A Battle in Barcelona

Barcelona Container Port

It was never how I imagined my European holiday would end – in a police car, driven at high speed, through the Barcelona Container Port.

But that’s how it ended – sitting in the passenger seat, next to a Spanish National Police Officer.

The drive from the terminal security gate to the pier took two minutes – no longer. Then, a grateful handshake with the Officer. I say, “Gracias”. Smiles and the customary farewells.

From the car trunk tumbled my bags. Two went over my shoulders; the third one clutched in hand. Thus burdened, I climbed the gangway from the pier.

Gangway to a freighter ship
Gangway to the Vera D

And it was done.

In the blink of an eye, Europe was behind me. I was on board.

After days of waiting, anxious delays and aborted efforts I was finally on my way. To Halifax! A passenger on the cargo freighter, the “Vera D”.

Only later did I fully appreciate that I was in fact, a ship‘s crew member. And thereby hangs a tale…..

Barcelona from the bridge of the Vera D
Barcelona Harbour from the bridge of the Vera D
Barcelona Harbour from the bridge of the Vera D

Last February, Bob’s Excellent Adventure was still in the planning stages. I wondered, “How I could minimize the climate impacts of my trip?” Flying generates tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. “What were my options if I wanted to return home from Europe solely by surface transportation?”

My friend, Barry Truter, had once taken a freighter from Vancouver to Vietnam. So, I called him. Barry put me in touch with his travel agency, “Slow Travel Experience”   https://www.langsamreisen.de/en/ . Based in Germany, they specialize in connecting passengers with freighters. Through them, I learned the Vera D would be travelling from Europe to Halifax about the time I wanted to come home.

I signed all the required forms:

  • acknowledging my needs as a passenger would be subservient at all times to cargo requirements;
  • my physician declaring I had no health problems requiring medical attention while in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean;
  • confirming I carried adequate travel insurance coverage in case of a medical emergency.

I paid the fare and reserved my spot. I would join the ship at Genoa in late June. With stops in Barcelona, Valencia and Lisbon, it would reach Halifax two weeks later in mid July.

I left Calgary on May 4th. No sooner had my flight arrived in Toronto, than I received the first of four notifications of an itinerary change. The freighter’s departure from Genoa would be delayed to early July.

“Ah, wonderful!”, I thought. Already this adventure was improving. More time in Europe. “What could be better than that?”

This process would repeat another three times. With each delay in the ship’s itinerary, I gained extra days to explore Europe. I could not have been more pleased.

The last itinerary change had a difference, though. The Genoa stop was cancelled. The ship would instead be leaving from Barcelona. To catch it, I would have to travel from the Czech Republic to Spain, not to Italy.

Even then, I welcomed the change. 30 Million tourists a year can’t be wrong. I was happy to find out for myself why Barcelona has such star power. http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/wv3/en/

Slow Travel Experience advised me to be in Barcelona a few days before the departure date of July 18. I would need to check in with the port agent as well as be available to board in case the ship departed earlier than scheduled.

The Shift

As directed, I arrived at the offices of the port agent to get my instructions. However, the interview had rude and unwelcome surprises. The manager of the port agency came out to speak with me. Instead of giving me the expected help, he objected to my travelling on the Vera D.

So far as he was aware, the charter company had not authorized the carrying of passengers. They only carried cargo. In fact, he had never before had a passenger on their freighter.

“Who sold you your ticket?”

“The ship’s owner”, I told him.

He replied that his company only represented the Cuban company that had chartered the ship, not the owner. If the owner wanted me to travel as a passenger, then the owner needed to have a separate agreement with his company to represent me as port agent.

“Anyway”, he continued, “the port where the Vera D will be arriving has no customs clearance. Only the ships’ crews are allowed there.” He did not know how I might get Immigration and Customs clearance to leave the country.

I have since thought often about that encounter. The ship could carry a maximum of only two passengers. Why would he be troubled about the tiny extra passenger revenue the owner could generate?

Perhaps he was threatened by discovering he was out of the loop;  or by uncertainty as to how to manage the anomalous passenger standing in front of him. Maybe there were already other problems between the owner and the charterer.

In any event, whatever the reasons, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help me.

Somewhat alarmed and dismayed, I described this turn of events to my travel agent. Clearly, we needed a Plan B*!

Plan B* – an Ingenious Solution Emerges

Ah yes, Plan B*! But Plan B* can sometimes have false starts. And this one certainly did.

I was first asked to call a company in Gibraltar. They would help me. I called. “No, sorry.” They had no jurisdiction to act in Barcelona. That was a dead end.

The next initiative seemed more promising. I was invited to the offices of Hamburg Sud, a large German cargo shipping line. One of their senior managers assured me they would arrange for their port agent to represent me.

I was at least heartened by his observation that after 45 years in the industry he had never seen such an impasse. To him, it was “crazy” that the charter company should object to a passenger joining a cargo ship. Amen to that.

Ships at anchor in the ocean
Ships at anchor outside Barcelona harbour

By now, the Vera D was in Barcelona at anchor outside the harbour waiting for a berth. It was anticipated it would dock on Saturday, July 22.

It wasn’t exactly panic, but on Saturday morning, the new port agent did not contact me and was not answering my phone calls to him.

As the morning wore on, I began to make urgent calls and emails to Slow Travel Experience. Miraculously, they were available throughout the day. They urged me to go to the terminal and present my ticket. I should do everything in my power to attempt to board while the ship was moored and loading cargo.

I called a taxi. With luggage loaded, we roared off to the container port terminal.

At the security control point, I showed my passport and ticket. “Where is your port agent?”, the security guard asked. “I don’t have one,” I replied.

“It is not possible to get to the docks without a port agent,” he said, handing me back my documents.

My stomach dropped. My heart sank. Fortunately, at least the taxi driver had not abandoned me. With the meter still ticking, he returned me to my accommodations in the city. (Another miracle. They had one room left.)

More emails to Slow Travel Experience. I began to search the internet for flight options to Canada from Europe.

Slow Travel Experience tried to reassure me. “The ship’s owner is working to get you on board.”

Finally! At 16:08, Saturday afternoon, Plan B* finally kicked in. Third time a charm.

I received an email from an entirely new source, “Barcelona Transcoma Shipping”. The email had directions, times and instructions. A few minutes later, I received a phone call confirming the details.

I would be picked up at 8:00 the next morning – Sunday. They would take me to the terminal security gate. They would not leave me until I was on board the ship.

Events unfolded more or less as promised. The much delayed Vera D had finally been allocated a dock. My young driver eventually appeared and took me to the terminal I had visited only the day before. However, after waiting with me at the security gate for nearly two hours, he was called away. “To the Immigration Office”, he said.

Something worked. Not long after he left, the Spanish National Police arrived to stamp my passport. Relief! Elation!

And then, fifteen minutes after that, my escort arrived – not my port agent, but again, the Spanish National Police.

It was only once on board and my journey commenced, did I come to understand the ingenious solution adopted by the ship’s owner. The charter company port agent continued to refuse me boarding the Vera D as a passenger. Instead, the owner simply added me to the ship’s crew list. This allowed the ship’s owner to use the port agent that represented their crew.

It also had another elegant advantage. The charter company port agent had the power to frustrate or prevent me from becoming a passenger. But he was powerless in preventing me from travelling as one of the owner’s crew.

Ah, Plan B*! It can be credited with “Besting a Barcelona Bully”!


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