Take me with you Captain on your journey, away from mass tourism on mega-liners and floating gambling halls. When cruise ships still looked like ships and not like apartment blocks (one of the few exceptions is the Scandinavian ”Hurtigroute-Fleet”) and had a certain individuality, I closed this chapter already in 1986 after a Pacific cruise.
Finally, on a Saturday morning it’s time to enter our cargo vessel. In the port of Mannheim (along the Neckar) we go on board of the “KVB Sjouwer I and II” (spoken shower). Our home for the next four days is a Dutch-flagged ship with Dutch (3) and Filipino crew (2), built in 2009.
Captain Folkert-Jan welcomes us by a friendly handshake and of course he also speaks German. During a short loading break he shows us his “world” (incl. the engine room), which is about 190 m long and 11.50 m wide (has 3,200 gross tons and a depth of 3.60 meters).
The two 16-cylinder diesel engines amount to 3,400 horsepower. During the downriver trip on the Rhine in the direction of Antwerp and Rotterdam, the ship speeds up to 18 kilometers per hour; on the ascent in the opposite direction, the speed is halved (but the diesel consumption triples to 150 liters per hour), depending on how much was loaded.
The freight usually consists of containers or general cargo; sometimes also bulk ware or sand/coal is loaded.
Since the commander bridge is adjustable in height up to 15 meters (great feeling), up to five so-called ISO containers of 20 or 40 feet (12.1 x 2.4 x 2.6 m) can be stored one above the other. Consequently there is space for up to 400 containers. The Off an On-Management is essential, because the sequence of loading and unloading in the different ports is just as crucial as the placement and weight of the containers in the load room etc.
Incidentally, over 15 million containers are on its way around the world; a consequence of globalization.
The Sjouwer also has its own loading crane on board, which can lift up to 2.1 metric tonnes. Quickly our car is lifted and lands gently next to the two vehicles of the crew.
At 2 pm, while the three side propellers and the rear engines start bubbling, we are slowly leaving the quay – like from a car park. First of all we are passing by the chemical plants of BASF, later the cathedral in Worms and wonderfully lonely Rhine meadows till the Loreley Rocks. It is getting dark and shortly after Koblenz at 23.30 hours we fall asleep. Despite slight vibrations and audible machine noise, we dream well. The comfortable cabin has about 16 square meters and the mattress is outstanding. Next door are toilet and a bathroom (fitted with shower and washing machine).
On the same level is a large fully equipped kitchen and a living room with a sofa, table, armchairs and satellite TV. Another three cabins and the Captain’s apartment are next to us; all sites are perfectly clean and air conditioned.
The meals take place in the bridge house with perfect view, because the ship runs day and night and only stops for loading. The crew rotates routinely. Breakfast and lunchtime is arranged when time allows. Being hungry, you may simply open the richly filled refrigerators. Dinner is around 18.00 o’clock and usually cooked personally by the captain. For example delicious spicy meat rolls, mashed potatoes with endives or a kind of Bami Goreng with peanut sauce (all fresh ingredients), including all kind of (soft) drinks.
Captain Folkert-Jan, a proud Friesian, loves his ships and almost feels like being on vacation even during exhausting alternating shifts. Those who work for him are really lucky, because after 14 days of work, an equally long free shift follows.
Despite the necessary concentration when interacting with agents and charging concepts, the atmosphere on board is always relaxed and family like. When time allows, the crew always has an open ear for questions. Only interrupted by the permanent radio communication with control stations or other ship … hallo Sjouwer, Sjouwer …
However, my personal highlight is to steer this impressing cargo vessel for about 15 minutes. With the help of an electronic guiding system and under the eyes of the captain, the job is not too complicated, especially due to few traffic and knowing of “backbord” (eft) and “steuerbord” (right). Surrounded by many cockpit instruments (various screens reflect all corners of the ship, depth and speed information etc.) and sitting in the comfortable leather armchair, you somehow feel a kind of sublimity, because it only takes a minimal touch of a 10-centimeter-long joystick.
We are passing by Duisburg (largest inland port in Europe) and giant industrial plants such as Thyssen-Krupp. The evening starts with a surprise, because Nijmegen situated along the river celebrates “Waal in Flames” with big fireworks (this part of the Dutch Rhine is called Waal). We stand in the front row and enjoy the sparkling lights.
Deep in the night finally a rumble, because we run into a lock. Since a ship does not have a brake, it only remains to approach a target at slow speed and, if necessary, to turn the propeller backwards to come to a standstill or to stay in the stream at a point. Passing a lock of 300 meters is always interesting, especially when several ships are in the cage at the same time.
On the third day, we finally arrive at the huge overseas port of Belgium – the gate of Antwerp. Now we are no longer one of the biggest, but one of the smallest ships. The dance of the “elephants” and various other trolleys, as well as the flashing and beeping of the active cranes sounds like Manhattan and looks like an endless, perfectly arranged choreography. Really a place that never sleeps and functions 24 hours, 7 days a week.
By the way, at this point tide can be up to five meters at a minimum port depth of 15 meters.
When a container is removed, even this large steel ship fluctuates under the weight change; when one is dropped, it rumbles and shakes tremendously. Even then, when an experienced crane operator is at work and ranges the huge boxes centimeter by centimeter stacked exactly on top of each other.
There is still much to tell, but it is even better to try it by yourself. The daily price of such cruise trip is around EUR 110.-; at this point the term “all inclusive” has no negative meaning.
My point of contact was Alex Mutsaars in Tilburg (he also speaks German and English) and can be reached under: http://de.binnenvaartcruises.nl/home or email@example.com
Incidentally, inside on board, you always have to take off your shoes and going along the gangway when the ship is sailing along, you have to wear a life-jacket. Safety is the top priority.
Somewhat wistfully we climb up the quay ladder to leave the “Sjouwer” on Tuesday morning. We are back on solid grounds and the real world. Our expectations have met by 120%. Thanks for having us.
Ship AHOI and always a hand wide water under the keel …… we keep the Sjouwer and the entire crew in good memories and will certainly go back on board, when the “White-Blue Dutch Lady”once again moores in Mannheim or Germersheim.
No advertising, but a “MUST-HAVE” for all water friends