Steerage
April 2010
Rear of ship

Being someone who is concerned about environmentalism, peak oil and all that jazz, I am very reluctant to travel by plane. I am very uncomfortable with the idea of choosing to support an activity which is a very large part of our planetary problems.

So that got me thinking – is there still a way to travel overseas using the surface of the planet? Has ocean transportation died out, or is there still a way to hitch a ride on a ship? Not a cruise liner, but a freighter ship. It turns out there are options available…

Cargo ship, Ramsey by Tasa_M
Photo credit: Flickr user Tasa M (account now deactivated, image was uploaded with Creative Commons license).

‘Steerage’ is a (seemingly) antiquated word referring to the lower priced, below-deck accommodation on passenger ships. Even though passenger ships are now almost a thing of the past, it seems that notable number of freighter ships offer basic accommodation for passengers wanting to join the voyage. From the webpages I have read (1, 2, 3), there seem to be some drawbacks to freighter travel:

  • Speed: it takes around one day to travel by sea for every hour that it takes an aeroplane. Travelling from Melbourne, Australia to Vancouver, Canada takes around 28 days one-way.
  • Conditions: whilst habitable, the conditions are basic compared to those offered by cruise liners. The purpose of the voyage is to transport the multi-million dollar cargo aboard the freighter, so guests are expected to be able to entertain themselves. Meals are reportedly fairly basic and eaten at set times with the crew.
  • Price: from what I can see, budgeting $150 per person per night seems like a realistic amount to set aside. This is cheaper than a cruise liner, but would probably work out more expensive than travelling by jet.

cargo ship by gail_des_jardin
Photo credit: gail_des_jardin.

However, I can see these upsides:

  • Novelty: Almost everyone I know has been on an aeroplane, but I don’t know anyone who has taken a voyage on a freighter ship. It certainly would be something different!
  • Adventure: maybe it’s because I recently read Moby Dick, but I would like to experience life on a working ship. Seeing the sights of the world coming over the horizon, feeling the sea breeze in your hair, watching the changing weather patterns, getting to know the crew members, spotting wildlife… “Hast seen the white whale?”
  • Space: it would certainly be a less crowded experience than travelling by aeroplane or cruise liner. The web pages I read suggest that the crew members tend to be pretty polite and friendly. Although they are primarily employed to operate the ship, it seems they are happy to tell a few tales to the passengers when it suits their working routine.
  • Experience: I bet it would be an incredible feeling on the high seas, hundreds of kilometres from land. It would probably be very exciting, also probably a bit scary. I’m sure there’d be plenty of chance to reassess everything and let the mind wander. Also…
  • Time: as well as having extra time to let the mind wander, it would offer time for creative pursuits. Reading, writing, drawing, photography, etc. Sea travel wouldn’t be for everyone, but I think I’m the kind of guy that can keep himself amused for longer than most…

So, what do you reckon? I have no plans to jump on a cargo ship any time soon, but it is definitely food for thought…