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Cargo cruising

I'VE sailed on both cruise ships and freighters, and for sheer adventure I'll take the freighter every time. With few exceptions, cruise ships visit the popular tourist ports where shopping is great and the natives are on their best behavior. Freighters seek out every port in the world where there is cargo to be moved and provide their passengers unparalleled opportunities to savor out-of-the-way cities and nations. They also visit their share of the well-known destinations.

Since cargo ships carry few passengers and provide no entertainment, my attention while at sea is often directed toward the ocean itself. One of my favorites is the Persian Gulf, its shallow water and sandy bottom combining to give it a pale, jade-green hue. The unruffled surface is broken occasionally by schools of porpoises leaping high out of the water as they easily keep pace with the ship. Now and then we push through a mass of transparent jellyfish commingling with hundreds of writhing yellow sea snakes. A perpetual high haze combined with blowing sand from Arabia's immense deserts obscures the land until our ship is only a couple of miles offshore.

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At night on a darkened deck, the passenger can see more of what is going on outside than on a cruise ship, where the view beyond the railing is cut off by the ship's own lighting.

American and foreign-flag shipping lines offer a wide choice of voyages, with visits to almost every port in the world. These may last from a month to half a year. Fares range from $50 to $100 a day. Although cargo ships come in many forms, only containerships and break-bulk freighters (that carry loose cargo in their holds) transport passengers. None accommodate more than 12, since a greater number requires that a physician be on board.

The time a traveler wishes to spend ashore dictates his choice of vessel type. Modern containerships can be in and out of well-equipped ports in 12 hours, while the older break-bulk vessels may require up to 10 days. My trips have been on containerships of the American President Lines, and their passenger facilities are fairly typical of those offered by the better lines.

The passenger deck is two levels below the bridge and provides a good view of the sea. All cabins are outside and have large picture windows.

Furnishings include a fully equipped laundry room, well-stocked library, a spacious lounge, a card room, and self-service bar. A refrigerator is kept stocked with ice, mixes, fruit juice, and the makings for between-meal snacks. All this, an outdoor sun deck, and the dining room are the passengers' world at sea. Access to the rest of the ship is prohibited except during escorted tours.

Passengers and ship's officers share their meals in the dining room. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are the only scheduled activities aboard, and passengers must be on time. There is no room service.

The food is plain but plentiful, and several choices are offered at each meal. On ships with American crews, steak and prime rib are served often, with poultry, lamb, and fish also available. Salads and fresh fruit are offered daily, and the supply of ice cream seems endless. A note of caution: If you are considering sailing on a foreign ship, remember that the food reflects the tastes of the crew. If you don't like Greek food, don't take a Greek ship.

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On my voyages, the captain and those of his officers not on duty often joined us for a social hour before dinner and in the lounge during the evening.

At sea, passengers lead sedentary lives and must generate their own diversions: jigsaw puzzles, reading, bridge, darts, or shuffleboard.

It's not hard to understand why everyone goes ashore when the ship's in port. At some stops, American President Lines has developed informal relationships with local tour agencies, whose representatives come aboard and offer guided tours. Most of the time, however, passengers must make their own way: Resourcefulness is a valued attribute. The unexpected adventure may lie around the next corner, and language problems can compound the challenges.

Unaccountably, I had more little adventures in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and only port, than I have had anywhere else. There are no tourists there, and the people have little use for Westerners. On one occasion my wife and I had photographed a group of little girls playing on a fountain in the city's public park. Within minutes of the click of our shutters, we were nose to nose with an angry mob of teen-agers and young men, who came running from every direction.

I have no doubt that without even knowing what we had done wrong, we were close to being beaten up. Fortunately, a few older men came to our rescue, holding the mob in check while we took off as fast as our shredded dignity allowed.

A Karachi businessman who took us to dinner that evening explained what had set the mob off: We non-Muslim Westerners had witnessed and recorded on film a shameful breach of Muslim law, since females of all ages must be accompanied by male relatives whenever they appear in public. The little girls we photographed had broken the law and been in the park on their own.

Such confrontations are less likely when you're in the hands of a local guide, and this was the case on my last visit to the Persian Gulf. American President Lines used its local connections in the United Arab Emirates to arrange an escorted tour in Dubai. The Dutch wife of an English engineer working in Dubai was our guide. Her comments were witty, penetrating, sometimes bitter, and never inhibited. She also knew the territory.

On my visit, when too much heat and humidity made going into town too much of a chore, I'd stay on the docks watching cargo moving on and off ships from a dozen countries: everything from 35-ton containers to bags of rice or fertilizer.

One time in Bombay, an old passenger liner was boarding Muslims for their hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. The loading went on all day, and when the ship sailed in the evening, every foot of her decks was packed with pilgrims on their way to the Red Sea.

Freighter travel is not for everyone. Many would miss the formal entertainment, organized activities, and elegantly prepared (and overabundant) gourmet food. Cargo priorities often require changes in destination and sailing dates, so passengers must keep their travel plans flexible.

But for those who are resourceful and enjoy the unexpected, seeing the world by cargo ship can be a rewarding experience. If you go ...

Passports and international health certificates are required, as are visas when appropriate. Freighters do not carry doctors, so shipping lines require physician-signed medical certificates for those over 65.

Dress is casual, and since no dry cleaning or laundry is provided, take only what you are prepared to wash and iron yourself. As stairs are very steep and decks slippery when wet, women are advised to wear flat or deck-soled shoes.

When booking space on a containership, remember that the view from forward-facing cabins may be blocked by deck cargo. Side-facing cabins are apt to be better choices.

Space on popular voyages must often be booked 12 to 18 months ahead.

The two American lines currently carrying passengers are American President Lines and Lykes Lines. For information write to Passenger Department, American President Lines, 1800 Harrison St., Oakland, CA 94612or Passenger Department, Lykes Lines, 300 Poydras St., New Orleans, LA 70130.

Foreign lines also carry passengers, and shippers offer interesting trips, many at reasonable rates. Some have swimming pools and gymnasiums.

If your own travel agent does not handle freighter travel, a good source of information is Freighter World Cruises Inc., 180 S. Lake Ave., Suite 335, Pasadena, CA 91101. This organization also publishes a biweekly newsletter and acts as booking agent for many lines.

Bookstores carry freighter guidebooks, such as Ford's Freighter Travel Guide.

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