Adventure on the High Seas Aboard
How to Travel by Cargo Ship Around
|Sunset view from a cargo ship.
Imagine for a moment that you are on
the deck of a ship, sipping a glass of wine. You turn your
head towards the water just in time to spot a pod of dolphins
swimming by. After lingering in the sunshine for a while,
it's time to head inside for a 3-course evening meal and
a splash in the pool before retiring to bed.
Now, what kind of vessel are you on?
No, you are not on a standard commercial
cruise ship. This is no luxury liner hopping between Caribbean
islands. It is a modern freighter. Hundreds of cargo ships,
carrying everything from fire engines to apples, are crossing
the world's oceans and many are happy to take you along
for the ride.
A far more intimate and relaxed experience
than you might imagine, the experience on board is a sharp
contrast to the rough and industrial outward appearance
a container ship tends to project. You will be one of a
handful of passengers amongst a crew that is unlikely to
number more than a few dozen. There will be no organized
games of bingo or evening cabaret show. You might, however,
be invited to karaoke with the sailors and you will almost
always dine alongside the captain, who is far more likely
to turn up in shorts and a t-shirt than full uniform.
Our introduction to freighter travel
was a relatively short 5-day sailing between Australia and
New Zealand. We joined the French ship CMA-CGM Utrillo in
the busy port of Melbourne, where our mounds of luggage
including two bicycles and 11 bags were quickly hauled on
board and into a spacious cabin by a host of cheery Filipino
The Costs of Cargo Ship Travel
Here was our first taste of the wonders
of sea travel — plenty of luggage allowance. Not an
eye was blinked at our 100kg (220lbs) of possessions. We
were entitled to bring double that. In this case, we felt
the €500 (~US$550) per person cost for our trip was
worth it as the excess luggage fees on the equivalent short
flight would have been considerable, not to mention the
stress of showing up at the airport to a bill of unknown
proportions. About €100 (~US$110) per day is the average
fare to budget for a freighter trip, with €80 (~US$90)
the minimum and certain coastal trips on the higher range.
Hospitality on Board
Our next surprise was how quickly we
felt part of the family. Just moments after arriving, our
fellow passenger (a French woman literally going “around
the world in 80 days”) hinted that the captain was
certain to throw us a welcome barbecue. “He does that
for everyone new,” she said with a wink. Sure enough,
the next evening was spent on the back deck of the ship,
feasting on grilled fish and chatting with the seamen as
the sun went down.
|Eating barbecue with the crew
of the freighter ship.
One of our concerns before sailing
was that we'd find the days long. It was just the opposite.
There were three square meals a day (hearty plates of meat
and vegetables for working men) and the time between eating
was filled with strolls round the deck and trips up to the
bridge to check our position and ask questions.
Had there ever been stowaways? Yes,
once, a man from Iraq. What about pirates? Not here but
there were off the coast of Africa. And just how much fuel
did a cargo ship need? Apparently $60,000 U.S. a day will
cover it, in the current era of relatively low oil prices.
A Relaxing Way to Travel
With our curiosity temporarily curbed,
we would return to our cabin for reading, journal writing,
and maybe a bit of table tennis if we felt especially energetic.
Far away from the hustle and bustle of life on firm land,
we were truly relaxed. It was a complete contrast to the
hurried airplane trips we were used to.
For Hamish Jamieson, the owner of Freighter
Travel NZ and one of only a handful of travel
agents in the world licensed to book tickets on cargo
ships, the simplicity of being at sea is the main attraction.
“When you're sitting up the front
of the bow of the ship, on your own, and all you see is
the sea going past and you hear the wind and waves, you're
in heaven. For me, an afternoon with a thermos of Chardonnay,
sitting right on the bow, watching the world go by with
my binoculars, that's my heaven,” he said.
Flexibility Required When Traveling
by Cargo Ships
Of course nothing in life is all smooth
sailing and while we didn't encounter any problems during
our trip, we did struggle with the uncertain nature of freighter
travel before we boarded. Our initial departure date jumped
forward first by three days and then seemed to bounce around
by 12-24 hours every time we called to check the latest
news. It is not an uncommon experience and one you must
be prepared for.
Even ports of call are not guaranteed
because on a cargo ship, freight comes first, not the passengers.
If the demand is not there for a certain stop, the ship
will go where the business is.
“Our trip from the USA to Europe
changed three times after initial booking,” say Rebecca
Hogue and Scott Drennan, currently on a journey around
the world without using airplanes. Their initial trip
from South Carolina to Belgium ended up being from Florida
to Italy. “Had we not been flexible with our departure
times and locations, things would not have worked out.”
As Mr. Jamieson is fond of telling
his passengers, when you go to sea, there are two things
you must pack: a sense of humor and a sense of patience.
Your trip may also involve some red
tape, particularly where U.S. stops are concerned. American
citizens are not permitted, for example, to travel within
their country by cargo ship, although they can make international
journeys. Meanwhile, travelers to the United States must
have a visa, even if they would not need one to arrive by
air. Only Canadians are exempt from this rule.
Be sure to budget time and money to
get vaccinations like Yellow Fever if you are going through
the Suez and Panama canals. A medical certificate declaring
you to be in generally good health is another common requirement.
Where in the World Do You Want to
But perhaps the hardest part of booking
your cargo ship voyage is deciding where to go. Will it
be to South America and around Cape Horn? How about a 55-day
round trip from California to Australia and New Zealand
via Tahiti and Mexico? Mr. Jamieson offers a few more ideas.
“For me the ultimate voyage is
the Bank Line voyage from Auckland, in New Zealand, to Singapore.
It takes 40-45 days to sail what you can fly in just under
12 hours but it visits nearly every island in the Pacific
on the way and it stops for 2-3 days. The second choice
for me would be from Singapore through to Houston in Texas.
It goes up through Thailand, Vietnam, half a dozen ports
in China, into Japan, then straight across the Pacific and
through the Panama Canal.”
With enough time and money at your
disposal, there are few places in the world a cargo ship
can't reach. You just need to be adventurous enough to get
|Cargo ship cruising towards New
The Golden Rules of Cargo Ship
- Be prepared to make your
own fun. There are no programmed activities,
aside from the odd safety drill.
- Go before you're too old. An
upper age limit of 70-80 years is common as there is
no doctor on board and plenty of stairs.
- Check that your travel insurance
covers freighter travel.
- Be flexible. Schedules
can and do change frequently. You may need 2-3 ships
to reach your destination.
- Book in advance. Cabins
are limited and the most popular routes can be sold out
months ahead of time.
- Forget about working in
exchange for your passage. Modern union rules
mean this is no longer permitted.
- Take a good supply of seasickness
pills. While not very common, rough weather
can occur, sending tables, chairs, and your stomach
flying across the room.