Christmas and New Year greetings from British passengers Pat and John Pridmore, who joined CMA CGM Bougainville (above) in Southampton, the day after her christening in Le Havre as the largest container ship under French flag, for her first round voyage from Europe to the Far East.
The view from our window is restricted. It is of a steel container,almost near enough for us to reach out and touch. It tells us that it is “super-heavy” and capable of holding “32,500 kilos gross.” You would not want this thing falling on your foot. There are some eighteen thousand such containers on our vessel, stacked in tiers twenty high, eleven below decks and nine above, ranged in ranks from bow to stern.
We are passengers – the only passengers – on the three-month maiden voyage of the CMA CGM Bougainville, one of the world’s largest container vessels. We live in “the castle”, a tall thin tower amidships, surmounted by the bridge, where everyone from captain to galley-hand is housed. (We must hide somewhere else if we are attacked by pirates, but we mustn’t tell you where that is). Our Leviathan is a colossus. One perambulation of the deck is a half-a-mile walk. Most days we complete several circuits. Most days too we spend time on the bridge. It is a huge privilege to be allowed to visit the bridge whenever we like and to see for ourselves how this enormous ship is guided on its way – even if there is much we do not understand about what we’re seeing.
CMA CGM chairman Jacques Saadé, 3rd from left, with French president Francois Hollande, who christened the CMA CGM Bougainville at Le Havre on October 6, 2015
Our voyage from Southampton has taken us to European ports, through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, to ports in China, South Korea, and Malaya. Now we are on the long haul home. This is no cruise. We are spared round-the-clock forced-feeding, tacky stage-shows, and – we hope this doesn’t sound too unsociable – two or three thousand other passengers. To be sure, we are travelling in comfort. We are well-fed – after all, our vessel is French. Our simple cabin is sufficiently furnished. We have the use of facilities provided for the officers and crew. There is a slightly larger version of the tank you find at your fishmonger for the accommodation of live lobsters. In this we can splash around when the surrounding sea which feeds it is warm enough. There is a running machine and a ping-pong table. We are both pretty useless at ping-pong but that at least means we are evenly matched.
We have no Christmas lights to enjoy in our cabin. But we have the highlights of our voyage to savour. Among them have been the warm golden stones of Malta, the unfolding theatre along the banks of the Suez Canal, a day in the Arab Emirate of Khor al Fakkan (for us a window into an unknown world) – and, more disturbing, the menacing shape of submarines off the South Korean coast.
We have taken every opportunity to go ashore in China. Here memories compete to be mentioned. We will return in our mind to the four-storey pharmacy that gave us a glimpse of the range and riches of Chinese medicine. We will remember local restaurants, rich local food and local – and invariably friendly – people. We will remember what we learned from simply watching. For example, we sat by a children’s playground in a public park and noticed how the children, mostly pre-schoolers, played together – or rather how they didn’t play together, for of course each of these children was an only child, an offspring of the state’s “one child” policy.
Our slow boat to China (and back) has given us plenty of time – so hard to find in everyday life – for reflection. We are learning things we hope we’ll remember when we’re home. We’re learning the folly of being in such a hurry. We’re beginning to see that flying across the globe in half a day doesn’t help you understand the people you meet when you land.
And all those containers we carry raise another question – where to draw the line between what we need and what we want. No one knows what is inside these containers, but it is safe to assume that everything “made in China” – that’s to say about everything that furnishes our lives these days – is sealed within them. The question is what proportion of this vast cargo actually contributes to our well-being.
Above all there is the immense presence of the sea itself – the sea which we experienced in some at least of its many moods. Even as passengers with no responsibility for bringing us all safely to harbour, we are learning a fresh respect for the sea. What is the little parcel of dry land to which we cling other than a tiny and precarious bridgehead thrust into the waters that always threaten to return and engulf us? Tsunamis and rising sea levels should at least suggest that thoughts are not altogether far-fetched.
We trust that when we step ashore at Southampton we will not forget what this voyage has taught us. Above all, we hope that we will not forget the Filipinos. The Bougainville is commanded by a French captain and most of his officers are French, but the rest of his crew are all from the Philippines. So it is on most of the world’s container vessels. The round-the-clock maintenance work is done by Filipinos. On back-to-back tours of duty, they are away from home for nine months at a stretch. But they always seem to be smiling. In this troubled world, they would certainly want to join us in wishing you and yours a joyful Christmas and health and happiness in the New Year.
The CMA CGM Bouganville sails in the weekly French Asia Line 1 service, 84 days round trip from Southampton via Dunkirk, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Zeebrugge and Le Havre, through Malta and Suez to Khor Fakkan, Yantian, Tianjin, Dalian, Pusan, Qingdao, Shanghai, Ningbo, Yantian, Port Kelang and back via Suez and Algeciras to Southampton. Each ship in this line carries up to ten passengers in five cabins.
For further details on booking passage on this route or any other cargo voyage please call Miri Lopusna at The Cruise People Ltd in London on +44 (0)20 7723 2450 or e-mail PassageEnquiry@aol.com