On Sunday, August 19, at 9:30 pm, The Cruise People’s Miri Lopusna and I joined the 5,780 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) container ship CMA CGM Chopin at Southampton Container Terminals, berthed just forward of Hapag-Lloyd’s gigantic new 13,200 TEU Hamburg Express, calling on her maiden voyage. It is late and we have eaten on the train on the way down from London, so we sign on board and turn in early, anticipating a 6:30 am departure. Running into Commandant Jean-Michel Serra, however, we learn that our departure has been delayed until 10:30 am, so we are able to sleep in a little — breakfast runs 7 to 9 am.
My colleague Miri has lucked in on this one, as while we are both on Deck F along with the commandant and chief engineer, she gets the Senior Officer’s Spare Cabin A with 4’7” double bed, while I am accommodated in the Owners Cabin, which has two 3-foot beds. Both staterooms are forward-facing and as they are on the highest cabin deck have a view over the container load.
The CMA CGM Chopin and her sister ships CMA CGM Puccini, Verdi and Wagner are each furnished with five cabins for passengers, two of which have double beds. Each cabin is en suite and has its own sofa, coffee table, desk, chair and fridge as well as two wide windows facing forward and its own deck chairs stowed away next to the wardrobes. Those on Deck E, however, are likely to have their windows obscured by containers. The ship is also equipped with an outdoor swimming pool on Deck E and a gymnasium, rowing machine, bicycle, ping pong table and library on Deck A.
As our Monday morning departure has been delayed we are able to enjoy a relatively relaxed breakfast in the Officers Mess on Deck B — the four decks between our cabins and our meals also make for good exercise. Breakfast is fried eggs and brown toast with tea for me, and baguette with jam and coffee for Miri.
We also meet our fellow passengers, Pat from Washington DC and Jewel, an American now living in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, near Playa del Carmen. Both ladies boarded at Southampton and will be accompanying the ship as far as Jebel Ali, and then flying home from Dubai. Departure is interesting as, with the tide out, we have to reverse through a narrow channel and then turn in the congested waters off a local yacht club anchorage before we are able to proceed down the Solent and thus to sea.
Once down the Solent, our lunch as we pass Cowes is Salad Nicoise, Hamburger Steak with mustard sauce and green beans, assorted cheeses with fresh baguettes, tea, coffee and an ice cream stick. Meal hours on French ships are quite a bit later than on German ones, with breakfast typically running as late as 9 am, lunch the usual 12 to 1 pm and dinner at a reasonable 7 to 8 pm. This compares to German ships with 7:30 to 8 am breakfast, 11:30 to 12:30 lunch and 5:30 to 6 pm dinner. Coffee and tea on the French ships is also available between 10 am and 3 pm.
At 4 pm we have our safety drill on the bridge and are instructed on the signals for Emergency, Fire and Abandon Ship and shown to the lifeboats six decks down on Deck A. Having walked down from the bridge (there is also a lift) we four passengers decide we might as well continue down to the Upper Deck and do a circuit of the ship, walking the port side up to the bows and climbing into the forecastle and later back on the starboard side all the way to the stern to complete the full circuit and re-enter the ship on the port side again.
This class of ship has the superstructure three-quarters aft with containers stowed both forward and aft of the accommodation. The walk-around promenade passes under the outboard containers and gives access to all areas of the ship while at sea, but passengers should only use this area in calm seas and inform the officer of the watch when going forward so that the crew are aware of their whereabouts. And they should never enter this area while the ship is working in port as moving equipment makes it very dangerous.
Our ship was built by Samsung Shipbuilding in South Korea in 2004, measures 910 feet overall by 131 feet, and has a maximum speed of 25 knots. While only half the size of the Hapag-Lloyd ship berthed astern of us in Southampton, the CMA CGM Chopin is still a post-Panamax ship, too wide to transit the old locks of the Panama Canal. Her senior officers and cadets are French and her Filipino junior officers and crew have just taken over from a Romanian crew on the previous voyage.
This we learn from Adelfo, the Filipino third officer who signed us in on Sunday night and from Anthony, our steward, who, as it turns out, had served five years on board Queen Elizabeth 2 (and was on board when I crossed in her in 2001) and a year in Queen Mary 2 before moving over to CMA CGM five years ago.
Dinner that evening is a very good vegetable soup (we all have seconds), Chicken Cordon Bleu with spaghetti, assorted cheeses and fresh fruit for dessert, accompanied by the French line’s usual complimentary table wine. Much revolves around the meals on the French-flag ships especially as the chef is of course French and wine comes with the meals. That evening, as we coast past Dunkirk and the beaches of Flanders and Holland, we all turn in early for an expected 5 am arrival at the Nieuw Waterway into Rotterdam the next day, where we will be duly alongside our container berth by 7 am.
The European Container Terminal’s Amazonekade, where we berth in the Port of Rotterdam is forty kilometres from Central Rotterdam. The terminal itself is quite fascinating as most of its trailers and straddle carriers are driverless, with the real people only operating the ship-to-shore gantries and removing the twist locks from containers coming ashore. Worth a visit in Rotterdam itself are the preserved Holland America liner Rotterdam, the Hotel New York, once the headquarters of the Holland America Line, and the city’s Maritime Museum.
Rotterdam is modern, having been heavily bombed during the Second World War. Be warned, however, that the taxi fare between the container berth and the city itself can be €100 each way. Luckily, the passengers on our ship are able to split the expense four ways. Dinner on our return to the ship is a pink grapefruit seafood cocktail followed by roast pork tenderloin with gravy (and the lunch we missed was chicken).
The next day is another day at sea, with more great soups, salmon for lunch and lamb stew for dinner, along with the usual complimentary wine and assortment of cheeses and baguettes. That afternoon, we are invited to go on a guided engine room tour to see the ship’s 10-cylinder 77,000-horsepower diesel engine and controls, shaft and shaft and auxiliary generators, workshop, freshwater condenser and oil and water separators.
This is followed by time on the bridge observing the navigation of the ship. We pick up our Elbe pilot at about 5 pm, pass Cuxhaven before the river narrows, and then the locks at the mouth of the Kiel Canal, making our way up the Elbe and finally coming alongside in Hamburg at 11:30 pm. After a fascinating four nights, we disembark early the next morning to go about our business.
Our fellow passengers meanwhile will carry on to Antwerp, Dunkirk and Le Havre, where the ship will be replenished with new supplies, and then on to Port Said East, Khor Fakkan in the Emirates and Jebel Ali, Dubai, where they will disembark.
For those wishing to investigate longer voyages more than 350 passenger-carrying cargo ships are now available, and 65 of those are operated by CMA CGM. Bookings can be made through Miri Lopusna (pictured above with the two lady passengers) at The Cruise People Ltd in London on 020 7723 2450 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.