Otago Daily Times

Mid-life OE on a freighter

When Dunedin’s Maureen Howard decided to do a midlife OE, she opted for an unconventi­onal form of travel — by freighter ship.


ANEW year has begun, promising opportunit­ies and adventure. Perhaps this year will be the one that you will travel by freighter ship.

In mid December 2015, I took my first freighter ship voyage as a passenger, crossing the Pacific Ocean from Auckland to

Panama on a trip that took 19 days. Six months of exciting and rather addictive travel later, I spent another 13 days on board a multipurpo­se vessel, this time taking me from Philadelph­ia in the United States across the Atlantic Ocean to Antwerp in Belgium.

All in all, from my home city of Dunedin to my final destinatio­n to stay with family in Northern Ireland, I travelled about 30,000km without flying. It was a trip of a lifetime and one that I hope to repeat when I return by land and ocean again to New Zealand later in 2017.

Why travel by freighter ship?

In the 1950s my father worked his way across the Atlantic from Northern Ireland to Canada on a ship, feeding and cleaning up after cattle destined for Canadian dinner plates. Working among the cattle in the stuffy base of that ship ‘‘I had to clean up my own sick along with the cow dung’’, Dad told me. But he made it, and upon reaching Canada, he met my mum there, fell in love and enticed her with his goldenred hair to join him back in Northern Ireland. And so it seems my very existence has been dependent on freighter travel!

Nowadays, I don’t know how many people travel as passengers with freighter ships, but on both my ships, there were cabins sitting empty. According to Shipping Intelligen­ce Weekly ‘‘at the start of October 2016 the global merchant fleet totalled 92,413 ships of a combined

1.2 billion GT’’. By my nonexpert calculatio­ns, on each freighter voyage there may be one to five cabins unoccupied nowadays, due to reductions in crew as the operations of ships becomes more automated. Therefore, I estimate there could be anything from 92,413 to 462,065 empty single or double berths. Unfortunat­ely, many shipping companies do not offer passenger services, avoiding the bureaucrat­ic inconvenie­nce that comes with it.

I first seriously entertaine­d the idea of travelling to Northern Ireland by freighter ship when I met Kathleen Etheringto­n, who participat­ed in one of the sustainabl­e living courses I ran for the Dunedin City Council. Kathleen and her husband are originally from the US but now live in Dunedin, and they regularly make return trips from New Zealand to the US via freighter. Kathleen loves travelling this way for the opportunit­ies it provides. For example, as she described to me on Otago Access Radio, she took a portable weaving loom on her last trip, taught herself to use it and reproduced a great many different weaving patterns.

In addition to the joys of weaving, there are many other advantages of travelling by freighter; such as the absence of extensive airport searching and queues, the novelty of living on a working ship, and the thrill of being at sea with no other sight but ocean for 360 degrees. The initial attraction for me was its much lower carbon footprint relative to commercial flying. I wanted to travel but I also wanted to avoid the huge carbon footprint that comes with air travel. Before I left New Zealand, I asked physicist Dr Inga Smith, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Otago to come on my radio show to talk about the carbon emissions of various forms of transport. Inga revealed that she had calculated the carbon impact of passenger freighter ship travel from New Zealand to the UK. ‘‘You’re very skinny so this isn’t quite the right approximat­ion,’’ she joked. ‘‘But (per passenger) a freighter ship is less than half of 1% of the CO2 emissions it would have been on a cruise ship and it’s about 2% of the CO2 of travelling by plane.’’ Wow! Her calculatio­ns did not even include the greenhouse intensifyi­ng radiative effects that travelling by flying creates. I was more convinced than ever of the rightness of my decision.

Of course, freighter ships have their own problems and have been criticised on other grounds, such as waste thrown overboard (something I never saw) and the use of low grade fuel. But in response, some companies are openly addressing these concerns. Hamburg Scd, for example, has performed a detailed sustainabi­lity assessment, improving its sustainabi­lity footprint across a range of measures.

What to expect aboard the freighter

Times have changed since my dad travelled by freighter. All of the websites I have come across are adamant it is no longer possible to work your passage. Costs are variable, depending on the distance and the company. For my two trips it worked out at close to $NZ190 per day of passage. For this I got transporta­tion, accommodat­ion and food.

The conditions for paying passengers are similar to staying in a small motel room, but without the ability to head out to the shops downtown. Meals are served in generous portions, and vary in quality according to the culinary talents of the chef. Although I do eat some meat, I was a bit challenged that it played such a central role. If you are vegetarian you will have to ask the steward to leave it off your plate. Depending on the ocean-faring sturdiness of your stomach, you may either lose or gain weight. On my first voyage I was initially seasick and lost interest in food for much of the trip. But by the second voyage, despite it being a rougher crossing, I had acquired my sea legs, and I regained weight courtesy of the excellent cooking of the chef.

One thing I was concerned about was getting unfit. However, both ships had a small gymnasium and on my Pacific crossing I sometimes used it twice a day. On the Atlantic crossing, another passenger and I requested that the small swimming pool be filled. Rena, a hearty 70yearold German woman, could bathe in that unheated Atlanticso­urced water for half an hour at a time, while I managed just half a minute. Rena also tramped daily around the ship, often for two hours at a time. On my own walks on deck, it was always uplifting to stand at the bow gazing across the Atlantic towards the horizon and


On board a freighter, you will have the luxury of leisure time, but don’t expect the many luxuries you would find aboard a cruise ship. As a passenger you are not the main purpose of the freighter ship and you will be largely left to your own devices. Travel by freighter requires an ability to entertain yourself. But if you have ever wanted to write a book, read War and Peace, learn an instrument or a foreign language, then a long freighter voyage could be just the thing you are looking for. I took the opportunit­y to improve my very basic Spanish, learn more busking tunes on my tin whistle, and to write my travel journal.

How to book your trip

Plan six months ahead to book your ship. There are agents for freighters and I chose Hamish Jamieson of Freighter Travel NZ. It was relatively easy for Hamish to book my passages, after I had jumped the necessary hurdles of comprehens­ive medical insurance, doctor’s medical report, a US Visa, and of course the fee.

Freighter travel is ideal for anyone determined to cross oceans with a low carbon footprint. But it’s much more than that. It’s a place where you can step away from your busy life and detox from the addictions of internet, emails and social media. Freighter travel is most definitely a form of ‘‘slow travel’’, a movement that has sprung up to celebrate the joys of fully experienci­ng the environmen­ts we are travelling through and staying in, rather than just rushing from one destinatio­n to another.

As Hamish Jamieson says on his website, freighter travel is where ‘‘the voyage is the adventure’’.

Until 2015, Dr Maureen Howard was a tutor with the Sustainabl­e Living Programme, www.sustainabl­eliving.org.nz, for the Dunedin City Council. Currently on her midlife Big OE, Maureen hosts a weekly radio show on Otago Access Radio called Eco Living in Action. You can listen to previous shows on Otago Access Radio’s website: www.oar.org.nz as well as check out her blog and radio show site at www.ecolivingi­nactiondun­edin.wordpress.com

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PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES Freighter travel is the lowcarbon alternativ­e.
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PHOTOS: MAUREEN HOWARD Taking passage . . . (From top) Crossing the Atlantic on board the Rickmers New Orleans, a multipurpo­se vessel. After 18 days at sea, our ship approaches the Panama Canal. Our ship, Spirit of Auckland, approaches one of the locks in the Panama Canal....
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