My Slow Boat to China: Travel on a Cargo Ship

Yours Truly on the Hanjin Lisbon Cargo Ship

Yours Truly on the Hanjin Lisbon Cargo Ship (Photograph courtesy of Martin Wildi)

For years (decades, in fact) I have wanted to travel overseas by ship. I had always imagined that if I went this route it would be to Europe – and I never pictured travelling via luxury liner/cruise ship. In any case, it never happened. Then one day this past Spring, my friend Martin, from Switzerland, sent me an email saying that he would like to take me up on my offer to visit me and Steve in Boston. He had plans to travel in the U.S. for about a month and then take a cargo shipping vessel from San Francisco to Asia in July. Of course I said come and stay with us. What he did not expect was for me to ask if he minded that I join him on the ship. I figured I could change my plans to returnto China in 2014 and head westward by sea in August 2013 instead. I received a positive response and thus began my preparation for a trip on the Hanjin Lisbon.

                   

When I told people I would be crossing the Pacific and other sea waters to get to Hong Kong via cargo ship,  many of them asked, “Why would you want to do that? Don’t you think you’ll get bored?”  My answer was that I wanted to experience slow travel. I wanted to know what it feels like to cross such a distance in more than the 24-or-so hours it takes to fly it. I didn’t want to once again go from one airport to another similar one across the world, in an airplane where people are encouraged to keep the shades down and sleep, or watch a movie or two or three… on their own private monitors so that they barely feel that they are travelling. I also very much wanted to leave the hustle and bustle of land-bound life. I wanted to listen to the wind and look out at the sky and the sea.  I wanted to not be plugged in to the internet atevery moment of the day or night. I guess I just wanted to completely disconnect from the world for a time.Perhaps I’d even spot some sea life in the form of birds, flying fish, dolphins, whales…

Martin had booked his trip via the German shipping company, NSB Reiseburo, and I worked with their travel office settling everything with them – including getting a medical certificate confirming that I am healthy and able to travel (since there is no doctor on board ship). I booked a flight to San Francisco for August 6th; the vessel was expected to leave the Port of Oakland on the 7th and I was told we would be on the water for 20-23 days. This was exactly what I wanted – slow travel.

San Francisco Seen from the Port of Oakland

San Francisco Seen from the Port of Oakland

I arrived in San Francisco and stayed with my cousin Rachel not for one night but for five. Cargo ships have *somewhat* fixed schedules for port arrival and departure but an exact itinerary is not guaranteed – this kind of uncertainty is in the nature of freighter travel. Our initial departure date jumped forward first by one and then three days. I then started receiving email notices two or three times daily from the Oakland Port until boarding confirmation was finally settled.  The working vessel is the priority and a late passenger, for instance, would just be left behind; passengers are incidental. Also, ships may be cancelled or re-routed with little notice.

Port of Oakland

Port of Oakland

Port of Oakland

Port of Oakland

In the early afternoon of August 11, Martin and I walked up the Hanjin Lisbon’s gangway at the Port of Oakland, with the second mate leading the way, holding on to the hand rails that were covered – in places – with machine oil. He took us to our cabins; mine was comfortable and spacious – approximately 18 square meters in size – with a bed, sofa, table, desk and chairs, fridge, wardrobe, television and DVD player, boom box, and en-suite bathroom. It also had a window overlooking containers. No ocean view for me until the last three days of travel on board.

We were given a tour of the Mess Hall and told that we would eat with the Captain of the vessel and the Chief Engineer (CE). We were also shown around of the rest of the ship and informed that though we were free to come and go as we pleased, we were expected to stay out of the way as people worked. As requested, I did not rock the boat, so to speak.

The ship was to depart at 1800 on the 11th but did not actually leave port until 0309 on the 12th.

On the Water

On the Water

As you can imagine, travelling by cargo ship is certainly not the greenest form of travel and therefore is not guilt-free for the eco-conscious. Unfortunately, cargo ships are responsible for extremely high levels of pollution, although sustainability is starting to be addressed. Because a container ship carries cargo from point to point anyway, I did feel as if I had simply stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride; no great harm in that! My choice to travel by container vessel would not affect the route; the ship would still go on its way. This is not the case with air travel, in which fewer passengers means fewer flights.

There are other pluses and minuses to the shipping industry, as cited in Michael Causey’s review of Rose George’s, “Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate” (Washington Independent Review of Books):

George deftly outlines a central paradox about shipping: It is everywhere yet remains unnoticed. Preferring to hide behind a cloak of disarming dullness and ubiquity, the shipping industry is increasingly intent on downplaying any outward appearance of swashbuckling, high seas turmoil or excitement. The shipping industry, in fact, purposely tries not to be noticed and pestered by regulators, which has resulted in the mistreatment of workers (including rapes by fellow crewmen), often without legal recourse, and a failed “security” system. For example, U.S. ports receive 17 million containers a year and physically inspect only 5 percent of them. Thus, these Swiss-cheese-like security programs often miss illegal drugs, counterfeit goods and stowaways, who either are trying to attain a better life outside their country or forced into sex trafficking.

There were also a couple of things I learned from the Chief Engineer (CE): a) Fuel: The ship uses vast quantities of low-grade fuel. Three types of fuel are used on a container ship and, except in countries where higher-grade fuel is required, the low-grade fuel is most often used. b) Ballast Water: Ships pull in sea water at one location and release it in another, which means that the vessel could be transporting ocean life with it –  this of course, like low-grade fuel, has to be destructive to the ecosystem.

Despite all of this I can say I LOVED travelling via cargo ship and would do it again in an instant!

My Partner in Crime, Martin

My Partner in Crime, Martin

NSB’s ship officers are mostly German and the crew is predominantly Filipino. Viktors, the CE, was born in Russia and has lived in Riga, Latvia, since his early 20s.  The Second Engineer was Polish. I found that some of the crew and officers were friendly while others kept to themselves. Over time, I met all 24 crew and officers on board the ship and discovered who was willing to have conversations and who would prefer to be left alone.

Viktors, Chief Engineer

Viktors, Chief Engineer

One of the Crew

One of the Crew

The Captain, CE, first and second mates, and second engineer spend two months on board, followed by two months at home. The rest spend four to six months away from home and return to work two to three months after their leave. Many of these workers have families waiting those many months for them.  On occasion, the crew and officers have the opportunity to take short shore leave, but often at port they simply work extra long hours.

Most employees have laptops and spend time in their rooms on their own or with their fellow crew-mates watching DVDs, listening to music or playing games. But they also often gather together in the lounge watching television, singing along to music videos, drinking, smoking, and playing cards. I noted that The Officer’s Lounge is twice the size and was always empty. Never once used.

One Sunday afternoon I went to take photos of the crew (this the only time off for the crew and this afternoon/evening of rest is cancelled if the ship is at port and at work). At first they acted a bit goofy and seemed embarrassed by the camera but then they just let me shoot. They invited me to join them in their games of rummy and of course I did and had a blast. I won most of the games and they tried to force numerous beers on me (big drinker that I am!!) after each win.

Cargo Ship Crew's Day Off

Cargo Ship Crew’s Day Off

I got to know the people, little by little. I had only small glimpses into their characters and spent a relatively short time with them but my interaction with them was one of the things I thoroughly enjoyed. The crew were so much more fun than the officers but I gradually got to know the officers as well. The CE was very easygoing and a sweetheart.  One morning at breakfast, he asked me if I was on my 4th book. He had taken note that I am a reader; I was almost done with the Nick Cave novel, “And the Ass Saw the Angel.” Yes, it was my 4th book.  The Captain, on the other hand, was a very moody man and under much stress when on board the vessel. However, I learned to go with his unpredictable temperament and even made him laugh on occasion.  And then there was the first mate – born in Poland but living in Germanywith his American wife. He mostly spoke German (despite English being the official language on board), and ignored me until nearly the end of the trip when one night I caught him in a good mood, I suppose. He did not let me get a word in edge-wise as he told me all about himself. People are curious.

The CE gave Martin and me a tour of the cavernous engine room which is situated below the upper deck and takes up the length and width of the whole vessel. I took photos that afternoon as well as the next, on my own. The noise level and vibration are high in the engine room and ear protection is a must, to muffle the sound. In general the roar generated by the engine intake fans, located on the upper or A decks, is very loud and even reached deck E, where I was living – but I only heard it outside on the deck.  Engine exhaust blare is always felt and heard on larger vessels. This is just the way it goes, but all in all it was not too bad.

Engine Room Overview (Engines are 2-strokes slow speed)

Engine Room Overview (Engines are 2-strokes slow speed)

The ship’s above-water decks are 9 “floors” high and the engine room is probably 6 “floors” deep – to the bottom of the ship. Inter-modal cargo containers take up the majority of the above-water space on the Hanjin Lisbon; this vessel can carry close to 9000 containers. Living quarters are a relatively small section in the four middle floors of the ship. Below the living quarters are the kitchen and mess halls. The A Deck has a gym and one large office. The Upper Deck the lowest of the eight decks (but the first above water) has the entrance to the engine room as well as the laundry room, etc.

Stairwell

Stairwell

Stairwell

Stairwell

I had the impression that I ate a lot. Breakfast was at 0730 – although I had a first breakfast prior to the official time (I was up at 0500 every morning and hit the mess hall a little after 0600 — the cook and steward knew my morning schedule and coffee was made as soon as I arrived). Tea time was at 1000 and lunch, at 1130.  A second tea time was at 1500 and supper was served at 1730.

Meals were large, and heavy on meat although on Fridays fish was served. I attempted to eat lightly but it was not easy since there were few vegetables offered. Meals were served separately for officers and crew: in the mess hall for the officers and passengers, predominantly German food was served. The crew ate mostly Filipino food in a separate mess hall. Below is a typical menu:

  • breakfast: strammer max, (eggs with meat – here is a recipe for a fancy version of what we ate) – or some other style of egg with meat – bread, cereal, cheese, juice, coffee, tea, milk, fruit
  • lunch: meat of some kind, potato, and a frozen vegetable, perhaps
  • dinner: more meat or eggs of your choice, rice or potatoes, perhaps a frozen vegetable, an iceberg lettuce salad  with cucumber, carrots, radishes, green peppers, and tomatoes, cold cuts, cheese

Martin and I socialized primarily during meals and tea time. I spent a lot of time on my own, which was perfectly fine with me. Over the course of those 20 days I was able to read  six books and five New Yorker magazines as well as take notes on my experiences and photograph the ship. Several evenings a week we played backgammon together, drank beer, watched a video, or looked at the photographs we had taken.

Every day was more or less the same and I had my own routine. As required, I set the clock back an hour before I went to bed. At some point during the voyage we had to change the date forward a day less an hour, before bedtime. As I mentioned above, I’d wake up early, so I would grab coffee and a snack from the crew’s mess hall. I would then head down to write to Steve and my family – using the ship’s email service. After breakfast I visited the Naval Bridge to check how far we’d gone since the previous morning. With the officer on watch, I’d review the sea charts andthe vessel’s hourly progress as well as take a look at the three radar screens. Then I’d go back to my cabin or onto the deck and read. If it was not wet I would climb up and down the stairs and walk the “walkable” decks. I’d then read some more. For a few days I even tried to add cycling at the gym to my daily “regimen” but that did not last long. And of course there were mealtimes.

The waters, on the whole, were extremely calm. There were perhaps two or three days of rougher movement, which was barely felt on such a large vessel, but one day, as I walked down the hall of A deck I could feel the to and fro, back and forth, rock and roll, pitch, writhe… While looking out the windowat the end of the hall I could see only sky one moment and only water the next.But even this did not induce seasickness – which I had expected to experience at some point during the voyage.

Glasses in the Wheel House

Glasses in the Wheel House

One morning the entire sky was filled with sheet lightening reflected in the clouds. I could hear thunder far in the distance. It had rained all night. The morning started very dark but then the sun slowly, slowly forced its way through the clouds. Quite a few days saw very calm waters – sometimes so calm the water was like a shimmering mirror. At times fog came along with these calm waters, but on other days they were accompanied by a perfectly clear blue sky.

On the Water, Pacific Ocean

On the Water, Pacific Ocean

On the Water - the North Pacific Ocean (photograph courtesy of Martin Wildi)

On the Water – the North Pacific Ocean (photograph courtesy of Martin Wildi)

I had often wondered what cargo we were carrying but thought, for some reason, that the answer might in fact be nothing! My suspicion was finally confirmed one day by the Captain; we were travelling with mostly empty containers. Full containers had been off-loaded in Long Beach, CA, and many empty containers put on the vessel in Oakland. These empty containers would be off-loaded at ports in Asia and beyond and would be replaced with full ones. He also informed me that a Captain never knows what cargo his vessel is carrying unless it is flammable.

I realized that I had become a savvy sea-farer when, while doing a crossword puzzle one day, I came upon the following clue: Korean strait port – and I actually knew the answer: Busan!!  We were supposed to arrive at the Busan, Korea port on the 23rd.

It took almost four fulldays to pass the Aleutian Islands and we were, at one point, south of Russia in the North Pacific. To the north of us, were Russian shipping vessels. South west, within easy view, was another cargo ship, on its way to a different port in Korea, and there were fishing ships within eye sight – almost touching distance from us. This was a strange sensation because prior to that, we could only see other vessels via radar – a hundred nautical miles or more away. It was the first time we had passed a ship within sight in about eight days – since being on North Pacific waters. That day we were expecting to begin passing through Japan (due north of Yukusha) –  through contaminated waters from Fukushima…. so there was no water intake around that area (in nautical map-speak, I learned that this means: from 30° – 50° latitude to 130° – 150° longitude).

We arrived in Busan port at 1530. The actual city is far from the port so instead of taking shore leave, Martin and I watched the Port of Busan workers – on land – do their thing. Complex pulleys and chains lift containers off the vessel and literally plop them onto trailers and then drop different containers back onto the ship. Upon arrival at our berth in Busan, we saw rows of empty trailers just sitting in wait. Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of little trucks whirring around and backing up as the trailers appeared to just attachthemselves to these trucks. They were ready to accept containers, take them away, and return empty for new ones or, hours later, return full so that new freight could be put on board.

At Port

At Port

From my observations at the Ports of Oakland and Busan it became quite clear that these cargo ports are very busy places, built to handle tremendous numbers of container movements efficiently. Crew (and most certainly passengers) are not permitted to wander around within the terminal. Cargo ports are quite different from cruise ports. Each port handles very different cargo (sometimes one particular type of cargo and sometimes numerous types), which may be loaded / unloaded by very different mechanical means (cranes, pulleys, etc.). Individual cargo ports are divided into separate operating terminals which handle the various cargoes, and are run by different companies. Take a look at this very interesting National Geographic piece, “Megastrucures: China’s Ultimate Port,” to get a feel for what I saw at the ports. In fact, we had to anchor ship for almost 24 hours before we could enter Shanghai’s Yangshan Port, which is what this video is about.

So, my trip began at the Port of Oakland, continued on to the Ports of Busan, Yangshan, Ningbo (where Martin and I took off for a few hours to wander this small place that seems to exist solely for its port), and finally ended, at the Port of Hong Kong. By the time my voyage was over I had travelled on the North Pacific Ocean, through the Yellow (or East) Sea, and on to the South China Sea. My trip on a slow(ish) boat to China had lasted a total of 20 days. Here is the vessel’s complete route:

La Spezia – Port Said – Suez Canal – Singapore – Vung Tau – Hong Kong – Yantian – Ningpo – Long Beach – Oakland – Busan – Shanghai (Yangshan) – Ningbo – Hong Kong – Yantian – Singapore – Suez – Port Said – Naples – Livorno – La Spezia

I highly recommend this mode of transportation. As I’ve said, I’d travel this way again without hesitation and hope that I will have the opportunity to do so. If you are not in a hurry to get where you want to go, are in fine health, and are not afraid of the wide open sea then I suggest this unique mode of travel. It’s relatively inexpensive (certainlycompared to cruise ships) and easy to arrange, as more and more freighter companies are offering passenger service.

25 thoughts on “My Slow Boat to China: Travel on a Cargo Ship

  1. skycastles

    I’ve heard about traveling by container ship but haven’t found a post detailing what it’s like to be on one. This is great information and encourages me to do a bit of research into routes and costs, etc. Can I ask how much it was for your trip?

    Reply
    1. sbandtg Post author

      it was not cheap at ~2100euros but this was the cost for 23 days and i received a refund since it did not take that long to travel to my destination. the price is 85euros/day and there is are port and insurance fees. feel free to ask other questions and i’ll do the best i can to answer them

      Reply
      1. skycastles

        I suppose some may think that’s a bit much just to sit and on boat and do nothing, but it’s such a unique way to travel. I think it’s must-do at least once in your lifetime and will be adding it to my ever-growing travel bucket list 🙂

        Reply
        1. sbandtg Post author

          it isn’t. it really is not – as long as you have no problems spending time by yourself and with all of your travels you clearly do not have that issue. and in the grand scheme of things an airflight is much more expensive as is a typical cruise.

          Reply
    1. sbandtg Post author

      more photos to come in the next few weeks and i’ll announce it in a short post/note. another post on my first 5-6 weeks here in kunming to come in the next couple of weeks, too.

      Reply
      1. Linda

        Very enjoyable to follow you & you look so happy on board. You have great sea legs! Glad the long trip went so smoothly.

        Reply
  2. Riki Lerner Green

    Wow! Sounds like such an interesting way to get somewhere! Can’t wait to hear about your further travels…thanks for the amazing blog.

    Reply
  3. Joan.

    Enjoyed your post very much – it sounds much like going on a retreat. Surprised to learn that you and Martin were the only passengers. And no doctor aboard – glad you stayed in good health!

    Reply

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