It is easy to make plans in this world, even a cat can do it, and when one is out in these remote oceans it is noticeable that a cat’s plans and a man’s are worth about the same. – Mark Twain, Following the Equator
In today’s era of internet-speed everything, few people ever consider the option of traveling by cargo ship. In fact, most travelers likely do not even know it is possible. While it is true that most container ships and tankers do not accept passengers, there are still some that do. For many years, I had dreamed of discovering this throwback mode of transportation, but working in the corporate world just did not permit me enough time off to try it. However, in 2006, after resigning from my computer job of 20 years to move overseas to Asia, I decided the time had finally come.
The first challenge was finding the right ship, as my wife and I needed an eastbound transatlantic autumn crossing. To our surprise, while running the across the new Cooper River Bridge in a road race, we noticed a ship named the MSC Alessia docking in Charleston Harbor. A quick internet search on the ship name led me to Maris Freighter Cruises, a site dedicated to freighter travel. It indicated that the Alessia, a container ship, would be crossing the Atlantic from Charleston to Europe “o/a” September 6. I would learn later that “o/a” is freighter-travel jargon for “on or about.”
After booking our journey and getting our tickets, we awaited the day to board the ship and begin our adventure. It was not to go exactly as planned, though, when a hurricane delayed the ship by several days. Because a freighter’s primary business is carrying cargo, not passengers, the shipping agent notified us of a major change in the ship’s schedule. The Alessia would not be calling at Savannah nor Charleston port, but, after stopping at Freeport in the Bahamas, would instead sail directly for Antwerp, Belgium. We had a choice – get a complete refund or find a way to meet the ship in Freeport. After negotiating a discount equivalent to our last-minute airfare, we chose the latter.
Joining the ship was interesting, as passengers showing up at a container ship port are a rarity. After explaining our role on the ship (riding, not working) to the security staff, we learned that our ship was still at anchor awaiting a berth to begin loading. The local shipping agent took us to a nearby hotel, where our expenses were covered until the next day when the ship actually docked.
Once on board, we took the elevator up six floors to find our enormous two-room cabin. One big difference between freighters and cruise ships is the size of the cabins. Our ship had only five passengers (two couples and a single), and we each had comfortable cabins featuring a large salon, video player, refrigerator, writing desk, live plants, three windows, artwork, separate bedroom and bathroom.
For a cargo ship, port time is precious, so the loading and unloading of containers continues round the clock and can be rather noisy at times. Boarding early gave us the opportunity to watch the fascinating loading process. Like giant alien insects, forklifts and cranes of all shapes and sizes buzzed around the docks in a kind of orchestrated parade of color. Even the ship’s deck plates were removed and shifted temporarily to bury the heaviest cargo in the ships bowels. While there were only 22 crew and 5 passengers, the ship carries more than 7,000 containers!
Later that night, at about 2:30am, the ship set sail eastbound for Europe. We soon settled into the daily routine of life at sea. Unlike a cruise ship, there are no planned activities other than mealtimes. Breakfast always featured a choice of cold items (bread, cheese, cereal) plus a daily cooked selection. Lunch is the main meal of the day, served to the hard-working crew members who are constantly busy cleaning, painting and repairing. We passengers ate in the officers dining area at our own table. The German captain was very polite and always greeted us, asking if we had any special needs. The Filipino chef prepared a wide variety of enjoyable meals each day that were tasty and filling. The waiter also served as our cabin steward and stocked our room with whatever drinks or snacks we ordered from the ship’s store.
The “ship’s store” is not a place to shop, but rather a designated room for storing consumable goods. There are actually multiple stores on board, one of which was labeled the “Drinking Store.” When meeting a fellow passenger the first day, he pointed to that sign and said, “Drinking Store – that’s where you can find me during the voyage!”
We were free to walk around the deck and visit any area of the ship not marked off-limits by the workers. We were amazed at how clean the ship was, even the engine room (visited on a special tour one afternoon) was neat and tidy. There were plenty of lounge chairs available for relaxing on deck. The bridge, or ship’s control center, was also open to passengers, and a fun place to visit each morning after breakfast to track our progress on the large navigational map. During the journey’s first four days the sea was as smooth as glass; we could hardly tell the ship was moving.
The fifth day was different. In the middle of the night, my wife and I both awoke to what felt like a hurricane outside (it was September and hurricane season after all). The ship was reeling and rolling from side-to-side, and we were doing the same! I would roll one direction and bump into the wall, then roll the other way into my wife, who had wedged her stuffed penguin toy into the edge to avoid rolling off the bed! We finally just both burst out laughing. Another passenger shared that he had switched places from his bed to his sofa to sleep, since it was set at a 90-degree angle and therefore would not dump him onto the floor! We later learned there was no hurricane, just the large waves of the North Atlantic Ocean.
After seven days at sea without seeing many other ships, we entered the English Channel, a very busy shipping lane, and waited our turn to enter the Scheldt River and pass through the locks into the Antwerp, Belgium container port area. After docking in Antwerp, we made our way by taxi into the historic area of the city and celebrated our successful ocean crossing with dinner and coffee!
What we loved about the experience:
- Incredibly spacious cabin
- Freedom to wander the ship and explore the bridge
- Friendly officers and crew
- Days that are strangely empty, yet strangely full
- The wonders of the ocean – flying fish, rainbows, whales and more
- That rare gift of decompression and downtime to rest, reflect and relax
- Reasonable cost – about $100 per day per person
Challenges to consider:
- The ship’s time schedule and port locations frequently change
- Activities are limited to reading, eating, watching videos and resting
- No doctor on board (health checkup certificate required)
- No internet (ship’s satellite phone is available for emergencies)