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.

Otago Daily Times - - Front Page -

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


Freighter travel is the low­car­bon al­ter­na­tive.


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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