My friend Scott has been dreaming of taking a pilgrimage for several years so it was no surprise when he announced his intention to hike the Camino del Santiago in France and Spain this past summer. He does not like to fly, largely because of its negative environmental impacts, so he spent some time trying to figure out alternatives. We both had heard a presentation from a guy who took a cargo ship to Europe and then traveled the mainland by train and bicycle. It sounded a little extreme but also kind of exciting. We heard another friend tell her story of getting a deal on a cruise ship that was relocating from Florida to Europe and decided maybe the boat ideas isn’t totally crazy.
It is, however, rather long and expensive when compared to flying. Scott did some research and decided that the cheapest way to go is to take a tramp ship. Most cargo ships have set routes (say between New York City and Lisbon, Portugal) and have a buyer who is responsible for filling the ship with goods on either end and selling it on the other end. Tramp ships are wanderers who pick up cargo where there’s a surplus and deliver it where it’s needed, with much more flexibility. It can be a bit riskier since these are HUGE ships that are ridiculously expensive to operate, but on the other hand they can take advantage of big market swings and buy up cheap commodities in one place and take them wherever they will sell well.
Scott booked himself passage on a cargo ship leaving Chicago via Lake Michigan and headed across the Atlantic Ocean. All they could tell him in advance was that the ship would pick him up somewhere near Chicago, sometime in the second half of August and that it would drop him off somewhere in Europe or Northern Africa, with an estimated travel time of 20-30 days. The ship that he ended boarding on August 17th was 200 meters long, 23 meters wide, carrying 20 crew, up to around 15,000 tons (yes, tons) of cargo, and one passenger – him.
The adventure began when the Polish chef could not be made to understand the request “vegetarian food” but it snowballed from there. Normally, the ship would pick up either grain or steel from the Great Lakes region and then cruise through Lake Huron and Lake Erie, on up the Saint Lawrence River, and head across the Atlantic Ocean. However, things did not go as planned:
Because of the strange state of the U.S. economy, the ship was, for many days, paralyzed at sea without cargo. At a cost of many thousands of dollars per day just to maintain the ship drifting, the pressure was on the owners to find some cargo to justify the two week trip across the Atlantic to Europe. Nevertheless we found nothing viable in the Great Lakes. The captain, who had been one for 39 years, nor any of the crew, had ever heard of a Polsteam ship NOT finding cargo in the Lakes – a tribute to the unsurpassed peculiarity of the U.S. and world economic crisis that we have now heard so much about and which few if any of us actually understand. So it was that we had to travel all the way around the Eastern Seaboard to New Orleans (or ‘NOLA’ in shipspeak) to load corn. What was more, once we motored down the east coast and rounded Florida, Hurricane Ike followed us into the Gulf of Mexico, and though thankfully its destructive center missed us, it still eventually slowed our access to NOLA ports. Ike’s several days of unrelenting 25-50mph winds effectively dammed the water that ordinarily flowed down and out of the Mississippi, creating a gigantic temporary lake, above which peered houses, trees, cars, boats, etc. Ports and roads were closed, some evacuations occured, a traffic jam on the Mississippi resulted.
Even more unfortunately for Scott, he was being charged by the day for his passage, even though he wasn’t getting any closer to his destination. He was also getting further and further off his timeline of hiking the Camino and then catching a flight back to the U.S. to attend my wedding. On September 25th, 38 and a half days after boarding, Scott disembarked in New Orleans and made his way back to his hometown of Austin, Texas, pilgrimage unfulfilled.
Well, he would say that in one way it was a really significant pilgrimage; just not the one he expected! I haven’t asked him yet if he would ever try the boat trip again. It sounds totally overwhelming to me although I do find the idea rather romantic – tucked away on a ship filled with tons of exotic cargo, hanging out with a crew who speaks no English, being totally cut off from the Internet and TV and radio, enjoying days of quiet contemplation in the middle of the ocean. Of course, I also once fantasized about stowing away with truck drivers, traveling the country with my laptop writing the next great American novel and hanging out in tiny towns along the way, so I know the romantic in me can get a little crazy…