Transatlantic on a Cargo Ship

Boarding the ship
Off we go – up the ramp into the unknown world of sea freight

I travelled with my partner Jessie from Liverpool to Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada on a Cargo Ship in September, as the first part of six months away in North and Central America.

It wasn’t just for the experience (though that was good!), it was a conscious choice to find an alternative to the typical carbon-intensive transport mode, a long-haul flight.

So how was it? First up, some frequently asked questions, as I’ve answered them a lot in the past three weeks…

  1. How long did it take? Six and a half days.
  2. How did you sort it out? Via an agency, (other agencies are available too!). They let you know about costs, dates and sort your booking with the freight operator.
  3. How much did it cost? 825 euros each (about £720). Around £100 per day to be at sea on a cargo ship is typical.
  4. How many passengers were there? Just 8 on our trip. There’s a legal limit of 12 passengers – any more than that and a cargo ship needs to have a doctor on board
  5. Was it rough? Did you get seasick? Nope, we had basic but comfortable accommodation. No one was seasick – I took the occasional motion sickness tablet to take the edge off the first signs, but I’d have been OK without.

You can read something about our rationale in a blog post here – this post is to share some photos and facts about the experience.

Orientation – into a new world

Inside the ship
Inside the ship – big machinery, with decks of cars above.

A thing I really enjoyed about the whole process was that there was nothing standardised about it. We had a few months of friendly emails with our agent to sort our ticket. Then in the final week, some more emails with someone at the port and the captain to sort out how we’d arrive and some vegan food options. When we got to the security gate at the cargo terminal in Liverpool, the guy on duty seemed baffled to meet two pedestrians with backpacks. The ferry terminal and ship were very much an environment not designed around passengers. This made it all the more fun – travel is about adventure and broadening horizons, right?

Life aboard

On the bridge
On the bridge, looking (unsuccessfully) for whales

Many people might think of a week at sea as being pretty hellish – how will you pass the time? Or perhaps, you’d think – what a great chance to be offline, get some reading done, maybe even some work. For us on our trip at least, the time seemed to fly by. Something of interest seemed to happen most days – doing a full escape drill including clambering into the lifeboat; prepping food and heading outside on deck for food with the crew; watching weather balloons being launched from the top deck; heading up to the bridge to learn about how the ship navigates and to look for other craft (very few) or wildlife (I only saw gulls).

I’d come prepared with a laptop and work to do that I could do offline. We even had a little access to internet each day, so I managed to send the odd email – most of my fellow passengers enjoyed the chance to switch off their devices for the week though. Books and jigsaws came into their own. There was a TV with DVDs, a sauna, table football and a mini-gym with ping pong too. Not quite the high-falluting lifestyle of a cruise ship, but a nice amount of gentle fun available.

At the dinner table
Dining time – like clockwork, three times a day

The main joy though came from the other people – our fellow passengers and the very friendly crew. Meals were thrice daily at regular times – and we covered a lot of interesting ground in our conversations. We were the only passengers with the carbon footprint of travel as our main motivator – some of the others were en route to Canada with a motorhome to go travelling, or were just fascinated by the chance to cross the Atlantic on a ship (actually – though that was all of us).


Halifax arrival
Arriving in Halifax at dawn. A magical feeling after six days of mostly empty seas.

We arrived in Halifax as the sun was rising – waking up by a major city after days of seeing little except the sea was a special experience. As with our departure, disembarking was again a very human experience, with helpful people improvising some arrangements to get us onto the land (just avoiding cargo already coming aboard!) and out of the port.

As it happened the first person we met in Canada, the manager of the cargo terminal no less, was originally from Broughton Astley in Leicestershire – a nice reminder that even though our mode of travel made the trip feel that bit longer, it’s still a small world.

Read more:

And we’re in Canada!

Ed Gillespie’s “Only Planet” tells the tale of an overland round-the-world trip, with several stages done by Cargo Ship.

A good deal has been written online about the idea of Slow Travel, a similar idea to the Slow Food movement. Here’s one accessible introduction to the idea of Slow Travel.