It is always hard to classify people. We are all unique. However, we want to know what we can expect when we wish to spend an entire voyage on a ship with limited human contact.
Over the past 40 years the demographics of our country has changed, and with it the demographics of those who travel by freighter. When I first started sailing our passengers were mostly people who were moving from one country to another, and wanted to travel with a lot of baggage.
My first trip with passengers was on the Pioneer Isle, a U.S. Lines freighter. We had mostly school teachers who were going to live in Australia for a year. One woman was travelling with her 17 year old daughter, who took a liking to us two cadets. We called her the blonde bombshell. She was more experienced than her age would indicate. She asked me to take her ashore in Colon, Panama, prior to our transiting the canal. It would be our last opportunity to go ashore prior to the 30 day passage from Balboa to Brisbane. Since I had to go to work early the next day, I wanted to return early to the ship. Wanda wanted to see all the night life that Colon offered. I didn’t think it was a good place for anyone to visit. I recall taking her to La Samba, a dive filled with drunken seamen and b-girls. She seemed to enjoy it, but after about 15 minutes there I wanted to leave, but not Wanda. I left her in the hands of the Engine Cadet, and went back to the ship. The next morning Wanda’s mother was mad at me, telling me that 2 A.M. was too late for her Wanda to return. I told her that it was too late for me as well! All of the officers seemed to enjoy the presence of all the female passengers.
These were the days before cheap air fares, and jumbo jets. On Moore-McCormack we even had some pilots from Aerolinas Argentinas and Varig returning from New York to South America. With Lykes we had some missionaries and nuns who did not like the selection of films on the ship when they were travelling from New Orleans to Guayaquil. In those days we had 10 each of 18mm films on reels that we would show alternately in the crew mess or officer’s lounge. On nice days with a following sea we would show them outside, on the after part of the house, showing them against the bulkhead of the #4 mast house, we called it the hatch 4 theater. Everyone would make nasty comments about the actors, actresses, and plot. Nowadays video cassettes don’t allow the same sort of togetherness.
The old freighters were “break bulk” freighters that loaded bales of cotton, drums of oil, and boxes of all sorts of freight and machinery. It would take days, or sometimes weeks to load and unload them. You could go ashore in ports and travel around in the interior of a country if you were a passenger or did not have to work. At least you could get a dinner off the ship, and get your hair cut. Now days there are few break bulk vessels remaining. Everything is containerized. Container ships can load and unload in a matter of hours. The crew counts down the days they have to work until their vacation, when they can leave the ship. Schedules are more firm, and port time is at a premium. A ship is not making money when it is not moving.
The passengers have changed as well. Few of the passengers are one-way immigrants to another country. Bargain hunters can find cheaper ways to get to a destination by air. Those passengers who travel by freighter now are usually people who are older, and retired, without job obligations. They are for the most part active and seeking adventure. They aren’t upset if the ship they thought was going to Naples and Genoa goes instead to Arzew and Mostagenem, Algeria. Ports like Asab and Port Sudan don’t frighten them. Many of them make friendships with fellow passengers. Often they have a cocktail hour before supper and spend the hours of the day reading in a deck chair or walking laps around the deck. A lot of passengers have made many voyages at sea, and spend nearly half their year at sea. It is a life with few cares or worries. You have 3 meals a day, and a comfortable cabin. Seldom do you need to worry about disturbing news on T.V. One of the great benefits of my seafaring career was not having a working T.V. to tell me what to worry about. You concern yourself mostly about the progress of the voyage, and speculate about the next port. You have to wash your own clothes, but your bed is made by the steward.
My major concern about passengers when I sailed as Master was that someone would get seriously ill or injured. There are no doctors aboard; so that we had to do the best we could with our limited knowledge and our medicine chest. If someone has a chronic health problem that could require medical attention, you should not consider freighter travel. Ships can be diverted to port for medical emergencies, but it is costly and a gut wrenching and often unsuccessful venture. Crews are small and the added burden of caring for a seriously ill person can be terrible. I used to tell passengers that if you get sick, you may die! The other side of that is that most people who have similar problems ashore wind up dying anyway, but only after the hospital bill assures that little will be left of their life savings.
On the Etiquette of Being a Passenger on a Freighter Ship
It’s hard to write about this subject. There’s an old salt’s expression, “different ships, different long-splices”. Each ship, each company, and each country have their own seafaring customs and traditions. The best rule of thumb is “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Watch how others conduct themselves, and try to take clues from them about what is expected of you.
As a passenger the most important thing to remember is not to get in the way of people who are working. Stay off the decks during cargo operations. Stay out of the pilot house and chart room when navigating in restricted waters or when a pilot is aboard. It is best to talk to the captain about visiting the bridge at any time. Keep out of the engine room unless invited, and unlike the film “Titanic” keep out of the cargo holds and don’t climb on the railing, especially on the bow and stern. I doubt that the White Star Line would have allowed any passengers in those areas. These are the don’ts of shipboard conduct.
Always address the captain as captain, or captain Smith, etc., not by his first name. Other officers should be addressed as Mr., or these days Mrs. or Miss might be appropriate. Always be on time for your meals. If you come early or late it causes conflicts in the seating arrangements in the mess hall. Unless invited don’t help yourself to things in the refrigerator, they may be someone’s private stores. Keep yourself clean, but remember fresh water is a valuable commodity at sea, and don’t spend a long time under the shower. Try not to complain too much about things that can’t be changed, such as the schedule, weather, or crew. I sailed with Lykes for many years, and found that the passengers liked to write to the company about their trip, including their impressions of the captain and crew. Lykes took them seriously, and forwarded them to the ship, good or bad. For that reason the captain and crew became nervous around passengers, and developed a dislike for them. They liked cargo that didn’t talk. Think of those passengers who follow you, and don’t be a “pipeline” to headquarters.
If you go ashore during meal hours, enjoy a meal ashore, don’t pack a picnic lunch or rush back at the last minute to ask for dinner when the crew is cleaning up the dining room. Don’t invite crew members into your quarters, or go into theirs, either. The company doesn’t need the legal problems that arise when this policy is violated. When entering and leaving port, don’t bother the captain or crew. It is a busy time for them. I always felt pressured when passengers would be asking me about city tours, money changing, etc. when I was trying to clear the ship and start the cargo operations as quickly as possible. Treat your quarters like your own home. Try to keep things orderly and neat, even though the steward will maintain your cabin.
Finally, you are going on the trip to relax and have fun more than to be at a destination at a specific time. Try to keep your need for communication with the outside world to a minimum. If you need to sell a contract for hog bellies, do it before you go on board ship. Don’t create situations where you have to do something important during the time of your voyage. You can take your notebook computer, but I don’t think you will be happy if you have to “surf the web” and check your email on a daily basis. On the ships I sailed, this would have been nearly impossible. Today it is possible, but telephone connections via satellite are expensive and limited.
For lots more information and stories about life at sea, both from a crew and passenger perspective visit the author’s website http://www.captainmcd.com/index.html You might also like to visit the pages about freighter travel on Escape Artist.