Well, guess what? You can still catch a slow boat to China. Or to New York, London, Piraeus (Greece), and even Sydney, or to any number of other working ports around the world. And I’m not talking about using luxury cruise ships either. I’m talking about utilising the sea lanes of the world to reach your destination by travelling on a merchant ship.
Yes, Ripley, believe it or not, many merchant ships have paying passengers aboard who prefer taking that form of travel rather than fly, drive, or by ocean liner.
However, sailing on a merchant ship is not for everyone. Here are some issues to consider before you elect to travel via this method:
- All freighter companies have age restrictions which exclude children under 5 years of age, and most set a maximum age limit of 75-80 years.
- Few merchant ships have lifts, which means passengers must be fit and healthy enough to negotiate many flights of stairs each day.
- Merchant ships are working ships – not holidays at sea. Apart from television and movies, they may also include a small swimming pool; an exercise room with not much more than table tennis, stationary bike, and a few weights; a small library of well read books; and that’s about it.
- This form of travel is much cheaper than sailing with a cruise line, but more expensive than flying.
- Your time in a foreign port is severely restricted – sometimes as little as eight to twelve hours.
- Most merchant ships carry as few as six paying passengers and generally no more than twelve. This makes for a very small and potentially intimate group of fellow passengers.
- If you prefer the anonymity of large crowds (or the crowded decks of an 800 passenger cruise ship), freighter travel may not be for you.
- If you find it hard to relax on an quiet deck in a comfortable chair with a good book, freighter travel may not be for you.
- If you have difficulty keeping yourself amused, and active, freighter travel may not be for you.
The Benefits of Freighter Travel
Given these (and other) restrictions, why would anyone choose to travel on a working cargo ship? I’m glad you asked. Let’s look at the benefits of freighter travel.
- The informality. Passengers are not required to dress up for meals. Men can leave their ties, and ladies their cocktail dresses at home.
- Freighters do not offer any pre-planned activities like cruise ships do, and mealtimes are the only daily structure. This means…
- You have time to relax on an uncrowded deck in a comfortable deck chair with a good book.
- You can sit in quiet contemplation and watch the ocean roll by for as long as you wish.
- Freighter passengers enjoy extended contact with officers and crew.
- Most freighters are liberal with bridge visitation, and unrestricted bridge visits are not uncommon.
- With ships carrying only 2 to 12 passengers, lasting friendships are often formed between passengers and officers.
Types of Freighters
There are several types of merchant ships you might consider travelling with.
Container Ships: The most popular method of transporting goods by sea is the container ship. Container ships can be loaded and unloaded very quickly. One of the disadvantages of this, as far as passengers are concerned, is that the fast loading and unloading of containers means that time ashore is usually quite limited. The ship would rarely spend more than 24 hours in port - often less in a very efficient container terminal.
General Cargo Ships: These are ships that transport cargo that will not fit into containers, such as large machinery, sheets of metal, timber, agricultural exports etc. The slower loading and unloading of general cargo - also known as break bulk - means that general cargo ships usually spend much longer in port than container ships - making them an excellent choice for passengers who wish to spend as much time ashore as possible.
Bulk Carriers: These ships transport 'loose' cargo, such as coal, mineral ores, phosphates and grain in holds below deck. Again, like general cargo ships, bulk carriers tend to spend longer times in port loading and unloading.
Other types of merchant shipping includes 'Roll on - Roll off' ships; Mail and Supply ships; and other smaller craft.
Some helpful websites to get you started:
For answers to almost everything you need to know visit:
The excellent FAQ at Freighter Trips… and
The Cruise People, Ltd., here… and
The Freighter Travel FAQ at GoNomad…
Also take the time to check out the forum on the Freighter Trips website. Read through the various questions and answers for extra information. If you don’t find what you are looking for, ask a question yourself. Hopefully, another forum member will be able to help and post a reply.
And one more for your reading pleasure… How to Travel by Cargo Ship…
And finally, read about the origins of the phrase Slow Boat to China…