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Take Cargo Ships to Remote Pacific Islands

Exotic Freighter Travel Destinations

Sailing via cargo ship in the Pacific. Sailing via cargo ship in the Pacific.

There are freighters, and there are freighters. But the fleet of ships that sail among the island groups in the South Pacific and Micronesia—copra boats, island traders, government field service ships, mission boats, and inter-island ferries—are rarely mentioned and are largely unknown to travel agents. They lie ready and willing to transport passengers into the “back of beyond.” So if in your round-the-world travels you want to go where tourists never tread, try hitching a ride on a local cargo ship. It’s easier than you might think. Let’s start in the South Pacific.

French Polynesia

The inter-island ship docks are a little beyond Papeete (on Tahiti), where the land hooks out to form the harbor. Taxi out there and have a look at whatever ships are in port. Stroll aboard any vessel that looks interesting and ask where they’re going, for how long, the fare, and if you can see one of their cabins. (It helps if you speak a little French, but you can always make yourself understood.) If a certain ship appeals to you, go to their shipping office. This is what you’ll find:

To the Society Islands (the islands to the west of Tahiti—Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora, and Maupiti): The ships of the Compagnie Francais Maritime de Tahiti make 4- to 6-day voyages to most of the islands. Most ships do not supply food, so come aboard with a relaxed attitude and plenty of rations (which are easily obtained in Papeete).

Soloman islands inter-island ship A small inter-island ship in the Soloman Islands. Photo by Thomas H. Booth.

To the Tuamotus

The 69 islands of this group of jewel-like atolls lie to the east of Tahiti and cover an immense patch of the ocean. To get there, check with the Compagnie Francais Maritime de Tahiti. Their ships provide cabin class or deck passage and plenty of local color but no food. A week’s voyage will run about $180. Also, be sure to check around the docks in Papeete for a copra boat and experience the warts and all of the romance of South Sea cruising. Some ships provide a cabin and meals for voyages of 10 or so days for about $250.

To the Marquesas

Cargo ship Aranai in the Marquesas The cargo ship Aranai in the Marquesas. Photo by Thomas H. Booth.

These rugged, green, mysteriously beautiful and remote islands 750 miles east of Tahiti bear such magical names as Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Fatu Hiva. To get to them—and to the Tuamotus as well—you’ve got two choices: By far the most comfortable one is a cargo ship named Aranui, operated by the Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime. Travel agents in the U.S. know about her. She carries 60-100 passengers in both cabin and dormitory class.

The other option is aboard a ship a bit more authentically Polynesian. The Taporo V of the Compagnie Francais Maritime de Tahiti is a trading vessel that makes a 15-day voyage to the Tuamotus and the Marquesas. Fares, including cabin and meals, come to $750. Look at the ship in Papeete.

The Cook Islands

Rarotonga, with its forested mountains, verdant coastal plain, and fringing reef, is the principal island of the group. The beauty of the island when first seen will cause a gasp. Sea travel in the Cooks is only for the hardiest and most flexible voyagers, but the benefits make the voyage more than worthwhile.

To the Northern Group (Penryhn, Manihiki, Puka Puka, and Palmerston): The Tapi Taio Shipping Company in Avarua, Rarotonga has a ship named the Tai Moana, a small, spartan vessel that makes the 800-mile run to all the islands. Because only one of them, Penhryn, has a safe lagoon and wharf, the ship must stay at sea and use whaleboats to unload cargo and passengers.

To the Southern Group (Aitutaki, Atiu, Mitiaro, and Mauke): A somewhat larger ship, the Maungeroa of the Tapi Taio Company, visits the closer islands—150 or so miles from Rarotonga.

Western Samoa

A delightful destination even if you don’t go to sea. For one elusive but wonderful opportunity write well ahead of time to the Office for Tokelau Affairs, Apia, Western Samoa and ask about the sailing dates of their chartered ship. It carries 12 cabin and 68 deck passengers on a voyage of eight to nine days and stops at each of the three atolls—Fakaofa, Nukumonu, and Atafu. None have ports, so the ship must stand off while whale boats negotiate the openings in the reef to pick up the only export, copra. Good luck to you. I’ve come close but never been successful. I keep trying.

The Kingdom of Tonga

Polynesia’s oldest monarchy consists of three main island groups—Tongatapu, the capital, Ha’apai, and Vavau.

To Ha’apai: This archipelago scattered over a large stretch of the sea about 100 miles north of Tongatapu consists of dozens of low-lying atolls. Lifuka is the administrative center. To get there by sea, check with the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia in Tongatapu and ask about the Olovaha. This ship—more inter-island ferry than cargo ship—sails from Tongatapu every Tuesday and fetches up in Lifuka 12 hours later.

To Vavau

The same ship leaves Lifuka in the evening and arrives at Vavau the following afternoon. I’m sure you’ll agree with the yachters who have found Vavau. They know a good thing when they see it.

The Olavaha cargo ship The freigher Olavaha as she sails to Ha'apai and Vavau. Photo by Thomas H. Booth.


The total land mass of Fiji’s 332 islands comes to about 8,000 square miles. By South Pacific standards, it’s a big, diverse country, and there's much to see and do among her beaches, mountains, towns, and cities. The harbor at Suva always has many trading vessels, inter-island boats, and copra ships tied up at the docks. As in Tahiti, walking aboard and discussing things with the captain is easy.

In Nadi, on the other side of the island from Suva, everyone knows about the glamorous cruise boats that sail off to the dozens of idyllic islands of the Yasawas and Mamanucas. However, the better and much less expensive choice is the Kaunitoni, from Suva to the Lau Group (east of Fiji, towards Tonga). On its 10-day run, the Kaunitoni makes about 12 stops at green and volcanic islands to deliver cargo and pick up copra. While the ship provides no food, cooking facilities and utensils are available.


In Port Vila on Efate Island, the capital of Vanuatu, the harbor is right in the center of town, and the vessels tied up there are available for examination. Ask around the piers about the Konanda, the Lali, and the Onma II. These and other ships like them are on the elemental side. Still, for few dollars a day, simple meals included, someone will take you to remote outer islands—places such as Malekula, where they were killing and eating each other as late as 1930, and Pentecost island, where men tie vines to their ankles and leap out of trees. You’ll be taken ashore by canoe to other islands where you’ll be stared at, smiled at, and given the chance to buy some good carvings. The outer islands of Vanuatu will stay in your memory forever.

The Solomon Islands

Honiara, on Guad-alcanal, the capital of this independent nation, offers visitors all amenities but few tourists are seen. If this is the capital, think what the myriad outer islands are like.

Go to the Coral Sea Shipping Company and ask about the sailing of the Iuminao. This ship, carrying 50 deck passengers, also has two first-class cabins, but meals are not provided. Think of it as camping in an air-conditioned cabin with a small refrigerator and a full bath. Food is easily purchased at Honiara shops. On its 3- to 4-day voyage to Gizo in the Western Provinces it makes 11 stops—all picture-postcard quality.

For other ships to remote areas visit the local yacht club in Honiara and talk to some of the members about other destinations. Maybe, as once happened to us, you’ll be invited on short cruise.

Papua New Guinea

The eastern half of the second largest island in the world includes a cluster of islands off its north coast—New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville, Manus, The Trobriands, and scores of smaller islands. These areas, as well as the north coast of New Guinea, offer everything an adventurer or escapist might want, and one can expect a good meal, a cold drink, and a fair bed every night.

Ships can easily be found. We’ve sailed away on several of them just by approaching the captain. Ask about trips up the Sepik River, to the Trobriands, New Britain, Samarai—almost anywhere they go. Fares are reasonable, and some of the ships are quite comfortable. So it goes in the South Pacific.


The 2,100 “tiny islands” of the Pacific, mostly north of the Equator, are scattered over three million square miles of the sea between Hawaii and the Philippines and make up four new countries: The Republic of the Marshalls, The Federated States of Micronesia. The Republic of Palau, and The Northern Marianas Islands. Accommodations and food are reasonable. People are friendly. English is spoken. There are no unusual health problems. And American currency is used.

Some seasonably comfortable Government Field Service ships sail to some of the world's most remote, often exotic, islands.The best places to find the ships are Pohnpei, Yap, Majuro, and Palau. You’ll sail away with a collection of island administrators, doctors, a judge, or maybe even a dentist on working voyages. Check with the Field Service Office in each of these places. You just have to be on hand when a ship is in port. Shipping offices rarely reply to people requesting space or information.

For those who do not wish to book directly with shipping companies, Maris Freighter and Specialty Cruises and Maris Freighter Club Int'l offers a variety of voyages to many destinations. You can go from island to island. You may cross the ocean 1-way. You may even choose from around-the-world cargo ship cruise options.

Sailing for Free as Crew on a Yacht

Sailing on a Yacht
Sailing on a Yacht.
Photo by Thomas H. Booth.

In any city worldwide where the land touches the sea, there’ll be a yacht club or marina where boat owners will welcome enthusiastic visitors — some of whom may offer more than just conversation.

Of equal importance for traveling visitors are the bulletin boards of yacht clubs found all over the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Micronesia—from Honolulu to Hong Kong.

At the Yacht Club in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on Guadalcanal, we met an Englishman who, over a welcome cold beer, announced that he was running his 35-foot power boat down the Guadalcanal coast to Marau Sound and he would welcome company. The sea was blue and placid, Marau Sound was a multi-hued place of beauty, and on the 2-day passage our new friend provided unlimited measures of island lore. Nothing could have been better.

In Penang and Langkowi—islands off the west coast of Malaysia—yacht club bulletin boards are rich in both commercial and private sailing offers for trips to nearby Sumatra, up into Thailand, and down to Singapore.

But it was in Hong Kong that a bulletin board notice paid off most handsomely.

We had been invited to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club to celebrate a friend’s birthday. At one point midway between festivities and facilities (the men’s room), I came upon the club’s bulletin board and was struck by a prominent notice: “Newly constructed Twin Diesel Trawler 40 requires crew for voyage to Singapore. Contact George Harriman,.”

Foregoing the men’s room, I hastened to fetch my wife, Virginia, who guardedly agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to look into the matter. A few days later, over eggs Benedict at the American Club, the youngish American owner told us that his voyage would take him to Singapore, where he had permanent crew waiting to help him continue the trip on to Penang, Colombo, Aden, Jeddah, Suez, and finally Greece—all of them 1,500 to 2,000 miles apart. He said one purpose of the voyage was to test the theories of Robert P. Beebe, a yacht designer who maintained that with well-functioning diesels and a good hull, one could go anywhere — on schedule and in comfort. According to Harriman, Beebe spoke with admiration of the purity of sailing, but felt that sailing imposed an inevitable tyranny upon the crew.

Harriman required two warm bodies who could stand wheel watch, do some cooking, and share expenses. He said we’d do, and after a short pause we agreed to go.

To make a long story short, Mr. Beebe was nearly right. We did complete the 10-day voyage on schedule—but not without a measure of high seas and discomfort. Still, this is what the sea is all about, and I continue to recommend yacht club bulletin boards as a source of adventure.

One final thought: Refrain from mindlessly accepting any offer for going to sea without quietly checking it out. Some boats are unseaworthy, and some skipper-owners can be scoundrels. I’ve always been lucky.

TOM BOOTH is a retired dentist who, in the process of practicing his profession, lived and worked in California for years. Then, with two grown sons, he and his wife have lived, worked, and traveled in the Congo (Zaire), Australia, the South Pacific, Europe, Guam, and Hong Kong. All of this has contributed to his enthusiasm for writing. He is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and lives in Eugene, O R.

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