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If casinos and cocktails don’t float your boat, a berth on a cargo ship could be just the ticket. Find out more about this increasingly popular form of ocean travel. Words: Fiona Harper

Vying for space amid the shipping containers, 4WD vehicles and fuel trucks, aluminium runabouts glisten in the sun on the cargo deck. “We’re carrying a couple of TI Commodores, which we’ll unload at Thursday Island,” says Captain David Baume. He’s referring to the dinghies strapped down forward of the bridge that will soon become the eagerly anticipated ‘family wagons’ for Torres Strait families.

“A lot of people in the Torres Strait don’t own cars but they just about all own a runabout,” Dave explains to our small group of passengers. Manning the bridge of Sea Swift’s Trinity Bay, kitted out in khakis and thongs, Dave captains the weekly service between Cairns and Torres Strait.

On board Trinity Bay, our schedule is determined by the needs of remote communities who rely on the ship to replenish much-needed supplies. But Trinity Bay is not just carrying freight: fitted out with 16 comfortable air-conditioned cabins, she also has a complement of intrepid travellers on board for the ride. Lured by the opportunity to cruise to the Torres Strait, we have boarded as a sort of ‘secondary cargo’.

“I’m not much into casinos, cabaret shows or shuffleboard competitions,” my 80-something dining companion offers one night when I ask her what tempted her aboard. Much travelled and very independent, she is not alone in seeking out this particular form of ocean adventure. Indeed, there is a niche market within the travel industry catering to travellers with a similar outlook. Companies such as Freighter Cruises (soon to be re-named Freighter Expeditions) specialise in just that. Freighter travel expert Julie Richards warns that it’s not for everyone. Passengers need to be able to amuse themselves and have flexible attitudes, because shipping schedules can and do change with little warning.

“With just a few cabins offered to passengers on each ship, passengers need to book up to a year in advance,” says Richards. “They also should have plenty of the time to do the voyage.”

Return trips to Europe on freighters can take more than 80 days. “If you don’t have that much time, you could fly to Singapore or Hong Kong and pick up a ship going to Europe,” she suggests. “They sail every week via the Panama Canal.” Shorter voyages are also available on Asian and Australian routes.

Freighter travel is booming as an economical alternative to conventional cruises. A number of new expedition opportunities have opened recently to Australian passengers. MV Hanjin San Diego plies the route from Sydney to Pusan, Korea, with a 10-day voyage costing as little as $1,560 per person.

Mechanisation has minimised workloads on commercial ships, meaning fewer crew and officers are required to man the ships, freeing up cabin space. Shipping lines view passengers as another way to fill otherwise empty space in a business where compartmental space is the name of the game.

So what’s the attraction of travelling on a working ship? Freighter travel is all about the voyage rather than the ship itself. Cruise Passenger subscriber Stella Green, a veteran of some 40 voyages, stepped aboard Hong-Kong-based cargo ship MS Taiyuan in 1961 and fell in love with sea voyaging. In earlier years, she recalls, she would choose a freighter simply because of its route. More recently, though, she’s less interested in the destination but enjoys the workings on board, learning about seafarers’ lives and visiting the bridge and engine room at every opportunity.

“The important thing to remember,” she says, “is that cargo determines the ship’s schedule and passengers are the icing on the cake. One of the attractions of freighters over cruise ships is the possibility of unexpected ports. Also, the opportunity to be at sea and to really feel part of the world trade scene,” Green says, fondly recalling a last-minute voyage along the Australian coast that found her tucking into oysters and champagne on the bridge.

Cargo ships call into ports that are often far off the regular tourist routes. There are also the bragging rights that go along with belonging to the World Ship Society, whose members devour shipping schedules the way most of us peruse bus timetables. Many freighter-voyage aficionados come from marine backgrounds and have a lifetime love of the sea that’s hard to quell when retirement beckons.

Most cargo ships have an upper age limit of 79 years, but this form of travel is not just for retirees. On long ocean crossings, some passengers work on board, catching up on missed communications when they reach port. Others use the time to learn languages, study the stars, read or, as one man put it, “enjoy long conversations with my wife”. Time is indeed a precious commodity.

Living quarters are, for the most part, simple rather than sumptuous; they’re often spacious compared to those on cruise ships and usually have ensuite bathrooms. It’s not uncommon to find an indoor swimming pool, a library and/or a lounge as well as a gym: leisure facilities are essential diversions, keeping the crew active and amused when they’re off watch.

Then there’s the all-important dining room. As there are no activities schedules for passengers, meals are typically the highlight of each day. On most ships, there’s a small bar where you can buy drinks, often at duty-free prices. Dress is casual even when dining with officers – leave the cocktail dress and penguin suit at home. Parents should leave the kids at home, too, as few freighters cater for children under 12.

But perhaps the attribute you need most if you’re contemplating freighter travel is the ability to adapt. Ship schedules can change mid-voyage due to weather, maritime or freight considerations. Sometimes, the ship will dock late at night and leave port early in the morning, meaning passengers are unable to disembark. Delays may keep the ship in port longer than expected; scheduled ports may be bypassed entirely. Harbour masters won’t roll out the red carpet for the small cluster of passengers coming ashore, either. Commercial ports are often located well away from city hubs, so you can expect a fair hike or taxi ride into town. Which of course is all part of the adventure. If you’re the kind of cruiser who can’t wing it a bit, perhaps you’re on the wrong ship.

I’m reminded of this as I arrive in hot, steamy Cairns, searching for Wharf Number 8, from which MV Trinity Bay is departing. My taxi driver is confused about where to drop me when I tell him I’m a passenger boarding a ship bound for Cape York. It takes us both a while to realise that the decrepit green container with its walls removed sitting among the mangroves is indeed the ‘departure lounge’ where I’m to meet the Purser. Rusted out and seemingly well past its use by date, it’s a fitting venue in which to meet my fellow adventurers, who arrive, similarly bemused, as our freighter adventure begins.

More information

Sea Swift, www.seaswift.com.au

Freighter Cruises, www.freightercruises.com.au