We've arrived in Japan, after ten days traveling by container ship. We boarded the MV Hanjin Madrid at the Port of Seattle, and disembarked today in Yokohama. It was a surprisingly fun trip: the people were nice, the accommodations were comfortable, and the views were beautiful. We have a new appreciation for how incredibly massive the Pacific Ocean is, crossing it mile by mile at ground level.
SHIP: Container ships carry cargo in containers, the kind you see on freight trains, and are responsible for moving around much of the world's manufactured products. Our ship, the MV Hanjin Madrid, is Korean-owned, and managed by NSB, a German shipping company. It's about twelve stories tall above sea level at peak, and has a capacity of about 4,000 containers. Most of the space on the ship is for cargo. Living quarters are a relatively tiny section in the middle of the ship. We were essentially living in a narrow nine-story apartment building located in a sea of containers. A cargo ship isn't a cruise ship; people, particularly passengers, are incidental. You're cooped up in one tiny area, expected to take care of yourself, and a wide variety of trade-offs are made to optimize for cargo over people. For example, cargo ships don't have stabilizers, so you really feel the ship's every motion.
ACCOMMODATIONS: We felt guilty at how nice the accommodations were. We'd envisioned roughing it across the ocean, but instead, we were put up in a very nice sixth-floor cabin, 320 square feet (30 square meters) in size, with a large sitting room, a bedroom with a queen-sized bed, and small private bathroom. It was essentially a tiny apartment, with furniture, built-in storage, and electronics (CD and DVD players). Crew members spend four months at a time on board, so their rooms are thoughtfully designed to be snug, but comfortable, living spaces. We loved the design details--a discreet built-in retractable clotheslines in the bathroom, a reading light right next to the bed, a desk with handy power outlets, and lots of mirrors to make the space appear larger and brighter. We had access to a shared washer and dryer, a gym room (where we played ping pong), a sauna, and a swimming pool (not filled because of the ship's rocking). We were able to look out the window or step outside anytime to see the ocean. This was the opposite of transoceanic flight, with all its hurry, security theater, and cramped antiseptic spaces.
FOOD: Three meals were served every day, all "hearty sailor fare" -- large, and meat-heavy. We ended up getting small portions, eating a lighter, more vegetarian subset of the full meal. There were separate meals served for officers and crew, though that broke down by lines of nationality, so Europeans (most officers, a few crew members) and passengers would sit in one room and eat "European" food while speaking German and English, and the Filipinos (most crew members, a few officers) would sit in the other room and eat Filipino food while speaking Tagalog. This is the stuff sociology dissertations are made of, but we didn't explore, just ate.
A sample daily menu:
- breakfast: stramer max bread, cereal, cheese, juice, coffee, tea, milk, fruit
- lunch: fried fish, fried potato, French beans, greens with pea soup
- dinner: sweet and sour pork, steamed rice, cucumber salad, cold cuts, cheese, salad
SEASICKNESS: The ship rocked (literally), but we did OK. We'd worried about and prepared for the possibility of nausea but thankfully neither of turned out to be particularly prone to seasickness, barely needing to touch our stash (accupressure wrist bands, ginger gum, Dramamine, and prescription behind-the-ear motion sickness patches). Much of the voyage was quite comfortable, like being in a subway, or a passenger airplane under reasonable conditions; it's easy to ignore low-grade jittery motion. But we did hit ocean turbulence at times, with about a day in the middle when the ship was rocking back and forth heavily, worse than an airplane in heavy turbulence. Of course unlike a plane, we weren't strapped into tiny seats; we'd get up, take a shower, get breakfast, all the normal things people do during a day. Anirvan realized he was blessed with motion drowsiness; whatever it is that makes him drift off on long BART rides kicked in on board, so he kept dozing off as the ship rocked him to sleep, spending 16 hours of a particularly rocky day comfortably asleep.
PEOPLE: It was strange being the only passengers on a working vessel. Everyone else was on a four month stint on board, continuously looping around the Pacific. The officers were mostly German, with a few Poles and Filipinos; the crew was all Filipino, with one European. We got a chance to chat with several people, on and off work time. Folks were incredibly polite, sometimes pretty friendly. It's highly-skilled and relatively well-paid work, but having to spend four of every six months away can be difficult; many sailors have families, keeping in touch with expensive phone calls and limited email. With efficiencies in the industry, shore leave time is now often just hours, giving them little ability to set foot in the countries they deliver goods to. This is a big change. Our captain, for example, had spent two weeks on shore leave in Yokohama back in the less-efficient 1970s. Technology's also made another big difference: almost everyone on board now has personal tech/media stashes: CDs, DVDs, MP3 players full of music, laptops full of movies, games, etc. This means folks spend more free time behind screens and headphones, less social than in the past; some things are the same the world over.
CARGO: Our ship hauled 2,800 cargo containers across the Pacific, carrying goods possily worth between $50 and $500 million (our uneducated estimate). No matter which window we looked out of, which deck we stood on, we were always in a sea of cargo containers in the middle of the ocean. And yet on a day to day basis, the crew seemed to give very little attention to the cargo, besides making sure the containers were safe and secure. The containers are generic and unmarked, and except in the case of dangerous goods, the officers and crew have little or no idea what it is they're hauling. It's a very anonymous experience, acting as the corporate courier service of the seas.
ENVIRONMENT: We decided to travel by cargo container ship because of concerns around the climate impacts of travel, but we learned about a host of other interesting environmental issues and concerns on board:
- fuel: the ship guzzles incredibly massive quantities of low-grade fuel, except near countries that require cleaner higher-grade fuel; the ship carries multiple types of fuel, switching between them as required
- ballast water: when ships pull in seawater at one location, and releases it in another, they risk unintentionally carrying ocean life with them, which can be destructive to recipient ecosystems
- drinking water: we drank and washed with UV-treated desalinated ocean water, probably better-monitored than bottled water on shore.
- sewage disposal: sewage on board is biologically treated and gray water is released into the ocean
- waste disposal: there are a variety of concerns about what and where different kinds of waste can be disposed of; there are also concerns about different ports having different waste disposal practices
TRY THIS AT HOME, KIDS: Taking a container ship instead of a plane worked out really well for us. Container ships are neither sustainable nor scalable, but to the extent that it's greener than flying, we'd totally encourage folks to give freighter travel a try. It's an option for reasonably healthy able-bodied people with flexible schedules and low food restrictions. We got our booking through a company called Freighter World, and would recommend them to others.