Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

A Freighter Across the Atlantic Ocean
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 5 2010 7:10 AM

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

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We have no tickets for our freighter. Just a piece of paper I printed out at home so I'd remember the name of our ship—the Independent Endeavor—and the address of the terminal. The travel agency assured us our arrival would be expected.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

A few decades ago, you could walk out onto a shipping dock and talk your way aboard a freighter, convincing the captain to give you a bunk or a spot on the floor. Maybe you'd work for your passage by swabbing decks. Maybe you'd just slide the captain a wad of cash. Whatever the arrangement, it was not unusual for a cargo ship to accept last-minute passengers.

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Those days are long gone. The golden era of freighter hitchhiking came to an end sometime around the mid-1970s. As with all great adventures, casual freighter travel stopped the moment the lawyers showed up. Shipping companies decided that, due to some pretty glaring liability and security issues, it would be insane for them to continue allowing their captains to take on random passengers. Nowadays, you can't get on a container ship without making reservations weeks in advance.

(Unless you secretly stow yourself inside one of the containers. Which I don't recommend. You could die that way. Even if you survived, you'd endure spooky darkness, brutal heat, and unbreathable air. A 1994 New York Times story about a group of stowaways from the Dominican Republic featured the evocative subhead "Three Days at Sea in Foul Box." The stowaways were discovered when a deckhand heard desperate shouting and banging coming from a container perched forty feet above the ship's deck.)

The boarding process for your average cruise ship—one of those big, white Caribbean gluttony tubs—begins with thousands of passengers in a snaking velvet rope line on the pier. A squad of cruise ship workers, all fake smiles and elaborate epaulets, will load piles of luggage onto bellhop trolleys. They'll lug these bags to the passengers' cabins, make sure everyone's safely on board, and then point the way to the pasta buffet.

There's no such service as we board our freighter. Instead, a single Filipino deckhand, wearing a blue jumpsuit and orange hardhat, leads us in a scramble a hundred feet or so up a temporary metal ladder that's been lashed to the side of the ship. At the top of the ladder, we step over a yawning precipice and onto the freighter's deck. Here we're briefly introduced to the ship's first and second officers—one German, the other Romanian, both far too busy to pay us any mind. The deckhand leads us up a dimly lit interior staircase, then down a claustrophobic hallway lined with mysterious clamped hatches. He points to a door and nods. Apparently, we've arrived at our cabin.

I actually prefer this gruff efficiency to the icky sycophancy of a cruise ship's hospitality workers. In fact, Rebecca and I are sort of pleased that we're not—as we would be on a cruise ship—the central focus and purpose of this journey. We're just two ancillary pieces of cargo that the crew needs to deliver safely.

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The ship's 3rd officer is a smiley Filipino guy named Gregorio. After breakfast, he takes the only four passengers on board (me, Rebecca, and Frank and Daphne—a retired couple in their seventies) out onto the main deck for our required safety lecture. In halting English, he describes the procedures for various emergencies.

First, Gregorio demonstrates how to use the "immersion suits" the ship has provided us with. These suits are thick, one-piece, neoprene coveralls that zip over our clothing. They feature a built-in lifejacket, a blinking distress light, and a whistle. They're meant to help us retain core body heat if, for some unfortunate reason, we are obliged to enter the frigid Atlantic Ocean without aid of a lifeboat.

The suits look like a child's footie pajamas. They're puffy, to provide warmth, and they're bright orange so they can be easily spotted from the sky. Daphne is appraising them rather doubtfully. I imagine her tiny frame bobbing gently in the swells, waiting for rescue.

The immersion suits explained, Gregorio moves on to the ship's alarm signals. Each different signal has a specific meaning. One pattern of horn blasts signals an emergency, "like if the ship sinks," as Gregorio delicately puts it. If we hear this signal, we're supposed to gather at a designated muster station. (This assumes the muster station is still peeking out above the waves.)

A second horn pattern signals a fire—in the event of which, again, we are to head for the muster station. (Assuming the muster station is not itself aflame.)

The third and by far most intriguing alarm is for a security alert. "Like if there are pirates," says Gregorio. I ask if, in the event of a pirate raid, we should gather at the muster station. "No!" says Gregorio. "Stay in your cabins and wait for the captain to give instructions over the loudspeaker. Because the pirates might be at the muster station!"

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As we learn on our first day at sea, there's not much to do aboard a cargo freighter. No TV. No Internet. No restaurants, no bars, no fitness centers. No cliques of passengers to meet or planned activities to join.

There is, however, a lot of peace and silence. We'd grown used to the noisy bustle of our D.C. lives—cell phone calls, television blather, honking rush hour traffic on the streets outside our apartment. The quiet we experience lounging on the fo'c'sle is almost startling.

The isolation of the ship is also a very welcome data detox. I can't remember the last time, before today, that I went more than a few waking hours without checking my e-mail. Rebecca and I and everyone we know are all addicted to the constant flow of data and chatter. But after one afternoon out here on the freighter, I find I couldn't care less what's piling up in my in-box or streaming across my favorite websites and blogs. What does it matter? It suddenly seems so trifling set against the ancient silence of the ocean.

During the day, when we're not at meals, Rebecca and I read in adjacent plastic deck chairs in the sun. When we want a break from our books, we stroll around the open-air parts of the ship—scouting with our binoculars for seabirds and maybe dolphins or whales. We've had no luck so far spotting ocean mammals, but hopes remain high.

At night, we put on sweaters and brave the salty evening chill. The stars twinkle against a pitch-black sky. No city lights here to turn the atmosphere milky.

We get our sea legs after the first day and become accustomed to the ship's slow, steady roll. It's wonderful to be rocked to sleep by it. It's so constant and powerful, it even seeps into our dreams. Rebecca keeps having this nightmare that she's back in her law firm's office tower and the building is undulating as though it's in an earthquake. File drawers rolling open. Casebooks spilling off shelves.

Then she wakes up and remembers that she left all those things behind.

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