A freighter is no floating hotel. But, as Guy Needham found, it offers mind-freeing - and enlightening - time-out from everyday life.

When the alarm goes you grab this," said officer cadet Dusan pointing to my lifejacket, "and this." An orange survival suit. "We muster on C Deck, starboard side."

I didn't know if it was a good or bad thing that my welcome was bringing up Titanic-like thoughts.

I'd just boarded the ANL Bindaree, a Liberian-flagged freighter that was slowly pulling out into the Hauraki Gulf laden with 30,000 tonnes of freight, 24 crew and one other passenger.

I was following a little-known tradition of cargo ships carrying passengers, harking back to the days when cabins were set aside for owners and VIPs. Today, they're taken by people looking for a slow alternative to air travel, who are independent, have time to spare, and who - like me - want to do something a little different.

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I'd chosen a rather circuitous route as was pointed out by Adrian, the bemused chief engineer.

"Okay, so you're leaving here to come back here to go nowhere?"

"Uh huh," I replied. From Auckland around Cape Reinga across the Tasman to Melbourne, up the Australian coast to Sydney then into the South Pacific to disembark at Tauranga. The journey would take two weeks.

"You are very strange," he chuckled.

Adrian was one of the Bindaree's band of officers from Croatia, Romania and Montenegro; the rest of the crew were Filipino.

As is maritime tradition, there was strict segregation between the officers and the crew including socialising, eating and sleeping. This irked my fellow passenger, Naomi, a Canadian environmental educator, who was telling me so when we were interrupted by the PA system.

"Attention all crew. Attention all crew," it boomed.

"Clocks go back one hour tonight. One hour."

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That marked us entering international waters and meant the Slop Chest was open. The Slop Chest (official name: Bonded Store) was a duty-free treasure trove of alcohol, treats and cigarettes. You choose from the checklist, hand a slip to the officer, it gets delivered to your door, and you pay in US dollars before disembarking. I made the landlubber's mistake of thinking I was paying US$18 for a dozen Becks beer. Twenty four bottles turned up.

No matter, there was more than enough room in my quarters - officially, the "owner's cabin". I had a dayroom (two couches, table, writing desk, chair, fridge, LG mini-system, DVD player and TV) plus a bedroom, shower and toilet. My porthole ("View may be restricted by containers") looked all the way to the bow.

As the days went by, the low rumble of the engines was punctuated by the creaking of container lashes. I spent as much time as possible on the bridge. Being allowed in the wheelhouse is a passenger's perk on a merchant ship, but it wasn't what I'd expected.


One of the crew onboard. Photo / Guy Needham

Sure, I'd done my research - if watching the movie Captain Phillips counts - but I hadn't reckoned on how automated it all was. There is no grand wheel any longer; this ship's was the size of a PlayStation racing control.

"Surprised, huh?" third officer Paul called out with a grin on his face. "Everything is automatic now, see." He pointed to the navigation console.

"Of course, we still do things manually. Every two hours we plot our exact position on the charts behind you. Don't want anything to go wrong," he said matter of factly, still smiling.

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As officer on watch, he wasn't actually steering the ship; he was checking it was on track. Just to humour me, though, he opened a small hatch on the bulkhead - out popped a Morse code machine.

The next day I joined Chief Officer Aleksandar on the outer bridge - him with cigarette and coffee, me with sunglasses, both of us looking at the horizon.

"People don't understand," he said passionately. "We are the life-blood of the world economy."

He jokingly jabbed his finger to his forearm.

"No planes, no trains ever carry as much as economically as us. This is why shipping will never die."

I nodded agreement. We were heading west at a majestic 14 knots. Seven decks below the powerhouse of the ship thundered on. In the engine room nine turbines pumped out 720rpm of raw power.

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"One hundred and forty degrees," said the engineer, "That's how hot these pipes are. Don't touch them."


The engine room. Photo / Guy Needham

As awesome as all that power was, it was a relief to be topside again. My favourite place was at the bow with 250m of container ship behind me, the hypnotic sound of the swell and the gentle rocking of a massive ship. Mornings were fresh and tingly; the afternoons hot and tan-worthy.

On day six we saw land again - Australia. The mood on the bridge changed and focus replaced humour. It was as if the ship had been given a talking-to at half-time and came out with guns blazing.

In Melbourne I saw the life-blood of the world economy. Every container was positioned on the deck according to its declared weight, need for power, displacement of cargo and final destination. Massive cranes, hoists and lights worked 24 hours to keep the infrastructure pumping.

After "shore leave" I was back in time for dinner. Meals were at set times (7am-8am, noon-1pm, 5pm-6pm) and eating in the officers' mess was a chance to get to know the men on board. On freighters meals are dependent on how good a cook you have and ours was good. Chef Leonardo and messman Rodel invited me into the galley to show off their honey-glazed chicken, Thai-inspired beef and icecream sundaes.


The honey-glazed chicken for meal time. Photo / Guy Needham

Evenings were spent chilling. There was time to read, watch DVDs, work out in the gym or just stare out to sea. More than once I caught up with the ship's master, Danko Grgurevic, a friendly Croatian who was usually dressed in shorts, a company T-shirt and tennis shoes.

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We arrived in Botany Bay under a full moon. By then I'd learned that you're not supposed to take your passport off the vessel when entering another country (oops) and you have to sit at your allocated place at the dining table even when you're the only person there (oops again). But despite all those idiosyncrasies, there was one great benefit: being "off the grid". No cellphone, no Facebook, no hashtags, no selfies.

After another five days we reached Tauranga. I left the crew a few magazines and beers, and descended the gangway one last time. It had been a privileged insight into a rarefied eco-system with rules and norms that could be daunting to the uninitiated.

Luckily, I had the best hosts I could have asked for. And I was rather pleased I never had to put on that orange survival suit.

Planning tip

Catching a freighter isn't like catching a Swiss train. You need to be flexible and have the right temperament. There's no way to guarantee your departure date because there could be strikes, foul weather, technical problems at ports or diversions at sea, so don't plan your holidays too tight.

CHECKLIST
Journey: Freighter passenger.

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Ports: Available worldwide (writer did Auckland-Melbourne-Sydney-Tauranga).

Duration: From one week to as long as you like.

Cost: Budget for $190 a day including transport, accommodation, and meals.

Require: Passport, medical certificate, indemnity certificate, deviation insurance, travel insurance, ticket.

Contact: Freighter Travel NZ, ph (06) 843 7702, or email: hamish@freightertravel.co.nz