Last week I embarked on a short break to Gothenburg, with my outward trip being via DFDS’ freight route from Ghent. To travel on board a freight vessel has been a long-standing ambition, and it proved to be a very interesting and enjoyable experience.
I booked my voyage directly with DFDS, via the email link provided on their freight website. The process involved filling out a booking form and emailing it to them. Having made my initial enquiry at the end of March, my booking was confirmed around two weeks later. I was then sent an Invoice which I had to settle by means of a bank transfer to DFDS. The voyage cost me the equivalent of £216 at the time of booking and included my cabin, meals and drinks.
Journey to the Ship
The day of my sailing soon came around and I made my way to Ghent. The first stage involved a mainline train to London St Pancras, then Eurostar to Brussels. I then took a Belgian railways train to Ghent St Pieters and then finally another short train journey from there to Ghent-Dampoort station (the entire journey from London was included in my Eurostar fare). Whilst en route to London, I received a phone call from DFDS to tell me that the vessel had been delayed; instead of departing at 22.00hrs that evening, she would now depart at 03.00hrs the following morning. The very helpful lady told me that I would be able to board the vessel upon arrival, which was expected to be around 21.00hrs.
After killing a few hours in Ghent having dinner, it was time to get a taxi to the port. Myself and the driver both had a little difficulty identifying if we were in the right place, but in the end we took the large DFDS sign to be confirmation enough, and I tentatively made my way to the booking office. The staff there were expecting me, and confirmed that I would be the sole passenger on board. Since the Selandia Seaways had still not yet arrived, I was directed to a small waiting room adjacent to the freight booking office; “It’s not much but it’s something” said the agent who checked my passport. The room resembled nothing more than a cupboard, equipped only with a chair and a few magazines about Flanders, plus a hatch to the main booking office. Whilst I sat there, outside there was a steady stream of trucks dropping off trailers and ‘Tug-masters’ frantically shunting them around. After waiting for nearly an hour someone appeared at the hatch and asked me if I’d like a coffee, he then invited me in to the main office. As someone who has worked in and around the freight Industry for many years, I found it really interesting seeing the loads being booked-in and processed, at what must be the busiest time of the day. After finishing my coffee, the helpful agent rang the ship, which had in the meantime arrived, and informed me that I could now board the vessel. I was given my ticket, complete with a code of the gate through which I needed to pass and my own unique “load reference”!
Fortunately, a port office car pulled up to take me to the vessel, just as I was wondering if I could or should walk across the busy, flood-lit quayside. I was driven over the ramp and met by a Filipino crew member, who glanced at my ticket, and then escorted me across the deck to a lift. The deck was half full of all sorts of VOLVO earth-moving equipment, as well as trailers, truck chasis and other pieces of heavy plant. The crew member took me to deck 5 where the ten driver’s cabins are located, as well as the combined driver’s “mess” and day-room area. He opened the cabin doors to see if the cabins had been made up or not, and on finding one that had been, no. 505, said “here, you can have this one” and then promptly took me to the galley where I was presented with my key. My cabin was well presented, very clean and tidy and not at all dissimilar from a standard cabin on a passenger ferry, apart from the traditional wooden cabin-bed. It didn’t take long to find my way around the passenger facilities, which were essentially one room split in to a dining area and a comfortable lounge space with leather settees and a large TV. The dining area was complete with a large fridge, containing milk, fruit juice as well as some meats, cheeses etc, which could be accessed at any time. In addition, there was a large box of earl grey tea, a coffee machine, Toaster (together with bread) and Microwave at my disposal. I spent a couple of hours watching TV with my Jupiler beer which I’d smuggled aboard, before retiring for the night, since it had been a rather long day.
Day at Sea
The next morning I awoke to find that we had negotiated the Ghent canal and were now in open waters just off Vlissingen. From my window I could see plenty of shipping activity, I then suddenly realised that breakfast was due to be served at 8.00am, so I made the short trip along to the driver’s ‘mess’ to see what awaited me. When I arrived there was no sign of activity, then suddenly a smiling Filipino cook appeared from behind a door and said “I’m just getting your breakfast”. So I sat myself down, and shortly afterwards it appeared; a large stack of crispy Bacon, two fried eggs and some small Frakfurter-style sausages. Someone else from the galley then appeared to show me how to use the coffee machine, after doing this he then asked “you want beer?” I replied that it was probably a bit early for that but maybe later on, he then said “I’ll put some in the fridge for you” and two cans of Tuborg duly appeared. Whilst I enjoyed my breakfast, I did wonder how on earth I would manage to eat lunch in little over three hours time; I can only assume that lorry drivers are generally used to somewhat larger portions than me!
After breakfast I made my way outside to properly explore the outside decks. I found there was quite a generous amount of open deck space available, indeed it was possible to walk almost right up to the bridge. I was also struck by how incredibly well kept everywhere seemed to be; it was hard to find so much as a speck of rust anywhere and special walkways had been created using rubber matting. The weather was beautiful and during mid-morning I noticed we were passing the cruise ship Costa Mediterranea at fairly close quarters. I was trying my best to work up enough of an appetite for my impending lunch, which was to be served at midday. When I arrived back in the dining room, I found a plate sat ready for me containing another very hearty portion, this time consisting of chicken wrapped in bacon, some stir-fried beef with peppers, potatoes and asparagus! It would have been impossible for me to have an eaten all this but I ate as much as I could. I then retired to the adjacent lounge area and watched some “Wheeler-Dealers” complete with Danish subtitles. Whilst I was watching this one of the Filipino crew from the galley asked if I needed anything, and I took the opportunity to ask if it were possible to visit the bridge. He said he would have to check, and would get back to me in a few minutes. He returned with his colleague, one of the Stewards, shortly afterwards and told me that I could go up straight away, so I did.
I was escorted up to the Bridge on deck 8, through a maze of staircases and key-coded doors. When we arrived there I was left with the Chief Officer, who was the sole person on the Bridge at the time. We talked for around thirty minutes and during that time he showed me our current position (at that point literally right in the middle of the North Sea) as well as other ships and objects such as Oil platforms etc in our vicinity. He explained that our current speed was 19.7 knots and that was somewhat faster than usual, owing to our delayed departure from Ghent, which itself was caused by delays with the Pilot. We also talked about some of the other DFDS routes and ships and I asked whether he thought the ‘Selandia’ was any better in rough seas compared to some of her passenger-carrying fleet mates, to which his reply was an emphatic ‘yes’. He emphasised the importance of having hulls designed for the North Sea, and said that the ‘Selandia’ and her sisters, as well as the ‘Flower’ class vessels were all very stable in bad weather. Finally I learned that the ‘Selandia’ will be moving back to the Felixstowe-Vlaardingen route from the end of May. It was a real treat to visit the Bridge and to be able to talk with one of the senior officers and I thanked him for his time and generosity before being escorted back to the “day room”.
I spent some more time on deck enjoying the late afternoon sunshine before dinner, with my favourite spot being just behind the port-side funnel as this provided some welcome shelter from the breeze. I presented myself for dinner just after 6.00pm and found the cook waiting for me, this time with a meal of roast pork, again wrapped in bacon, accompanied by a white sausage, mashed potato and shredded carrot. This was another ‘hearty’ meal but I had worked up more of an appetite by this point and was able to eat almost all of it. Following my meal I returned outside and remained there until the sun had set, before retiring to the lounge area with my cans of Tuborg for a few hours before bed. The vessel seemed eerily quiet as night fell, with literally no one to be seen anywhere; I turned out the lights before heading back to my cabin for the night, just after 11.00pm.
I woke briefly around 02.30am as the ship began to roll more noticeably, this coincided with our rounding the northern tip of Denmark, which I had learned from the Chief Officer. Other than that, it was another very pleasant night’s sleep, with perhaps slightly more vibration than on some other vessels, but nothing too awful. I packed my bag and headed to the Driver’s mess/Dayroom for Breakfast, which was again presented for me on arrival by a smiling Filipino cook. This time I was given scrambled egg with chunks of sausage, served with toast. I’m really not sure how Vegetarian passengers are dealt with, presumably they must have to make this very clear at the time of booking! After breakfast I went to outside to enjoy the final two hours at sea and our approach to Gothenburg. The weather was again beautiful and there was plenty to see including the outbound Stena Danica and the Petunia Seaways, another vessel on the Ghent route. My last trip to Gothenburg had been back in 2004, on the old Princess of Scandinavia, and so my memories of the port were rather hazy. Unlike on my last trip fifteen years ago, we would dock quite a way further out of the city centre. As we approached our berth, vast lines of Volvo cars, trucks, tractors and earth-moving equipment could be seen. Also nearby I could see the Volvo buildings including the museum. We docked at 10.00am precisely, just one hour behind schedule.
Once we had docked I returned to the dayroom and shortly afterwards was met the same crew member who had brought me aboard two days early. “Let’s go” he said, and I was escorted back down to the main freight deck. I asked whether I was actually allowed to simply walk over the ramp in to the port complex, the answer turned out to be that I needed to wait on the quayside for a port authority taxi to pick me up, which they had rang to arrange for me. Within a few minutes, my taxi arrived and the friendly driver asked me where I was going. I said that I’d like to visit to Volvo museum, and he then told me that he’d heard they were having an open day, with car clubs from all over Sweden in attendance. Sure enough, when we arrived outside the museum, there was classic Volvos everywhere, as well as Saabs and some Military vehicles. I offered to pay the driver for taking me further than he had to, but he declined and said “don’t worry DFDS will pay”. The good news continued from there as I discovered that not only was entrance to the museum free of charge that day, but I could also catch a free electric VOLVO (of course) bus to the city centre, which took around ten minutes. I then spent a lovely couple of days in this very pleasant city before flying home via BA to Heathrow.
The experience of sailing to Gothenburg on a freight vessel was, for me, thoroughly enjoyable and one which I will always remember. Whilst the fact that this is now the closest thing we have to a scheduled, passenger-carrying ferry from the UK to Scandinavia does indeed make me feel sad, it does at least provide an opportunity for those of us who still find the magic of sea travel unbeatable. I appreciate that being on board a vessel with such limited facilities, including no Wifi or phone signal, for such a relatively long duration, will not be for everyone, especially in this day and age. But if you enjoy being at sea and appreciate the opportunity to truly get away from it all for a while and properly unwind, then I would not hesitate in recommending this experience.