Our journey across the Atlantic by cargo ship

We've safely crossed the Atlantic by container ship (barring a 24-hour engine repair at sea). We had hoped to find passage from London to New York, but the closest we could find was a booking on a ship from Liverpool, England to Chester, Pennsylvania. We ended up spending two weeks aboard the MV Bonavia, a German cargo ship flying a Liberian flag, on a trip that was surprisingly different from the journey across the Pacific that kicked off our trip.

Leaving Antwerp: Freighter travel requires flexibility. Our ship was was delayed by a week due to repairs, and we were warned that it might even skip the Liverpool stop to stay on schedule. It would apparently be safest to board at the previous stop in Antwerp, which is we started our long journey west from England by heading to Belgium. We took the Eurostar from London across the English Channel, spent a night in Brussels, and took a 30 minute train ride to Antwerp. We took a taxi from the station to the marine police office to complete immigration proceedings and boarded the ship that evening. The next evening the captain knocked on our door, inviting us to watch the ship maneuver out of port, passing through a tiny gate, and then a series of locks. The lights around the port started to come on, and the machinery looked like a mini cityscape. It was magical to behold.

Life on board:: The MV Bonavia was smaller and older than the MV Hanjin Madrid, the container ship that had carried us from the US to Japan at the start of our trip. There was no elevator, and the exterior decks were small. Our large wood-paneled room was right below the bridge, making it easy for us to run up to the bridge and upper deck every day, investigating the map, staring out at the water. We were starting a 14-day journey back home and we had come prepared. Anirvan spent time writing about the inspiring anti-aviation activists we had met in London. I sorted through photos and gorged on books good and bad, reading almost a book a day. We listened to missed episodes of favorite radio shows from back home: This American Life, The Moth, and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. We enjoyed the days when we got an extra hour as we crossed time zones. Spending time was not an problem.

Crew: What the new ship lacked in style and size it made up in soul. The crew of about twenty was a mix of Croatian, Polish, Lithuanian, Filipino, and Sri Lankan. They were incredibly cheerful; the Filipino steward and Sri Lankan cook always had particularly big smiles on their faces. Meal times were mostly silent on our previous ship, but here, we managed to have conversations with the Lithuanian captain and a friendly Filipino officer on topics ranging from the future of digital media to Filipino entrepreneurship. Though there were rumors that another passenger might join us in Liverpool, she never turned up, and we ended up being the only two passengers on the ship.

Food: An unexpected benefit of having several Sri Lankan crew members was a Sri Lankan food option at every meal! I had not expected to see any spices on this trip, let alone papadum (lentil cracker, popular in South Asia). One day we even had a dried fish curry. After a few days, we had figured out a way to ask for only vegetarian food without appearing to be fussy or strange, a task made easier by the fact that the Sri Lankan food was mostly veg; we'd been warned several times that cargo ships don't accommodate special diets. But one day I just had to try the ox-tail, apparently a common dish on ships; the verdict: strange-looking, but flavorful. We decided to skip breakfast everyday. Not only were the breakfast timings too early for us, but we couldn't possibly manage to eat three full sailor-sized meals when our primary physical activity was climbing the six floors down to the mess. It helped that we had brought some fruit, crackers, juice, and Belgian chocolate with us, to fill in the rare hungry gaps between mealtimes.

Weathering the storm: We weren't sure our ship would actually make it. There was the one week delay for repairs, and an unexpected extra day spent at Antwerp, before we docked at Liverpool. We left Liverpool on schedule, but when we woke up the next morning, we found that the ship had stopped. Apparently a cylinder liner needed replacement, and it was a 24-hour job. That night there were strong winds and they hit the ship hard as she drifted on the ocean. With the engines turned off, it should have been a quiet night, but it felt like a small earthquake was hitting the ship every ten minutes. Finally at 4:00 AM, the ship roared back to life, moving at high speeds to make up for lost time, making me sick. But that lasted only a day, and was nothing that sleep and toast couldn't cure. In the days that followed, the ship made its way steadily across the Atlantic, arriving in Chester, Pennsylvania only four hours behind schedule.

Dolphins! We watched the ocean mostly from our windows and the bridge deck. On the twelfth day, we decided to head to the prow and hang out in the sun. We were there for almost an hour, talking about our year, and our life back in Berkeley. The ocean was glimmering in the sun and we both felt in awe of the experience of being on the ship. Birds glided on the ocean. And I thought aloud, "if only I could see dolphins, my trip would be perfect." Dolphin sightings are apparently quite common, but only if you are spending a lot of time on deck or on the bridge. And then suddenly there were two dolphins jumping next to the ship; they were beautiful, and I didn't quite know whether to stare at them or photograph them. It was everything that I'd hoped to see. Ten minutes later, two more dolphins appeared. They disappeared under the ship and we ran across to find them on the other side, by which point in time we realized that we'd run into an entire school of dolphins, leaping up from everywhere and playing at the front of the ship for several minutes. It was breathtakingly beautiful, a moment we will cherish forever.

Related slideshow: Life aboard a transatlantic freighter: from Antwerp to Chester

Related post: Across the Pacific by container ship, from Seattle to Japan

1 Comment

I myself consider those cargo ships crews who transports everyone's packages from one place to another as a hero. They risk themselves just to make the transportation possible. Being at the ocean for many days and month, even years and away from their families. It is one hell of a job. they deserve a big salary..

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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