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WRITER'S GUIDE : Freighter Fancier Alex Haley's Penchant for Unconventional Cruising

March 16, 1986|ALEX HALEY | Alex Haley is completing a new book, "Henning, Tennessee," to be published by Doubleday this fall.

Many of us are familiar with the world's luxurious cruise ships, but scarcely a handful among us are acquainted with the considerably lower-keyed, yet generally more adventurous vacations that are available aboard freighters. For a variety of reasons, most freighter lines spurn passengers, preferring instead to focus on their priority function: moving cargo.

Those cargo ships that do welcome passengers nearly always provide staterooms of comfortable size. Indeed, on some freighters the furnishing, decor and general appointments are superior to passenger quarters on some big liners. The freighter cabins feature air-conditioning; there are clothes washers, limited libraries, deck chairs and, on some vessels, even a swimming pool.

The major lure of freighter travel is its cost as compared with cruise ships. This and a sense of adventure, what with uncertain and flexible itineraries. In the cost area, American President Lines ships sail every two weeks from Singapore to Columbo (Sri Lanka) and Fujairah (United Arab Emirates), then back to Columbo and Singapore, then to Kaohsiung (Taiwan) and return to Singapore, averaging about 28 days round-trip at fares of $2,600 per person in a double stateroom.

On certain freighters, reservations must be made at least six months--if not a year or even more--in advance, so great is the demand for the relatively limited number of staterooms available.

APL's highly touted Vagabond voyage is exciting in that it has no specific schedule. The freighter's itinerary is dictated entirely by the vagaries of available cargo along the way--this over a period averaging 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 months. Sometimes longer.

Most freighter passengers are members of a fraternity that tends to average two or preferably more voyages annually; they maintain regular and close mail and telephone contact with one another and frequently book future voyages together. As an example, there were the 11 passengers with whom I shared 52 days on a trip to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, stopping briefly in Barbados and San Juan, Puerto Rico, on our return to New Orleans. Among these "sailors" were longtime marrieds, an ex-Bethlehem Steel executive, former Los Angeles court clerk Irma Smith and retired U.S. Navy Capt. John Pepper of Carmel (Pepper served as White House dentist for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson). The voyage was a joy, with a great deal of camaraderie and fun.

I've been a freighter buff since my retirement--after 20 years--from the U.S. Coast Guard, on whose ships I got hooked by the sea. It was as a young seagoing sailor on lonely patrols that I began to write. Since "Roots" was published, I've received multiple invitations for free luxury voyages on cruise vessels, but it's on the quiet freighters, with their limited activities and distractions, that I'll produce more worthwhile pages of manuscript than I could on a big ship. It is for this reason that I choose freighters, putting to sea with research memos, notes and a typewriter.

Once you're at sea for a couple of days, time becomes meaningless. "What day is this?" becomes a frequent query, and the days tend to become identified by their characteristics of weather and sea, or by some special event, such as "The day after we saw the giant school of green turtles--"

Here's an excerpt from my notes on a voyage of the S.S. Charles Lykes from Seattle to the Far East and back: "Today, we saw a few spouting whales (of the few whales we've left living); there are occasional silvery flying fish, surfacing and skittering; we see few other ships, as silhouettes, so distantly that only seldom, through glasses, can we distinguish their diverse flags of nationality . . . . "

Between port stops, the average pastimes are playing cards, reading, ocean-watching and eating (generally too much). And there is always excitement among the passengers when, at forever last, a really big and intricately cut jigsaw puzzle gets finished, and its conquering champions are likely to be toasted with champagne.

The ship's pickup or discharge of cargo dictates its port stops, which today might average one day or less, whereas before as much as a week was not unusual. This was a period when most freighters carried either bulk or loose cargo, which required unloading by bales or bags or cartons. But the 1950s saw the swift development and widespread usage of containers--in which cargo is loaded and locked inside sealed metal containers, which are unloaded directly off the ship onto truck bodies or railroad cars--and now a container ship can discharge its major cargo within one day.

This has made both voyages and port stops less lengthy, so veteran freighter passengers precede a short stop with exchanges of information about ideal places for bargain-shopping and sightseeing. Back on board, there is spirited group discussion about who managed to luck out, or who got taken by some wily taxi driver or shopkeeper.

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