Extreme Green: Travel By Cargo Ship

Cargo ShipMy 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…

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8 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Amy said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    Hm – while I can understand the desire to not contribute to GHG emissions by flying in a plane, cargo ships contribute to other problems that also have to be acknowledged:

    Cargo ships burn bunker fuel, which is dirty diesel fuel that contributes to PM, SOx and NOx emissions that can lead to cancer, respiratory problems and heart problems for both those working on board and for those who live near ports or major shipping routes. In the US, US-flagged ships are required to have certain emission control technologies and/or burn a certain level of cleaner fuel – however, the vast majority of ships are flagged for other countries (generally, African or Asian countries), even if they are really owned by a US company. This will change in the coming years – by 2012, all ships entering US waters will have a requirement to burn less-dirty fuel, assuming a lot of political and economic factors go the right way.

    On the other hand, I can see the argument for “tagging along” on something that’s already happening and thereby not creating any additional emissions – great if you can handle the “slow travel” and have flexibility (and don’t have children, since cargo ships won’t take them). However, it just highlights that, right now, there’s no truly sustainable way to get cross-ocean. There have been pilot tests with using wind power and solar power on ships, and some very limited tests with hydrogen fuel cells, but we’re still a long way off. Vacuum tubes?!

  2. 2

    Linnea said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    Correct me if I’m wrong, isn’t there also some trial going on in Australia regarding biofuel jets?

  3. 3

    Ian said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    For the cost issue, is there not a possibility at being a low-wage ship worker to get from one port to the other? Seems iffy when I think about it, but then at least you’re not bleeding cash and have some definite things to do while aboard. Might require specific skill sets, sadly, but if they’re willing to have an extra pair of hands at the small cost of a few hundred pounds weight, 3 meals a day, and a place to sleep, it could be worked out.

    For the emissions, if the plane was flying overseas anyways, how is not getting on causing a significant carbon issue? I will admit to not being fully up on my emissions logic, but for one person I am not sure I see the carbon benefit. Also I do not know how you would calculate the emissions from a non-passenger ship. By weight? Even then, I doubt that getting across the ocean is all that environmentally friendly using any modern technology currently in use…

  4. 4

    Maggie said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    Amy –
    Good point on the dirty diesel. I think part of the reason people choose cargo ships is to counter that instant gratification culture that is fed by technology that allows us to hop on a plane and be across the world in a few hours. Not exactly environmental, but linked to the simple living movement so it feels more environmentally sound. But yeah, no perfect solution yet by any means.

    Linnea –
    I hadn’t heard about a biofuels jet but I’m intrigued. The last I heard they were still struggling with the issue that biofuels gel or freeze at much higher (warmer) temperatures so most of them can’t handle the low temperatures at high altitude. My parents have not-so-fond memories of their old diesel van that would not start if the temperature were below freezing because the fuel would become a solid block of ice…

    Ian –
    I haven’t researched it in detail but I heard that it’s really hard to get a ship worker position, primarily because of union agreements. You have to be a registered sailor (I’m sure there’s another word) to get on a reputable ship. Undoubtedly you could find one with lower standards but you might not enjoy the experience.
    As far as hopping on the plane goes, you’re right that one more passenger doesn’t make a huge difference. However, a flight will only take place if there’s a certain number of people taking it so if we’re all trying to consider ourselves as just one extra person, we’re all contributing to the problem of generating one flight’s worth of emissions. It’s sort of the opposite of bus use. Right now we have buses that are driving around with only a couple of people, which suddenly makes it really wasteful to take the bus (imagine driving a giant empty bus to and from work compared to driving a hybrid). But if you have thirty people riding the bus, it suddenly gets way more efficient than having each person drive a hybrid. So we need more people riding buses (and not driving cars) to decrease our overall emissions.

    I tend to take the middle-ish ground and fly when I need to travel more than about 300 miles away but limits myself to only a flight or two per year. I have not yet embraced Gene Logsdon’s advice to stay home and enjoy all the beauties of your own community and forgo the temptations of travel. I guess I’m too easily tempted. 🙂

  5. 5

    Linnea said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    I think it is as important to experience other cultures as it is to explore our own. While the internet and subsequent mass availability of information makes travel to other countries less necessary, I think firsthand experience is immeasurably valuable. Maybe we just need to be more efficient with our travel plans? Instead of flying to various locations for a week or two each, scattered throughout a few years (as Americans tend to do), maybe we should explore the Walkabout Method and take a year to explore any given continent, relying largely on mass and self-powered transportation.

  6. 6

    susan welborn said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    I believe Americans are more concerned now than ever about “being green” for future generations.

  7. 7

    Social Work Programs said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    Wow, what an adventure. I wonder if any pilgrimage is how we think it will be. It probably is the most growth for us when things aren’t going our way actually. Though we think of travel as things being the way we wish on most levels. But for spiritual growth I think travel can be powerful because we often have our egos frustrated.


  8. 8

    Al Allingtob said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 4:58 am

    A couple things, in response to a couple older posts regarding biodiesei, the Air Force seems to be a leader in using it and the Army is the biggest government agency (by a long shot) using and promoting solar power.

    Regarding the carbon issue. I too worry about that as I travel but as suggested in a post, I am able to stay 30-90 days in a country and live very low tech. I eat most meals from street vendors and the rest from small mom/pop restaurants to help the local economy and stay in small family owned places or hostels. I am 64 and will consider a tramp ship for the future. I can’t solve all the world problems just leave a small footprint. My kids/grandkids love my updates and pictures so hopefully I am making the world mote familar for them. Al

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