In our case, stream translates to the Atlantic ocean and by boat, we’re talking about a 200+ metre long, 30 metre wide freighter weighing in at just shy of 45,000 tons, with all her cargo. Her engine reached around 25,000 bhp compared to say Pearl, my bike, which has 48 bhp. Meet our magnificent vessel – the Grande Amburgo!
Schedule of the Uruguayan loop (approximately 25 days):
Tilbury – Hamburg – Antwerp (passenger embarkation 17 Feb)-Dakar, West coast of Africa – Santos, Brazil – Paranagua, southern Brazil – Zarate, Argentina – Montevideo, Uruguay (passenger disembarkation).
Not a usual Monday morning by any stretch, the pair of us set off from Surrey, our temporary home after vacating our rental property two weeks previous. After a heavy-hearted farewell to my mum, we jumped on the bikes to start our journey. It was a wrench to go but I was on the edge of the unknown about to embark on an adventure, and that eased the pain of leaving everything I loved. Admittedly, I was a bag of nerves but excitement jostled for my attention more. Although a little wary of keeping my fully loaded bike upright, being able to reach the Eurotunnel in good time and remembering to stay on the right from Calais to Antwerp – dominated my thoughts more. These concerns railroaded my mind, which coupled with rush hour, any traffic works or possible mechanical problems with the bikes put me on edge from the outset.
At least I had the unanticipated advantage of feeling emotionally resilient. Namely because our sailing date had been pushed back several times due to bad weather, causing a number of anticlimactic false starts. Once Monday morning arrived, I’d mindfully dealt with my demons, felt much lighter and raring to go. The departure journey went without a hitch; in fact, it went better than clockwork. A prompt start made our 190 mile journey from England to Belgium pleasurable, riding mostly in bright sunshine, moderate winds and mild temperatures. I was grateful for the smooth, dry tarmac roads and good conditions, breaking me in gently.
No sooner had we rocked up to Folkestone and the Eurotunnel staff were grinning like Cheshire cats the moment we outlined our trip in response to their polite enquiry. Any nerves at that point were stripped away upon meeting a couple of seasoned bikers, Dave and Spencer. They accompanied us on our earlier-than-ticketed train; revealed that they ride 35,000 miles a year and were enthralled to hear about the next 20,000+ miles ahead of us. Dave admitted that he was “well jell” of our imminent adventure so I humoured him and relayed that if I ever wrote a book, I’d have to call it Fifty shades of green hoping the first few shades wouldn’t reflect the hues of sea sickness!
Entering the port in Antwerp and heading in the general direction of our vessel was a spectacular sight. All around us thousands of brand new JCB, CAT and Volvo machinery, super-sized Tonka toys, excavators, cars, vans, trucks, lorries, even a fire engine and train carriages were being loaded in dock. The guy sat elevated in an inordinately high crane looked no bigger than a Lego figure from the ground. He exhibited the most impressive spectacle by lifting the containers onto our freighter like he was neatly stacking Jenga blocks. On foot and looking straight up at this other-worldly robotic sight, I was transfixed. It was a movie scene from Transformers meets Avatar. I felt like an ant about to be squished at any moment, doubting there’d be much wiggle room to out-manoeuvre these agile and responsive machines if I got in their way. I think I was gawping for about ten minutes with my jaw dropped and neck strained before noticing that our vessel was right there, greeting me.
Our ship is a working vessel for a twenty-eight strong crew, a male mixture of Italian and Filipino as well as a floating hotel that can accommodate up to twelve passengers. Knowing that passengers are secondary to the cargo, I didn’t quite know what to expect on board. We quickly realised there was a strict hierarchy on board; anything we needed, we must go directly to the chief mate, second in command to the captain. Made sense. Within the first few days of being on the boat, the novelty of getting to know a ship this size was oodles of fun. ‘Hide and Seek’ anyone? We’ve explored all thirteen decks and climbed 178 steps although the elevator stayed appealing. However, I wouldn’t fancy getting trapped in one those things so on the stairs my burning thighs remained.
We’ve become acquainted with Vincenzo, the chief mate; an approachable chap in his late twenties with an intelligent air of authority about him and enviably long, dark eyelashes. Stephano, the second mate was kind enough to let me have the ship’s particulars and crew list, which serendipitously shut me up in the process. I couldn’t help but volubly ask questions about the boat and voyage ahead. Rodolfo is one of three ABs, able bodied seaman, gregariously tactile with us both and always wears a warm smile below those bright Filipino eyes.
I’m thrilled that Rocco is the cook on board as we get to experience his Italian cooking for the next month; three course meals, three times daily where good table wine always seems to be the order of the day. Getting tipsy might just cancel out any boat sway – could be fun to experiment with that notion. Brian serves our food refusing to call me anything but ‘Ma’am’ and as the messman, services our en suite cabin too; we don’t even have to make our bunk beds in the morning. I’m fairly confident that life at sea will agree with us. To my mind, I figured that if we could build a good rapport with a couple of the crew, we stood a chance of finding out what’s occurring, especially when seas get stormy.
Ludwig who was twenty-eight and his similarly aged girlfriend Christelle were the only two other passengers on our crossing with us. Despite his German name, he was French, and like most Europeans, had a good command over the English language. Christelle was more reserved and relied on Ludwig to translate; we always waited until he did so as not to alienate her through the language barrier. Amiable and mildly natured, both made very good company. They planned to visit family in Argentina and tour South America for a year in their motorhome, which was parked next to our bikes on a cargo deck. There must be a few hundred grand on that deck alone.
By the second evening aboard the vessel, the boat’s thrusters were in full swing. The drawbridge closed and we appeared ready to weigh anchor. I can only imagine the scale of preparation for a voyage of this duration while I watched in mandatory silence the harbour pilot manoeuvre the ship away from dock before allowing the captain to takeover. It was a tense hour and a tidal wave of darkness washes over the ship. A safe departure from port was ascertained and life on the vessel took on an ambient noise and constant vibration underfoot. She left us feeling calmly at ease and lightly rocked us to sleep each night – what lies beneath was a well-oiled machine used to the long haul.
I’m not sure if it’s because we were used to boats from dive guiding in Egypt years ago but it was pretty easy to tune out of the ship’s sounds, accept her gentle movement in our stride and easier still to forget that we were at sea. This is one big vessel and it would take a boisterous sea to make her pitch wildly. I curb any complacency creeping in when the chief mate told us that five containers were lost overboard on the voyage before ours, the sea was that rough. And back in 2010, they had a hurricane reaching three on the Beaufort scale. I await the renowned Bay of Biscay – will it be benign or a total bitch? I can only pray to Neptune that our marine vessel escapes her nautical nemesis and remains our seafaring saviour.
Sailing through the Bay of Biscay, we absent-mindedly forgot to let such notoriously choppy waters affect us. As it was blowing an absolute hooley outside, we took an invigorating walk on the top deck instead and marvelled at the strength of the gusting wind. Jason seized the opportunity to film the powerful gusts and the effect it beared down on our futile attempts to walk in a straight line. It blew out the cobwebs, gave rise to a cheeky sense of fun stirring inside me and kept any rumblings of seasickness at bay for the rest of the day.
We were introduced to the captain, Carlo. A stocky, jovial man who authoratively informed us that we were not to over-engage his crew in idle chat. This could distract them from their work, especially to those that are looking, looking, looking out to sea. Fair enough. Consolingly, the captain offered to let the chief mate give us a tour of the engine room and bridge. Max, a second mate is the highest ranking amongst the Filipino crew and responsible for engaging us in a safety drill. One afternoon, we congregated at the muster point togged out in our hard-hat helmets and life jacket, carrying an immersion suit. Our muster point is located on the top deck next to one of four self-contained lifeboats; each ready to be deployed and sustain the life of forty-six people for at least twenty-four hours. As our ship is carrying just over thirty people, I’m grateful that we have ample life-saving means aboard.
The days pass well and at a cargo ship’s pace – around 17 knots – steadily merge into weeks. We were practicing a little Spanish with Rocco, the cook, which was both revealing and amusing; he quickly exposed what an enormous language gap we needed to bridge should we ever hope of being understood, let alone conversing in a two-way conversation on South American turf. There was time. We were almost Dakar bound.
It was impossible not to notice that we were no longer going to be on the receiving end of that TGI Friday feeling, which comes from working hard all week in a regular job; grateful of the precious weekend ahead. As passengers, all our needs and wants are catered for; there’s nothing to worry about; no bills to pay; no work deadlines to be met and no domestic chores to undertake. It’s an unfamiliar state to be in. However, we were determined not to get boat bored and lethargic. We were relaxed, this was ‘easy time’ and all we had to do was make the most of it. Life at a slower tempo – no probléme amigo!
Most days on the deep blue were spent reading, doing yoga, researching the trip and hitting the basic gym on board. After the first few days sailing, the cooler temperatures were replaced with an implacably ferocious sun. Having previously travelled for months south of the globe, I was all too aware how the sun leeches elasticity from your skin, adding years onto your complexion. Out came the combative sunscreen recognising I was a paler shade of milky white, bordering on translucent blue. The French couple giggled at my precautions knowing I’d probably fulfil the lobster stereotype at some point that is so often us redheads in twenty minutes of direct sunlight. In the evenings we lay on top deck for some spectacular stargazing. It was a real treat with no light pollution; some stars were the size of solar systems. We often spotted a shooting star and the odd red supergiant, a Betelgeuse – no doubt millions of light years away but couldn’t quite get my head around looking up into the past.