*Blissful, Briny, Blue Seas

Cargo containers  were a disruptive technology in the 1960’s. They transformed shipping as much as the conversion of sail to steam did in the previous century.

80% of the goods we now consume come to us on cargo ships from one point in the globe or another. Yet, not many of us appreciate our reliance on these ships. An even smaller number earn a living on them as seafarers.

I sailed on a cargo freighter, the “Vera D” as a passenger. The ship and crew of 20 delivers containers between Europe, Canada and Cuba.

A container is being loaded onto a container ship
Loading containers onto the freighter, “Vera D”. The view from my porthole window.

I wanted to take a freighter to reduce my trip’s contribution to climate change. When I flew to Europe, my portion of the flight was responsible for 1.3T of C0₂ emissions: https://co2.myclimate.org/en/offset_further_emissions.

By contrast, in returning to Canada on the Vera D, my portion generated only 0.042T of C0₂ emissions – a reduction of nearly 97%.

The Vera D left Barcelona late in the evening of July 23.

Container ship leaves the dock at Barcelona Harbour
Leaving the dock at Barcelona Harbour

We stopped to take on fuel at Algeciras, Spain in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar.

A fuel supply ship comes alongside in preparation for refueling the Vera D at sea.
A fuel supply ship comes alongside in preparation for refueling a freighter at sea.
Rock of Gibraltar
The Rock of Gibraltar
The Algeciras welcoming committee – dolphins!

Two days later, we passed through the Azores Islands midway across the Atlantic Ocean.

Azores Island
Passing through the Azores Islands

5400 nautical miles, and 10 days after embarking, we arrived at Halifax harbour to a glorious sunrise.

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Frequently Asked Questions

“Did you get seasick?”

No. There was a day and a half of rough sailing. I had to hold onto the sink with one hand while I washed my face with the other. My reading glasses rolled to the floor from a table. That was about the worst of it.

“What was your room like?”

My room was certainly adequate. It was the size of a very small hotel room and had an ensuite bathroom attached.

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“How about the food?”

The meals were tasty. Because it was a working ship, they had taken on sufficient provisions for a round trip voyage of 45 days. This dictated a set menu for each meal. We had a choice of rice or potatoes as well as a choice of how our eggs were prepared for breakfast. Fruits and salads were available each day.

Ship’s menu

“What did you do?”

The pattern of each day was dictated by the ship’s work day requirements. I ate when the crew ate. Other than that constraint, I had great flexibility to do as I wished. Time passed quickly. I explored the ship, watched videos, attended karaoke nights and read three books.

I also spent a morning getting an orientation on safety and rescue procedures.

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The ship’s crew had a fire drill as part of their mandatory safety training and preparedness.

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“What was the ship’s routine?”

Working hours were 8:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday. The Officers shared a 24 hour/day watch on the bridge. Like any workplace, once their shifts were over, the crew were free to “go home” – which on a ship, is to their cabin. They also had a lounge for socializing and hanging out.

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On the Saturday of our voyage, the captain hosted a BBQ for the crew.

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“How much did it cost you?”

The fare was 120€/day, or approximately $180 CAD/day. The fare included all meals, transport and accommodations.


Is Freighter Travel for You?

First the disclaimer. I’m no expert. A novice really. I’ve only had this one experience. To help you decide if freighter travel is for you, I’m happy to share some observations and reflections:

  1. Freighter travel requires patience. Significant delays and changes can happen. Impatient people need not apply. If that describes you, read no further.
  2. This is slow travel. Freighter travel requires flexibility and the luxury of time. You have deadlines? Set dates to return from your travels? Nix to that, too then.
  3. Do you need constant stimulation or to be entertained? Nope. Not for you.
  4. Anxious of your social media status if you are without an internet connection for a few days? Stay away
  5. Wary of institutional living arrangements? Uncomfortable or unable to eat whatever is placed in front of you? Take a road trip, not a seafaring voyage.

On the other hand, for the patient, flexible, and relaxed traveler there are rewards and benefits.

The Vera D at sunset, the view from my porthole window
  • Freighter travel is an adventure. Oceans cover three quarters of our planet. There is no other way to appreciate the vast expanses of our watery world than to venture out onto them.
  • It’s a unique experience. A freighter passenger becomes a member of a tiny village that works, eats and lives together on a floating platform at great distances from other human beings.
Members of the Ship’s Crew
  • You will chill and unwind. Want to temporarily disconnect? The world’s concerns literally disappear when the freighter sails off beyond Wifi or cell tower connections.
Sunset from my cabin porthole
  • It’s your time for your priorities. Write your book. Compose music. Create poetry. Read to your heart’s content. Binge watch – guilt free – all those movies or videos you’ve downloaded and haven’t had time for. Work out in the fitness room as much as you want.
Sunset from the bridge of the Vera D
  • A freighter trip is to take a retreat. Be dazzled by the beauty and awesome power of the sea. Let the size and space of God’s creation seep into your soul. Contemplate. Mediate. Reflect. Re-calibrate.
Sunset from the bridge of the Vera D
  • Meet people and gain insights from around the world. The four others at my dining table had families in the Philippines, Israel, Ukraine and Germany. Other crew members came from Sri Lanka and Romania. Their stories were fascinating. Many were familiar, perhaps common. Other life experiences were unusual and distinct.

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My Plan B* includes *Bliss. Freighter travel on the broad, blue briny Atlantic was relaxing, unique, fun, and memorable. It was also very possibly addictive. I would happily and willingly travel as a seafarer anytime. The question now is, “How soon can I do it again?”

Vera D leaving Halifax Harbour