Why choose a slow way to cross the Atlantic? Or ‘How we ended up on a cargo ship for a week’

I’m currently away travelling in North America for 6 months and got there by travelling on a cargo ship from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia (see here for a sister post describing the voyage)

I was motivated to choose this mode by considering my personal impact on climate change. Was this a misguided idea given that they’re powered by bunker fuel, or a smart low-carbon choice? I’ll explain how me and my partner came up with this decision below.

The Context: Travel and Aviation

With apologies for sporadic referencing of the ideas informing my thinking, here’s my rationale for questioning long-haul flights for personal travel in 3 steps…

1: I know from many (enjoyably geeky) years of looking into the numbers of my personal impact on climate change that taking a long-haul flight means taking responsibility for emitting a great deal of carbon dioxide. For example, a return flight from London to the west coast of America would mean more than 2 tonnes of CO2 on my balance sheet. (Try out a carbon calculator for your whole lifestyle or just for flights if you’re curious.) This compares to the UK average carbon footprint of around 9 tonnes a year (more if you consider the impact of overseas manufacturing for products consumed here).

2: To have the best chance of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5° to avoid some of the worst impacts of a changing climate, we need to be getting down to something like 1-3 tonnes per year, the faster the better. Now, that carbon budget is for everything – heating our homes, travelling to work, food, consumer goods, so that’s not an easy ask! Some areas of life, like generating energy and urban mobility, have technological solutions that are going mainstream (like solar PV, bikeshare schemes, electric vehicles) that offer us good cause to hope to decarbonise. But for rapid long-haul aviation for the mass market it doesn’t look like there’s a techno-fix on the horizon – my understanding is that it’s likely to get more efficient and a small number of flights might sustainably(?) use biofuel, but most flights would still engender a large carbon footprint.

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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, https://www.cargoshipvoyages.com (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.

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