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).

Suggested Topics
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?