East Cobb couple Wally and Christine Beard will be celebrating their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary this month. The only question facing these two former high school chemistry lab partners is where to pop the champagne cork when that special day rolls around. Having already been to all seven continents, eighty-four countries and all fifty states they’re running out of new places to see.
Obviously, exploring the globe is their chosen hobby and evidence of that is everywhere you look in their tastefully decorated home. Photos of the couple abound, dressed in all manner of gear and albums fill up the built-in bookcases and are stacked on tables for guests to view. Their six grandchildren love to look through them whenever they visit. After all, how many of us have grandparents who have spent two weeks crossing the Gobi Desert? Or, after reading the book, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, spent nineteen days in Antarctica re-tracing the steps of that journey?
After retiring from the Mead Corporation in 1994, Wally decided to ramp up their globe trotting by planning at least two international trips every year. Retirement gives them the time they need to explore their chosen destinations as thoroughly as they want. For them, immersion in other cultures is part of the allure. The enthusiasm they bring to their hobby is driven by their curiosity, love of history and desire to learn about how other people live all over the world.
Over the years they also went on many cruises and when their fiftieth wedding anniversary was approaching, rather than have a big party, they chose to take a trip around the world. However, the manner in which they would accomplish this was just a little bit unusual. In the early days of their marriage Christine read about steamer trips to Europe. As Christine remembers, “Wally said then that when we go to Europe we’re going to go in style. Not on some tramp steamer.” This time he was more open to the idea. Through the internet Christine found Maris Freighter Cruises. They specialize in cruises on passenger-carrying cargo ships all over the world. Costs average about $100 a day per person and include all meals. Cabins are private and most often have more room than those found on commercial passenger cruise ships. They booked an around the world itinerary, round-trip from New York City, that lasted three months.
“I think we were brave to do three months for a first time”, Christine says now. “As we were sailing away from New York, I could see the Statue of Liberty. I looked at him and said ‘I hope we’re doing the right thing.’ ” She goes on, “I think the most scary thing about a freighter is that there’s no doctor.” Explains Wally, “Less than twelve passengers, they do not have to have a doctor onboard.” For anything serious, and when conditions permit, helicopter transfer to the nearest medical facility is availed. The fact that they both enjoy good health and are physically fit gave them the confidence to go ahead. Christine does admit, with a chuckle, that she did pack the mother of all first aid kits for the journey.
No Social Director
Their ship for the duration was The Hunter Valley, a modern German cargo vessel. Freighter itineraries are subject to the captain, the weather and the business of cargo shipping. When the ship will arrive in port is at best an educated estimate and the duration is left up to how quickly the captain and crew can conduct business. The longest they stayed in port was two and a half days in Sydney and the shortest was just overnight in Tilbury, England.
Since the number of passengers on board at any one time is only a handful at most, no social director is there to keep passengers entertained. As Wally describes, “The biggest thing on a freighter is that you are your own entertainment.” While the ship was at sea, Wally and Christine developed a daily routine that they grew comfortable with and as the days went by they found that being isolated from the outside world was not so terrible.
Christine walked around the deck every day, weather permitting, and got in her almost daily three miles. Wally retired to their cabin after breakfast and did his daily crossword puzzle, after which he would go up on the bridge and chat with the officers. He also brought a short wave radio to listen to the Voice of America and keep up with the sports scores. They had a DVD player and watched movies whenever they wanted, they played cards and they both read close to forty books each during their excursion. Throughout the voyage they were joined by no more than five or six passengers and they were the only ones scheduled for the ship’s entire three-month run.
As they circumnavigated the globe, the day of their fiftieth anniversary was approaching and Wally spoke to the captain about renewing their vows onboard. The captain agreed to perform the ceremony and Wally and Christine arranged for a champagne party that included the entire crew of about fifteen. As word got around that a party was set to happen onboard, the excitement began to build. As Wally explained, “You have to remember that these people are on the ship 24/7. Same thing, day after day, after day is all they do. Well, now there was going to be something different.” While Wally and Christine could at least leave the ship whenever they were in port, the officers and crew had very little time, if any, to spend onshore.
A cake was purchased in Melbourne, because the captain swore that the cook couldn’t bake a cake to save his life. And the wife of a German couple, who boarded in Australia, pumped the bride and groom the week before the ceremony about their original wedding and their life together over the years.
On a hot, Sunday afternoon in March 2004, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, with officers in their dress whites and the Filipino crew in their Sunday best, Christine made her entrance onto the bridge. Holding a bouquet purchased by the crew in Australia, accompanied by an acting father of the bride in the person of a fellow passenger, she joined Wally on the bridge as the sweet resplendent notes of Ava Maria played on CD. Fifty years before a good friend of hers, who sang opera and studied at La Scala in Italy, sang the song at their church wedding. Through the efforts of the crew, a search for a CD while in Australia proved successful. The captain filled the ceremony with details about their life together, thanks to the German female passenger, and even described how they met, back in chemistry class.
After the ceremony, the captain ordered everyone back into the uniform of the day (shorts and t-shirts), the cook put out a huge buffet and the champagne flowed. Later, the Filipino crew asked the bride and groom and the other three passengers back to their recreation room to sing karaoke and dance. Christine and Wally remember it as a wonderful day of food, drink and song that they will never forget.
On a day not long after, on the way into Singapore, the captain announced that the ship would be heading into pirate territory. The couple’s reaction of course was, “Pirates? What pirates?” Unfortunately, this throwback to another century is not unheard of and is a problem in certain parts of the world. The captain explained that a complete lockdown of the ship would take place as they navigated the affected area into Singapore. Passengers and unessential crew were required to lock themselves in their quarters for the duration and draw their curtains. This occurred at about eight o’clock at night and all the lights on the ship burned bright, while two crewmen were stationed on deck with powerful spotlights to scan the sea. If any small boats approached, fire hoses were at the ready and the intruders would be hosed off the ship.
Wally admits that he was surprised that the officers were not armed with weapons for this type of situation. The captain told him it was because it was felt that the appearance of any weapons would probably invite unwanted aggression and make things worse. The hoses were quite powerful and the ship’s top speed of 22 knots would enable them to outrun any small boats the pirates used.
Thankfully, no pirates were sighted that night or on the other two occasions the ship traveled through similar such waters: leaving Singapore and entering the Gulf of Aden on the way to the Suez Canal, where most of today’s pirate activity takes place.
As freighter passengers they were considered part of the crew and could avail themselves of the services of the Seaman Center at each port, e.g. free internet, discounted phone service, sundries at reasonable price, lounges, TV, etc. If the ship wasn’t docked close enough to walk, they were most often either driven into the center of town by the Port Agent or the Seaman Center would pick them up and take them to their location. From there they would embark upon a bus tour or hire a taxi to get around. Sometimes, if time allowed, they would hire a local guide.
When they visited Adelaide, Australia, the ship arrived early Sunday morning and nothing was open, so the Port Agent gave them a personal driving tour of the city. Wally recalls, “A nice gesture. Uncalled for, on his part.” Everywhere they went they found the locals to be very friendly and helpful and never really ran into a language barrier. Wally says, “There are enough English speaking people in the world to get by.” They used the resources in the ship’s library to plan their shore activities and were able to see all but one of the twenty-two ports on the itinerary.
Wally and Christine spent the last ten days of their trip in an atmosphere of almost self-imposed isolation. They stopped listening to the shortwave and aside from their interaction with the officers and crew, they lived as though in a bubble. Wally adds, “You’ve been isolated from what goes on in the world so much that you forget about it. When we got off the ship in New York the whole world and reality came back just instantly. We were back in the hubbub.”
After three months at sea they both experienced some emotion when they returned. “They talk about how our ancestors came over in the ships and they would enter New York Harbor and pass the Statue of Liberty and it was so symbolic to them. It was kind of an emotional moment for us when we sailed past that statue”, Wally explains. “It was quite a feeling.”
Wally and Christine have since been on other freighter cruises and belong to The Freighter Travel Club Int’l. For information on itineraries, booking and rates visit Maris Freighter Cruises at www.freighter-cruises.com.