The West

Incidental cargo on the Black Sea
Black Sea adventure: Boarding the ship. Supplied picture

Ilyichevsk is not a glamorous place. Twenty kilometres south of Odessa, on the coast of the Black Sea, it is a complex of cranes and concrete wharves, shipping containers and semi-trailers.

A line of the latter, a kilometre long, waits to proceed into the hold of a ferry as our taxi pulls off the main road towards it.

An overlarge truckie has stripped down to his underwear and is rubbing his stomach and puffing quietly on a cigarette as we slowly trace the length of the convoy on our way to the dock. The truckie hawks up a throatful of phlegm and spits it into the nearest pothole.

Ilyichevsk's charm is that it has none.

We are here to board the MF Sea Partner, a 185m roll-on/roll-off (or "ro-ro") ferry with a 130-truck capacity which, over the course of two nights, will take us down the western coast of the Black Sea to the Port of Haydarpasa in Istanbul.

Built in 1978, the ferry is one of the few remaining no-frills vessels still running passengers between Ukraine and Turkey, and is the easiest to organise a passage on.

The lack of frills is part of the appeal. If you're the sort of person for whom the idea of incessantly smiling hostesses and over-zealous activities managers is off-putting, or who believes that your means of transportation should not be a destination in and of itself, then this may just be the ride for you.

Indeed, passengers are ultimately beside the point here, incidental to the voyage's raison d'etre. We are merely hitchhikers, chipping in some gas money - the trucks and their drivers are the real cargo.
It takes six hours to load them into the hold and we board the ferry before the process begins. There are 12 of us, being led across the dock by the obligatory armed soldier, the blue-and-white hull towering above our heads as we enter up the traffic ramp.

There are two Ukrainian backpackers heading off to see the world; two Turkish families, one with a five-year-old boy, the other with a three-year-old girl and a baby on the way; a hefty old Ukrainian babushka who will spend the duration of the trip in her cabin, coughing up a lung. And us - two Australians and an American - English- speaking novelties for everyone from the bulbous border guard to the truckies who outnumber the passengers 10 to one.

There is no clean-cut fellow behind the reception desk, but an unshaven weightlifter in an ill-fitting wife-beater, and after struggling for a moment, he seems pleased he can still speak our language.

Our four-berth cabin is a basic but comfortable affair, not unlike a sleeper carriage on a train, only with an aeroplane bathroom attached. If it has a drawback, it's that it's very warm and has no air-conditioning, and we spend most of our time on the sun deck or in the bar.

The bar is manned by the bloke in the wife-beater, who accepts US dollars, British pounds, Turkish lira, Ukrainian grivna and euros, not so much working out the exchange rate in his head as making the prices up as he goes along.

The bar is officially open for three two-hour blocks each day, though one suspects that the last of these blocks runs as long as the truckies are willing to drink.

The truckies are an eclectic lot: young and bearded, old and balding, overweight and chain-smoking and with a penchant for short shorts and wearing camouflage-print parkas inside.

The lot of us pile into the restaurant at seven for a mass-produced but hearty meal of chicken curry. Halfway through dinner, Ilyichevsk starts scrolling horizontally past the portholes.

The Sea Partner may be one of the only ferries still running between Ukraine and Turkey but there are still plenty of rides like this one elsewhere in the world.

In Mexico, Baja Ferries' crossing of the Gulf of California from the narco-state of Sinaloa to the southern tip of the Baja peninsula and back again to the port of Topolobampo is a unique experience.

One of the Royal Navy's two remaining ocean-going mail ships, the RMS St Helena, still toggles between Cape Town and Ascension Island.

Pathfinder Marine Travel lists a number of cargo ships still carrying passengers on its website - some, like one from the UK to New Zealand, for up to 84 days at a time - for those who wish to push the experience to its limit.

A trip on the Sea Partner isn't nearly so extreme, of course, but rather serves as a useful introduction to such an unfamiliar mode of travel.

Everyone takes to the sun deck as a boat arrives to pick up our pilot, who jumps across into the arms of his comrades as the sun disappears over a mountain of pink silt and the lights of the cargo ships waiting to dock start appearing out on the darkening water.

The truckies blow reams of cigarette smoke in our wake until it is too cold to do so any longer.

They retire to the bar to play cards and tell stories, buying full bottles of cognac and vodka and watching The Expendables in Russian as they happily drink themselves into a stupor. Why not? They don't have to drive tomorrow.

The next morning, those who still have vodka left are adding it to their orange juice when we arrive for breakfast. The night passed without incident - the room was too warm but the slight rolling of the boat got us to sleep, and when we emerge onto the sun deck to find that the land has disappeared we do so feeling well rested.

I spend my entire morning up here, reading and getting sunburnt, taking note of the shadows' movements across the deck.

For the most part, I have the space to myself, though at one point one of the ship's crew members appears, removes his orange coveralls to the waist, and proceeds to expertly sun himself.

A cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth as I watch him. His moustache bristles as a fly gets at it, but in the interest of the evenness of his tan he doesn't move to swat it away.

I will later have a red gut and a tan-line the shape of my aviators around my eyes. It occurs to me that I should have taken notes.

My travelling companions spend their day reading, doing Turkish lessons, and writing letters to family and friends. The truckies take to smoking cigarettes as they lean out over the stern.

The babushka in the room next door coughs ruminatively as well as rheumatically. This is one of the unforeseen elements of the trip: the time that each of us must spend in his or her own head.

The hyper-activity of a pleasure cruise is designed to preclude not only boredom but also the introspection the melancholy and the despair that boredom can give rise to in a setting such as this.

As David Foster Wallace wrote in his much-celebrated 1996 essay, Shipping Out: "The (pleasure cruise's) constant activities, festivities, gaiety, song; the adrenaline, the stimulation. It makes you feel vibrant, alive."

Ironically, it does so by distracting you from the very sea on which it is taking place, which Hazlitt described as "a wild beast in its den" and Conrad as "the accomplice of human restlessness".

These ocean liners deny the ocean and, to the extent that the ocean forces us to reflect on it, our own mortality.

The Sea Partner, as its name suggests, offers no such distractions, no such excuses, inviting us to cross the waters only on their own terms. In other words, it humbles us.

I find myself alone on the sun deck at about midnight, listening to the engines and watching the stars, wondering where the sparrow has come from that is perched asleep on one of the benches.

We awake to find Sultanahmed out our window. It is six o'clock and a slight haze enshrouds the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Topkapi Palace, like an ageing watercolour, sits fading atop one of the city's seven hills.

The trucks inch their way off the ferry one by one, in diesel-scented single file.

The man in the wife-beater gives us our passports in exchange for our room key and we cram ourselves into the too-small elevator that takes us back down to the vehicle deck.

A taxi is waiting to take us to the customs office on the other side of the Bosphorous - "the infinite source of goodness and goodwill," Orhan Pamuk writes, "that sustains the city and all those who dwell in it" - but the backpackers, the families and the babushka are already in it, and there isn't any room for three more.

The driver says he'll come back for us and leaves us on our own in the empty hold.

When he returns, however, he's on foot, and that's how we end up leaving the boat - the same way we boarded it, with a concrete wharf underneath our feet and a slight ocean breeze in our hair.

A rickety fishing boat passes by to the right, coming in from the Sea of Marmara, the flag of the republic flapping on its bow and its shirtless captain singing a song.

One of the ship's crew appears, removes his orange coveralls to the waist, and proceeds to expertly sun himself.

The West Australian

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