in Limassol, in Cyprus. They cannot legally arrest us," Nickers said. "Ve are not Russians at all."

"You could have fooled us, Nicolai," we said, glancing up at the blue, white and red flag and the Cyrillic spelling of the ship's name.

We finally escaped on this technicality. A smartly dressed gent came aboard with a brief case, disappeared into the Captain's cabin, and shortly reappeared and sailed away. Tension for half an hour. Had we been released? Suddenly the engines throbbed into life, Nickers did a little dance on the bridge and gave us the thumbs up sign. So we sailed off. Throughout the entire journey (by now extended to six weeks) we had seen no rain. Guess what met us in Felixstowe...

How to hitch a ride on a cargo ship

A voyage on a passenger-carrying cargo ship is a perfectly feasible, if potentially expensive, way to see the world. The Strand Cruise and Travel Centre (0171-836 6363), based in the underground shopping concourse at Charing Cross station in London, specialises in this mode of transport. P&O Containers has a regular service costing pounds 1,900 one-way to any Australian port, or pounds 2,200 to New Zealand; these prices are per person including full board. NSB of Germany and ABC of Belgium have round-the-world itineraries, taking in both the Suez and Panama canals.

What to read

'Travel by Cargo Ship' by Hugo Verlomme (Cadogan, pounds 9.99). For suggestions on how to work a passage on commercial shipping, you might also want to consult the 1995 edition of 'Work Your Way Around the World' (Vacation Work, pounds 9.95).