Merry Christmas Everyone!

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I hope everyone celebrating Christmas, wherever they are and however they celebrate, has a wonderful time over the holidays. Particularly the rest of the wonderful Ennis family: have a glass (bottle) of champagne for me and a lovely extended Christmas. We will miss the charades, unless we manage to get the Italian-Filipino crew to play along…

Friends around the world – enjoy the celebrations and all the best for the coming year. Its been wonderful to catch up with some of you this year, and we are looking forward to visiting a few more next year.

We will be experiencing a very non-traditional but certainly memorable Christmas day on the Grande Amburgo, somewhere mid-Atlantic if all goes to plan.

Hugs to all, and a big sloppy kiss from Lauren to Michael.

P.S to the non technically savvy (looking at you mum….) this was scheduled to post on the 25th, I am not actually somewhere with internet right now….. 

 

 

 

Hamburg!

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What an awesome 24 hours.

With apologies to my Dad who hates the word awesome, but in actual fact I find the incredible efficiency, energy and power of this place truly awe-inspiring. I warn you now, this post is filled with admiration for big heavy machinery, so if that’s not your thing, feel free to skip.

We chugged up the river Elbe in almost zero visibility – very thick fog, so that when we arrived it felt like we emerged straight out of the fog into the centre of the city.

Check out these videos of the arrival and docking, which was done efficiently with great precision as this enormous beast of a ship turned 360 degrees and then reverse parked neatly behind its Grimaldi sister, the Grande Nigeria.

I had to downgrade the video quality to be able to post it over a mobile network, but hopefully its watchable.

Arriving and Docking:

The Ramp coming down:

All night and this morning loading has been going on, containers being brought on the back of lorries and lifted straight up by enormous fixed cranes that are operated with extreme precision to stack the containers on the front of the ship as if they were lego. They load a container every couple of minutes.

Container loading:

While this is going on at the front, the ramp is down at the back and streams of brand new Audis, BMWs and other cars, covered in plastic, are being driven into the RORO part of the ship.

There is also quite a contingent of other vehicles, such as fire engines and construction vehicles. While they are going in, trucks are constantly back and forth unloading containers destined for Hamburg. It all works at very high speed, and being down in the lower decks with it all happening is actually quite scary.

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We decided to venture out into Hamburg this morning – as much for the experience of finding out way through port as for anything we particularly needed. I figured of all the ports we will visit, you could count on Hamburg to be organized, efficient and safety conscious. This turned out to be true.

We made our way down to Deck 3, which is the deck level with the top of the main ramp, and found our friend Jake the safety officer (I think he is actually the 2nd mate, but we know him as the guy who terrified us with the safety briefing and one of the few crew we have had a prolonged conversation with). He told us how to get out, which involved risking life and limb on the ramp, crossing to a portacabin and pressing a red button which summoned a port shuttle. This turned up in a few minutes and took us to the gate at high speed. Everyone from truck drivers to brand-new-audi-drivers to the guys driving the loading machines move at top speed and its obvious why just wandering around port is forbidden.

The guy at the reception of the port called us a taxi and gave Lauren an apple, which she was polite enough to feign delight over and swiftly hide in her pocket. I made sure to get both the reception guy and the taxi driver to write down directions and address in German for our return – the ship will not wait if passengers are late.

Hamburg was just waking up at 9 and the shops weren’t yet open, so we were forced to take refuge from the cold in a coffee shop, where we pigged out on cake.

We then did some shopping – some chocolates for Christmas day for everyone, but also some ‘supplies’ such as Weetabix and ginger marmalade to  make breakfast more interesting, some dried mango and some fresh veggies, and some tins of sweetcorn. We are both craving vegetables as they have not played a big part on the menu so far.

We also managed to get a compass for Lauren as this module she starts geometry, and some tracing paper for her art project this week, as well as a nice big mug for me as I am sick of drinking tea out of tiny cups. So all in all, a successful trip.

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We wandered around the centre, including the very pleasant Christmas market which I had said I wasn’t bothered about visiting but which was actually lovely, with a much more relaxed vibe than Christmas shopping in the UK. Music playing, stalls selling food and crafts, kids hanging out and families doing bits of shopping, Christmas lights and decorations up. A nice taster of the city.

We soon had to make our way back as we had been told to be on board for 1pm. The taxi driver didn’t know exactly how to find it, but with the help of google maps and the bits of paper the previous taxi driver and reception had given us we had a relatively stress-free return journey, even having time for the Afghan driver to update us on how living in Germany is for Afghan refugees…. He couldn’t find the vehicle entrance so we ended up dodging under a barrier and walking through a massive truck park towards the gate.

We called the shuttle again and sped back to the GH, where I spent some time up on deck watching the loading and unloading. We should be off within the hour, and I want to get this posted, as its possibly our last good signal for a few days or weeks, depending on whether we catch one in Vigo.

This journey is absolutely awesome  (sorry Dad!), and the GH already feels like coming home – going into the city was lovely but we were just as happy to get back here to our cabin and our lounge. It was expensive and a huge risk if it hadn’t worked out, but so far so good!!!

Oh, and someone had cleaned our room!!! Life is good.

 

First Few Days on Board

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So as you will have gathered from our previous posts, we did in fact make it to the ship in time to set sail for Montevideo. The process wasn’t without stress however, starting before we even entered the port.

Having spent a night at a local Premier Inn, the taxi turned up on time and we set off on the 15-minute journey to the port. The driver was a former banker who had retired at 40, been ‘divorced and cleaned out by his wife’ immediately after, so started driving a taxi.

On arrival at the port a very brusque security guard was adamant that we couldn’t enter with a child. I later heard the tragic story behind this rule, but at the time just found it immensely frustrating, especially as the taxi meter was ticking.

I showed him our tickets, I showed him the email from the company confirming passage for myself and Lauren, “age 8” clearly written there, but he wasn’t for budging. I dug out the phone number of the Grimaldi agent, called him and he radioed through almost immediately to say to let us in, I even heard the message and watched as he listened, but he insisted that it was not up to the company but the police!

My Mozambican-earned patience and firmness when dealing with obstructive officialdom eventually paid off, as I waited until he pulled a truck off to inspect it, showed our paperwork to his colleague, who confirmed they knew all about the matter and waved us through! The first guy’s face as we drove past was a picture, but he was just being a pain in the whatsit.

We arrived at the Grimaldi office (a portacabin) and the friendly staff let us sit in a couple of office chairs while they tracked down a car to take us to the ship. They took a copy of our passports, and told us there were 8 other passengers on board (actually there are 6, with another 2 joining in Hamburg), and after about 20 minutes someone turned up to take us round the port to the ship. He drove right into the ship, into an enormous, cavernous deck, and a couple of friendly crew members helped us with our (immense) baggage, up in the lift to the deck where our lives will be played out for the next month.

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We were shown to our cabin and left there, a bit bewildered at the speed and lack of information after such a long build up. I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I felt more like cargo than passenger!

After about ten minutes one of the Italian officers came by and asked for our passports and yellow fever certificates. Of course, the certificates were well buried in our packed bags, but I managed to dig them out. I gave them to him and waited for him to reappear, assuming he was taking copies. He never came back. And still hasn’t. Some of the other passengers later told us they also hadn’t got theirs back, so I’m not worried.

We unpacked and then decorated the cabin with our Christmas stuff, by which time it was 11am. I recalled reading on someone else’s blog that lunch was at 11am so having realized no one was going to give us a tour (or even tell us where the dining room was), we set off to explore. It would not have been a good start if Lauren had missed lunch!

As we cautiously wandered the corridors (they all look the same) one of the Filipino staff found us and introduced himself as the safety officer, and we agreed to meet later to receive our safety briefing. He also took us to the dining room, where we met the other passengers and were served a four-course meal at 11am. Given that we had had a substantial breakfast, this wasn’t really what we needed, but actually the four courses are (seemingly every day) a small bowl of pasta, a small fillet or slice of fish, some form of meat, and some fruit. The fish and meat often come alone, or occasionally with some sliced up cucumber or tomato, so it’s actually not as overwhelming or calorific as it sounds.

The other passengers are two retired French couples, who didn’t know each other previously but who are both travelling with camper vans, and a mid-20’s German couple travelling with their motorbike. All seem friendly and the elderly French are more than happy to chat to Lauren so she can practice her French, while the Germans seem happy to practice their (already incredibly good) English. Parfait! Wunderbar!

I managed to smuggle aboard a birthday cake for Lauren and while she was distracted talking to the French couples I managed to communicate with the kitchen staff who agreed to keep it for me in the fridge until the big day. Goodness knows what preservatives it has in it to have a sell by date of 9th January, but it was the best I could do. If the galley want to make something on the day, even better. I have candles, a big ‘I am 9’ badge, sparkly stuff, party poppers and other bits and pieces. According to the schedule, we are due to arrive in Rio that day.  But the schedule is always wrong.

After lunch the German couple took us on a tour of the areas we are allowed – effectively deck 12 and the exterior of deck 13 which is where the bridge is. I think Lauren gave a pretty good overview in her post.

After the tour we mooched around our cabin for a while, feeling a little lost. The captain stuck his head in and shook our hands but with departure only an hour or so away, he was clearly busy.

Half an hour before departure all the passengers congregated on deck to watch the enormous ramp go up (it reaches almost to the top of the 12th deck) and the process of departing port.

The pilot arrived from Port of London and scrambled aboard onto a rope ladder and disappeared into a hatch right at the water level, before reappearing on the bridge. We tooted our horn, the engine was started (lots of black smoke emerging from the funnel), the flag was raised. Two tugs hung about, and a number of the orange-suited crew gradually removed some of the ropes until we were only held by a few at the front and one at the back. The last rope was removed by one of the tugs, using a machine to wind it in, and we were officially separated from the docks! The tugs were buzzing about pulling us sideways and while we didn’t even feel it, when we crossed to the other side we saw we were already a fair way from the side. We then proceeded to do an enormous u-turn across the Thames, narrowly avoiding the cruise shop docked directly behind us.

And then we were off! Finally after a day of stress, confusion, bewilderment, and half a year of anticipation. Down the Thames, as the sun set over London on a glorious cold but sunny winter day, past the marshes and fens and round the bend out to sea. It was a truly wonderful, exhilarating feeling, and all the worries fell away as I felt absolutely sure this had been the right thing to do, despite the naysayers.

This is living, doing what you want to do and making it up as you go along.

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All too soon though the euphoria wore off as Safety Officer Jake brought us back down to earth with his talk of immersion suits, helmets and lifejackets, alarms, muster stations and what to do if someone falls overboard. Of course its necessary, and it is taken seriously – we were provided with a child sized lifejacket – but it did kind of burst our bubble. That, and the discussion of politics in the Philippines and Mozambique, which could probably have waited until we knew each other better!

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Not long after the safety briefing it was dinner time and we re-convened in our usual places for another meal. Its funny how people are creatures of habit and I had been aware that the choice of table to join (French or German) at lunch would determine where we sat for the rest of the trip. Thankfully I had chosen the German table, not because there is anything wrong with the French, but because three meals a day in French might have been too much for my poor brain!  One of the couples doesn’t speaks English so it would have been pretty full on. We have plenty of chats in the lounge, but I need time and tea to come to in the mornings before speaking in anything other than grunts.

During dinner that first night an announcement from the bridge told us that the ship’s clock would go forward by an hour at midnight. Lauren was most unimpressed when I changed ours immediately then tried to make her go to bed at the ‘new’ 9 o clock. I was very tired.

Apart from getting used to eating a lot of protein at 11am and 6pm, the hardest thing to get used to is the lack of fresh air inside – the deck is kept very warm although I have been going round closing heating vents and cracking open windows in the lounge. The air is also very dry and makes my eyes prick. The noise is a constant hum of the engine, and a constant hiss from the air vents, but you very quickly get used to that. The galley is always a hive of activity, apart from siesta time after lunch, and the Italian head cook can often be heard singing along to the radio as he chops and stirs.  He invited us in this morning for a look round the galley and the enormous storeroom, which was quite an honour as it is ‘strictly forbidden’ for passengers to enter the galley. The fridge is as big as our living room in Maputo!

Apart from getting used to eating a lot of protein at 11am and 6pm, the hardest thing to get used to is the lack of fresh air inside – the deck is kept very warm although I have been going round closing heating vents and cracking open windows in the lounge. The air is also very dry.

Today is our second full day at sea, en route to Hamburg and then Vigo in Spain before heading to Dakar, Freetown and then crossing the Atlantic to Brazil, Argentina the Uruguay (don’t ask me why in that order, I don’t know).

The noise is a constant hum of the engine, and a constant hiss from the air vents, but you very quickly get used to that. Even when moving, there is hardly any movement in the ship, with just the odd gentle swell to remind us that we are at sea. We still blame the waves for our rubbish attempts at table tennis (or, as we have re-christened it ‘hit the ball once then scramble around on the floor looking for it’).

We have access to two outside areas, a more sheltered spot on this deck, and the incredibly exposed and windy ‘roof’ of the ship, where the bridge and the funnel are. There are a few ‘deck chairs’ but its too nippy out there to hang around right now. The view from the very top is incredible, but in this weather, you can’t stay up there long. Lauren is strictly forbidden (by Safety Officer Jake and by me) to go outside alone, but she does have free reign inside on deck 12.

We have been told that the crew will organize a visit to the bridge and to the engine room at some time during the trip, which will be really interesting.

The officers are polite but distant – you get the impression they deliberately keep it that way so passengers don’t go getting ideas above their station and bothering them when they have work to do. I guess its quite difficult for them as they are working and passengers are often casting about for something to do. I imagine the lines will be relaxed a bit once we have all worked out our place in the hierarchy. The all-Italian crew, headed by a tall, youngish and brisk captain, share our dining room but have their own recreation areas.

The all-Filipino crew are also friendly and polite but distant and you again get the distinct impression they are worried about you drawing on them too much or being too demanding. It’s a bit frustrating as there is very little information about how things work (should we leave our cabins unlocked so they can clean, as we have been told they do, can we just use the gym equipment whenever we like and how do you turn the treadmill on – it’s not obvious, are we allowed to go and get coffee whenever we like or only at meals, can we open windows/change heating settings, which ‘authorised personnel only’ doors are OK to go through and which not, what do the yellow lines mean….). I am now taking the approach of doing what I like and not worrying about it, on the basis they will say if we commit some major transgression! Mind you we depend on these people for everything! If necessary I will deploy my secret weapon, Lauren, as I have caught both staff and officers cracking sneaky smiles and winks at her while remaining distantly professional with the adults.

We have set ourselves up in a corner of the lounge, which has become the schoolroom and also a jigsaw station for Lauren (although everyone else seems to chip in the odd piece) and we plan to do schoolwork every day between breakfast and lunch and for an hour in the afternoon. Obviously, port days will be a different matter.

Speaking of port days, we have yet to reach Hamburg. We have been moored out at sea since last night, not far from the entrance to the river Elbe, which will take us to Hamburg. We should have docked there yesterday. Presumably we are waiting for congestion to clear in port. Everyone was very excited about the prospect of a few hours in Hamburg, thinking we would arrive yesterday night, but who knows if that will happen. Also, apparently someone ‘in charge of passengers’ will board in Hamburg, so maybe things will be clearer.

We went out on deck this morning after breakfast and before lessons, to clear our heads. It was surreal. A deep fog made it impossible to see much at all, and we just got glimpses of the incredibly still water far below. Some kind of optical illusion made the water seem very close. It was totally silent, in the early morning gloom, and it reminded me of WWII films where everyone is waiting at sea in total silence, terrified of U boats. Even without these references Lauren found it spooky.

Occasionally and for no good reason that we can work out, the ship’s horn blows – an equally spooky sound out here in the middle of nowhere. Maybe there are huge ships bearing down on us out of the fog and we are warning them off. Actually, if you check on a GPS ship tracker you can see there are in fact a number of vessels very close to us, but none that we can see and the fog makes us feel totally alone in our own little world.

We have no idea when we will be moving again, or if we will be in Hamburg long enough to disembark. We also have no idea of the specific arrival date in any port, so I am learning to let go and not plan. If we do manage to get off tomorrow in Hamburg we need to buy tracing paper, and a compass for Geometry. I also plan to buy a mug, as while I brought a travel kettle and my trusty Yorkshire tea, drinking it out of the tiny coffee cups from the galley or from the plastic ‘cups’ that came with the kettle just doesn’t do it justice.

Having prepared ourselves for a complete internet black out, actually we have had a signal at times from the Dutch and now German coasts, even when so far out we couldn’t see land. As of tomorrow, though I don’t have my mobile package anymore, so it will be a complete blackout apart from at ports if they have wifi.

I know I have gone on a bit in this post and it may be a bit disjointed as its been written in between french poetry and maths exercises during morning lessons, as and when the signal came our way.

Some of you think we are mad and have no interest in what we are doing whatsoever, but I know others have wanted details so here you go!

By Lauren: Our Cargo Ship

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Hi this is Lauren.

We are on a container ship for a month so we won’t be able to post or talk much because we won’t normally have internet so no messages, no calls, no emails except when we are in port and even that isn’t guaranteed. (C: we are currently sailing up the river to Hamburg and hopping on a German mobile network).

So this is the list of what I am going to talk about: canteen, lounge, cabin, gym.

So let’s talk about the canteen first. (C: what a surprise!). The canteen is good. So far I like the food. This is the menu today:

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Four course lunch and dinner served to you!!!! It’s a nice canteen (C: mess!). Here’s what time lunch is….11am for passengers, we have 45 minutes because the officers eat at noon. The kitchen (galley) is right next to the canteen and the head cook sings and whistles the whole time.

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Right, let’s go on to the passenger lounge. Its just as big as the crew’s lounge but it has 2 sofas, 2 comfy chairs, 9 chairs, 3 tables, one table football, lots of films, 1 huge TV, a Christmas tree and three windows.

I do my schoolwork in the lounge.

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So now lets go to the cabin. The cabin is bigger than we expected. Yes, it is small but you can live in it for a month. It has bunk beds and lots of storage space and an en suite bathroom. We have put up lots of Christmas decorations and even a really tiny Christmas tree.

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Now lets go to the gym. The gym is small but good to get some exercise. There is a treadmill, 2 bikes, some weights and table tennis.

The 6 other passengers are nice. There are three Nicoles (2 French and one German) and three men. There are two French couples who I speak French with and a German couple who speak good English and I’m going to play ping pong with them.

I am feeling really good, the sea is not as rough as it was on the way to the Faroe Islands, it’s a really nice ship, and I’ve made a few friends.

THIS CONTAINER SHIP IS GOOOOOOOOOD AND A VERY BIG MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL.

 

How to Organize Travel on a Cargo Ship

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The Grande Amburgo (or Great Hamburger) that will take us to South America.

A number of people have asked me how I went about organizing our trip (scheduled to depart from London next Monday) from London to Montevideo aboard the Grimaldi Lines ship the Grande Amburgo (or Great Hamburger as we have christened it).

First off, its not as simple as ringing your local travel agent and booking a place.

Secondly, its not a cheap way of getting from A to B. Its far cheaper to fly.

Thirdly, most cargo ships don’t take passengers, so you have to be willing to go where those that do happen to be sailing.

Finally, it has been made abundantly clear that the cargo is the priority and not passengers – if the cargo dictates leaving early or late, missing a port, adding a port or arriving in port at midnight and leaving at 6am, then that is what they do. You fit in around that.

So, it’s fair to say it’s not for everyone, and certainly wouldn’t fit neatly into a 2-week holiday.

Ports, boats, the sea all fascinate me, it feels like a different world that most of us know little about, and I am incredibly excited to do this.  Given the unpredictability of sailing, this is probably one of the few times we have the flexibility to do it.

One night while in the ‘dreaming’ stage of this trip I was idly googling various things I’d rather be doing than being stuck in Maputo beating my head against a brick wall.

It was a long list, to be fair.

I had read about repositioning cruises (when cruise ships move from one part of the world to another at the end of a season and offer heavily discounted one-way fares) but cruise ships with all the attendant entertainment and excessive food (I have no self-control, if it were there I’d eat it) and other people didn’t appeal. I then wondered if it was ever possible to go on a working vessel, and google had the answers, in the form of some blogs from people who had done it. These wetted my appetite and were all about how amazing this form of travel is, but had remarkably little in the way of actual practical detail.

I realized that I wouldn’t be able to organize this online, and would have to go old school and actually contact people directly.

I tried a number of agents who were, frankly, rubbish, taking ages to respond and then providing incorrect information. In one instance, we got all the way through the process and it was only when I sent payment that they turned round and said that the information on their website was wrong and in fact the shipping company we’d booked with didn’t accept children, even though that had been my very first concern and they had confirmed children over 7 were accepted.

By this point I had filled in a number of forms, provided copies of passports and vaccination cards, and had endless to and fro about the route and dates. It was an awesome route, including passage through the Panama canal, and when this fell through I almost gave up.

However, as I keep telling Lauren that perseverance is an important quality and one she should work on, I decided to give it one more go, and I contacted one more agent, this time in London. They turned out to be pretty good, and actually provided correct information, responded to emails, and reminded me when I needed to send payment or documents. I have been pleased with them and am happy to recommend them – they are called The Cruise People and have a website here http://www.cruisepeople.co.uk/ – mainly directed at cruises, but also some interesting seagoing options as well as cargo ships (click on the freighter travel tab). I don’t have any kind of agreement with them or anything, I just think it might be helpful for others interested in this option. There’s not much info on their website, so best off is to email them.

To make a booking I needed to provide documentation such as copies of passports, copies of vaccinations cards (yellow fever was obligatory in our case as we would stop in South America), copies of insurance cover (showing we were covered for health and evacuation in all possible countries along the route), and sign a contract which effectively stated I understood that things could change (ports, dates, etc) and the Captain is the boss.

The price includes an inside cabin with an ensuite shower/toilet, bunk beds and a small desk (you can pay more for an outside cabin with a window,  which would have been an extra 1000 euros for us, or even if you are feeling flush, a suite). We went for the cheapest option, and it cost, 2,070 euros for me and 1,035 for Lauren. As far as I could tell, Grimaldi were one of the very few who actually take children and the only one who gives a discount. While this is a lot, it’s around 32 days at sea, and so the cost covers transport from London to Montevideo, three meals a day and accommodation. It would still be far cheaper to fly and pay for accommodation and food there for a month, but this is about the experience, not efficiency or cost-effectiveness. Its just something I want to do so we are doing it. Isn’t that what travel should be about?!

You do have to be flexible – our original sailing date was the 12th December, and now it’s the 18th. We have been told to ‘stay in touch with the port agent’ to find out details like confirmed date and time for sailing, when we have to be on board etc. He has responded quickly to emails, which is reassuring. It all feels very casual, all I have is an electronic copy of a ticket.

Today we are going shopping for ‘supplies’ as once we are on board that’s if for a good while. We have stocked up our kindles and backed them up onto other devices, as the thought of all that time without books is enough to make me wake in the middle of the night unable to breath. We have jigsaws, activity books and films downloaded onto my laptop. Lauren also has her next module for her schooling to do.

We will have both Christmas and Lauren’s 9th birthday on board, so I have secreted a bag of tiny presents somewhere she can’t find it and we will decorate the cabin with Christmas stuff and take some presents for the crew.

Oh, and there is no wifi or cell phone signal on board, apart from a satellite connection used by the captain for emergencies. So this blog will be updated only sporadically when we find wifi in port. While the thought of a total digital detox is quite attractive, it does raise all sorts of issues such as how to enroll Lauren in school for next year (has to be done online in mid-January) or how to book accommodation for when we arrive in Montevideo ……

We have been told that shore leave is ‘at the discretion of the captain’ and that if we don’t make it back on time the ship will leave without us. Stops that have been confirmed are Hamburg, Dakar, and various on the Brazilian coast including Rio and Santos. Others may come up.

In the end though, this is not about the places we stop at, but the time at sea, and I will update this blog to let people know how we get on.