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GOING BY FREIGHTER : The Slow Boat to Serenity

April 26, 1987|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

It occurs regularly, five days a week.

The telephone rings and George Henck sets free still another soul who's grown weary of noise , pollution, traffic congestion and all the other irritations associated with a world that seems at times to have lost all control.

Again and again Henck's telephone rings.

More than one daydreamer has yearned to take a slow boat to China.

--Endless days and open seas and a horizon that remains forever beyond the next adventure.

--No telephones, no traffic snarls and none of those other distractions a civilized society foists upon us.

--Only the serenity of the sea and the promise of other tomorrows without cares or pressures or a need to arrive anywhere . . . on time.

While this may sound like the impossible dream, George Henck is prepared to steer would-be runaways to ports nearly everywhere on Earth.

As the founder of Freighter World Cruises of Pasadena, Henck represents a fleet of more than 150 vessels that drop anchor at such exotic destinations as Alexandria and Rio, Montevideo and Valparaiso, Buenaventura, Keelung and Kobe, Tangier and Trieste. These and dozens more on every ocean and sea one can name.

His clients are the tired and the retired, a growing group that seeks the solace of ocean travel without the fuss of Ping-Pong tournaments, dressy parties, lounge shows, deck games and night-owl bars.

Besides the solitude that's offered, freighter travel remains a bargain for the weary who prefer the ocean to a cramped seat on a crowded jet.

This isn't to say that one can sail the oceans for $25 or $30 a day anymore.

"Those days are gone," Henck says.

Inflation's curse has put the squeeze on the freighter industry too, so that the per diem runs more to the tune of $50 to $120. Still, considering that the rates include a cabin with a window on the world along with meals, it's a bargain that's almost impossible to beat.

There's Columbus Line's voyage from Long Beach to Australia with calls at Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Wellington, Auckland, Honolulu and Tacoma--around $95 a day aboard a freighter featuring carpeted cabins, air conditioning, private baths, refrigerators, a swimming pool, deck chairs, laundry service and a bar/lounge for the evening cocktail ritual.

The same line offers departures from Charleston, S.C., that take in New Orleans and Houston en route to Australia and New Zealand, with a return via the Panama Canal and calls at Curacao, Martinique, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad in the Caribbean.

While port time ranges from eight to 24 hours, it can turn into days due to weather, port congestion and the loading and unloading of cargo. Companies don't guarantee pat schedules. One doesn't necessarily make Rio in 10 days or two weeks. It's possible. But again, chances are excellent it could be longer.

There is the freighter that was gone for more than four months on a trip originally figured for 80 days. For passengers it was a bonus. The extra days were on the house, which is the general rule with all freighter lines. Only if the ship returns home sooner is there an adjustment, which is always in favor of the passengers. Indeed, there was the couple that sailed on a 45-day cruise to Africa that ended up lasting 84 days, with a 12-day layover in Alexandria, Egypt.

Columbus Line also does around-the-world voyages of up to five months that figure out to about $75 a day per passenger. Henck (who's known as the King of Freighter Cruising) cautions that life aboard a slow boat isn't for everyone.

"The guy who enjoys partying all night would be bored silly. It's like being stuck in the slow lane when you're used to driving in the fast lane."

Out of boredom, some passengers begin the cocktail hour soon after breakfast. Generally, though, most are content to delay that daily ritual for late afternoon while studying the sea, reading and watching movies on VCRs.

The Cheapest Trip

The cheapest trip on the books is a $50-a-day voyage with Polish Ocean Lines sailing from Hamburg. (Henck will get you to Europe inexpensively by air.) The freighter transits the Suez Canal before moving on to Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. From Hamburg back to Hamburg the ocean adventure involves 90 to 120 days.

Henck says the "hottest" development on the local freighter scene involves cruises around the world (both east and westbound) out of Long Beach. Figure on about 80/85 days, with visits to Yokohama, Pusan, Keelung, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Suez Canal, Genoa, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg or Bremen, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., and the Panama Canal. (Eastbound sailings will feature the same ports.)

For the most part, freighters carry passengers who have lost their lust for night-owl bars, gambling and the midnight buffet featured by major cruise lines.

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