The Only Way to Travel

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A retired couple roams the world via commercial shipping.

By Philip P. O’Neill

The American public has fallen in love with cruising aboard the glittering sea-going palaces of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Cunard, and many others that exit Miami’s harbor each weekend in parade formation on their repetitive rounds of the overwhelmed Caribbean isles. These combination casino-nightclub-gourmet-restaurant behemoths seem to emphasize every type of human pleasure except that of the sea itself. If your interest in cruising does not include bull-horn announcements every 30 minutes, six gourmet meals per day, slot machines, blackjack and craps, plus a gala Broadway review every night, there is an alternative—freighter cruising.

There are about 70 cargo ships worldwide that accept from three to 12 passengers. (International regulations prohibit more than 12 without an onboard doctor.) Ships are rarely fully booked; the average number of passengers is probably about five. With cruise lengths around 60 days, only 2,000 passengers annually enjoy this little-known type of adventure vacation—a very elite group—and costs range around $100 a day. In five freighter cruises totaling 102,000 miles and 250 days at sea, my wife Virginia and I have visited 23 countries and 42 ports, plus transiting both Panama and Suez Canals —and experienced peace, solitude, and the awe and beauty of nature.

There has always been an attraction to the sea in my life—though, with the exception of service in the Navy in World War II, it was largely unfulfilled until after my retirement from a career in engineering design and management. Over the years, the travel sections of the Sunday papers would occasionally refer to the possibility of traveling on a freighter, but it was not until the early nineties that Virginia and I learned of travel agencies dedicated to this service. In February 1993, we inquired of one agency, TravLtips, about a Lykes Line cruise to the Mediterranean. In some ways, this cruise was not a very auspicious start to our freighter cruising, but it taught us a valuable lesson: Know your ship first.

I’ll never forget seeing our first freighter, the James Lykes. All the brochures I had ever read on freighter travel pictured tidy ships with shiny black hulls and glistening white superstructures. Instead, I was greeted with a two-toned gray shape, with not one square foot of white paint, looking for all the world like a troop-carrier about to sail for the Normandy beachheads. Here and there the somber gray mass was broken by streaks of rust, while a sickly green awning of corrugated plastic with occasional missing panels covered the afterdeck.

Initially, we had been attracted by the fact that it was an American ship, but actually the U.S. merchant marine had been in decline for decades. Lykes was the last American flag line carrying general cargo, a relic sustained only by a federal contract. (In fact, the ship was retired from service at the end of that voyage!) For our cruise, the cargo included a shipment of flour for the World Food Bank bound for Rijeka, Croatia; the materials to construct a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Algeria—oh, and 63 20-foot containers of military rockets and small arms ammunition destined for U.S. troops in Macedonia via Piraeus.

This last worried us our first night out, when we ran into one of the liveliest electrical storms I have ever seen. We were entranced with the lightning bolts dancing down the sides of the steel containers, and assured ourselves there was no explosion hazard as surely there was adequate grounding. Ignorance is bliss, for when I mentioned this to the chief mate the next morning, he replied, “Have you seen how they load these boxes? We have no idea what they did or if there was any concern for lightning.”

And that was not our only brush with danger. When the James Lykes docked in Arzew, Algeria to deliver the LNG plant, we visited Oran but abandoned a planned excursion to Algiers after repeated warnings to “Watch out for the terrorists!” (We were there near the beginning of a decade of violent clashes between the government and Islamic fundamentalists that had reportedly claimed 130,000 lives as of 2002.)

Still later, while sailing up the Adriatic on our way to Rijeka to deliver the cargo of flour, we were boarded at dawn by soldiers pointing Uzi machine guns who forced everyone to assemble in the crew’s mess for a person-by-person identification while they searched the ship. They turned out to be Italian marines enforcing a UN blockade designed to halt shipments of munitions to combatants in the former Yugoslavia. Though friendly, of course, the Italian marines gave no evidence of this to startled civilians, awakened at 0500 and looking into the wrong end of machine guns.

Because of a variety of delays—a perennial hazard with freighters, whose schedule depends on the cargo, not the passengers—we had to leave the James Lykes in Rijeka and fly home because of prior commitments. Though our experiences would seem to combine to militate against seeking further adventures by way of freighter travel, we left the ship with mixed feelings. There had been things that restored a balance to our opinion. There was, above all, the opportunity for undisturbed thought and reading. The sea itself was a magnificent mystery worthy of careful, attentive study, free from the bullhorn announcements that permeate cruise ship journeys.

Among the quieter moments that remain in memory, here are just two:

Sailing from New Zealand to Papua New Guinea, for five days the sun never ceased to shine and the flying fish became more numerous as the latitude decreased. I have always found flying fish fascinating, and now I hung over the bow for hours studying their flights. In my observation, flying fish appear the same all over the world. Those we have on the east coast of Florida are the same as those I now studied in the Coral Sea. Most all are iridescent blue as they flash out of the bow waves into the sunshine. Once in a while a metallic bronze member appears. Their size varies from the two or three inch model to about 12 inches. The small ones usually break water in a swarm like bees. The large ones pop up as singles or small groups. Their glide range is truly amazing, frequently exceeding one quarter of a mile, although intermittent contact with the surface occurs where a high frequency fluttering of their tail fin relaunches them. I have always wondered if they fly when undisturbed in the open sea. Perhaps some ichthyologist can tell me.

In Manila, we saw the two hills of Corregidor Island, although haze prevented us from seeing the infamous Bataan Peninsula only a few miles behind it. As we left those sad but glorious monuments to American participation in World War II behind, we turned due north for Keelung, Taiwan, 750 miles away. That evening’s sunset was memorable because it achieved a goal we had sought since our cruising began, that is, actually witnessing the green flash. This is a physical phenomenon associated with sunsets, especially at sea where the horizon is well defined. With correct atmospheric conditions it produces a very brief transformation of the setting globe from red to green. This is so brief, I suspect a millisecond or two, that it is correctly termed a flash. As we watched the sun descend into the South China Sea, Virginia and I both saw the flash, realizing that the phenomenon was not a myth, after all. Amazingly, we witnessed the flash again the next evening. I love to watch the sunsets at sea, but have never again seen the flash.

So, there is a sample of the joys and tribulations of freighter travel. Some thrills? Yes. Some frustrations? Many. But overall pleasure at having gone? You bet. The chance to be truly alone on a quiet, placid sea, to mix with the world’s peoples, to be part of its thriving commerce, to witness exotic ports from a ship’s bridge—these are experiences that are unavailable elsewhere.

Philip P. O’Neill ME’44 GME’48 is the author of Freighter World Cruising: Globetrotting on Your Private 30,000 Ton “Yacht,” from which this essay is adapted. Contact the author at [email protected] to purchase copies.

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