*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


A Battle in Barcelona

Barcelona Container Port

It was never how I imagined my European holiday would end – in a police car, driven at high speed, through the Barcelona Container Port.

But that’s how it ended – sitting in the passenger seat, next to a Spanish National Police Officer.

The drive from the terminal security gate to the pier took two minutes – no longer. Then, a grateful handshake with the Officer. I say, “Gracias”. Smiles and the customary farewells.

From the car trunk tumbled my bags. Two went over my shoulders; the third one clutched in hand. Thus burdened, I climbed the gangway from the pier.

Gangway to a freighter ship
Gangway to the Vera D

And it was done.

In the blink of an eye, Europe was behind me. I was on board.

After days of waiting, anxious delays and aborted efforts I was finally on my way. To Halifax! A passenger on the cargo freighter, the “Vera D”.

Only later did I fully appreciate that I was in fact, a ship‘s crew member. And thereby hangs a tale…..

Barcelona from the bridge of the Vera D
Barcelona Harbour from the bridge of the Vera D
Barcelona Harbour from the bridge of the Vera D

Last February, Bob’s Excellent Adventure was still in the planning stages. I wondered, “How I could minimize the climate impacts of my trip?” Flying generates tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. “What were my options if I wanted to return home from Europe solely by surface transportation?”

My friend, Barry Truter, had once taken a freighter from Vancouver to Vietnam. So, I called him. Barry put me in touch with his travel agency, “Slow Travel Experience”   https://www.langsamreisen.de/en/ . Based in Germany, they specialize in connecting passengers with freighters. Through them, I learned the Vera D would be travelling from Europe to Halifax about the time I wanted to come home.

I signed all the required forms:

  • acknowledging my needs as a passenger would be subservient at all times to cargo requirements;
  • my physician declaring I had no health problems requiring medical attention while in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean;
  • confirming I carried adequate travel insurance coverage in case of a medical emergency.

I paid the fare and reserved my spot. I would join the ship at Genoa in late June. With stops in Barcelona, Valencia and Lisbon, it would reach Halifax two weeks later in mid July.

I left Calgary on May 4th. No sooner had my flight arrived in Toronto, than I received the first of four notifications of an itinerary change. The freighter’s departure from Genoa would be delayed to early July.

“Ah, wonderful!”, I thought. Already this adventure was improving. More time in Europe. “What could be better than that?”

This process would repeat another three times. With each delay in the ship’s itinerary, I gained extra days to explore Europe. I could not have been more pleased.

The last itinerary change had a difference, though. The Genoa stop was cancelled. The ship would instead be leaving from Barcelona. To catch it, I would have to travel from the Czech Republic to Spain, not to Italy.

Even then, I welcomed the change. 30 Million tourists a year can’t be wrong. I was happy to find out for myself why Barcelona has such star power. http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/wv3/en/

Slow Travel Experience advised me to be in Barcelona a few days before the departure date of July 18. I would need to check in with the port agent as well as be available to board in case the ship departed earlier than scheduled.

The Shift

As directed, I arrived at the offices of the port agent to get my instructions. However, the interview had rude and unwelcome surprises. The manager of the port agency came out to speak with me. Instead of giving me the expected help, he objected to my travelling on the Vera D.

So far as he was aware, the charter company had not authorized the carrying of passengers. They only carried cargo. In fact, he had never before had a passenger on their freighter.

“Who sold you your ticket?”

“The ship’s owner”, I told him.

He replied that his company only represented the Cuban company that had chartered the ship, not the owner. If the owner wanted me to travel as a passenger, then the owner needed to have a separate agreement with his company to represent me as port agent.

“Anyway”, he continued, “the port where the Vera D will be arriving has no customs clearance. Only the ships’ crews are allowed there.” He did not know how I might get Immigration and Customs clearance to leave the country.

I have since thought often about that encounter. The ship could carry a maximum of only two passengers. Why would he be troubled about the tiny extra passenger revenue the owner could generate?

Perhaps he was threatened by discovering he was out of the loop;  or by uncertainty as to how to manage the anomalous passenger standing in front of him. Maybe there were already other problems between the owner and the charterer.

In any event, whatever the reasons, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help me.

Somewhat alarmed and dismayed, I described this turn of events to my travel agent. Clearly, we needed a Plan B*!

Plan B* – an Ingenious Solution Emerges

Ah yes, Plan B*! But Plan B* can sometimes have false starts. And this one certainly did.

I was first asked to call a company in Gibraltar. They would help me. I called. “No, sorry.” They had no jurisdiction to act in Barcelona. That was a dead end.

The next initiative seemed more promising. I was invited to the offices of Hamburg Sud, a large German cargo shipping line. One of their senior managers assured me they would arrange for their port agent to represent me.

I was at least heartened by his observation that after 45 years in the industry he had never seen such an impasse. To him, it was “crazy” that the charter company should object to a passenger joining a cargo ship. Amen to that.

Ships at anchor in the ocean
Ships at anchor outside Barcelona harbour

By now, the Vera D was in Barcelona at anchor outside the harbour waiting for a berth. It was anticipated it would dock on Saturday, July 22.

It wasn’t exactly panic, but on Saturday morning, the new port agent did not contact me and was not answering my phone calls to him.

As the morning wore on, I began to make urgent calls and emails to Slow Travel Experience. Miraculously, they were available throughout the day. They urged me to go to the terminal and present my ticket. I should do everything in my power to attempt to board while the ship was moored and loading cargo.

I called a taxi. With luggage loaded, we roared off to the container port terminal.

At the security control point, I showed my passport and ticket. “Where is your port agent?”, the security guard asked. “I don’t have one,” I replied.

“It is not possible to get to the docks without a port agent,” he said, handing me back my documents.

My stomach dropped. My heart sank. Fortunately, at least the taxi driver had not abandoned me. With the meter still ticking, he returned me to my accommodations in the city. (Another miracle. They had one room left.)

More emails to Slow Travel Experience. I began to search the internet for flight options to Canada from Europe.

Slow Travel Experience tried to reassure me. “The ship’s owner is working to get you on board.”

Finally! At 16:08, Saturday afternoon, Plan B* finally kicked in. Third time a charm.

I received an email from an entirely new source, “Barcelona Transcoma Shipping”. The email had directions, times and instructions. A few minutes later, I received a phone call confirming the details.

I would be picked up at 8:00 the next morning – Sunday. They would take me to the terminal security gate. They would not leave me until I was on board the ship.

Events unfolded more or less as promised. The much delayed Vera D had finally been allocated a dock. My young driver eventually appeared and took me to the terminal I had visited only the day before. However, after waiting with me at the security gate for nearly two hours, he was called away. “To the Immigration Office”, he said.

Something worked. Not long after he left, the Spanish National Police arrived to stamp my passport. Relief! Elation!

And then, fifteen minutes after that, my escort arrived – not my port agent, but again, the Spanish National Police.

It was only once on board and my journey commenced, did I come to understand the ingenious solution adopted by the ship’s owner. The charter company port agent continued to refuse me boarding the Vera D as a passenger. Instead, the owner simply added me to the ship’s crew list. This allowed the ship’s owner to use the port agent that represented their crew.

It also had another elegant advantage. The charter company port agent had the power to frustrate or prevent me from becoming a passenger. But he was powerless in preventing me from travelling as one of the owner’s crew.

Ah, Plan B*! It can be credited with “Besting a Barcelona Bully”!


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