Modern container ships are safe, yet there are risks, though small,
inherent in this mode of transportation.
This section will discuss these risks, along with a few other matters not covered elsewhere.

The life boats on freighters are quite different than those found on cruise ships. Take a look. It it hard to tell from this photo the location of this life boat. On smaller freighters it is usually located all the way aft on the vessel. This particular life boat has room for 23 people. It has a small engine, food, water, radio and navigational equipment. The radio that sends out a continuos distress signal which enables another ship or aircraft to get a fix on its position. Notice its' color: Orange. This is to maximize visibility from the sea or air. The seats have a shoulder harness, which is certainly a necessity when the boat is launched, or should I say dropped, off the aft of the ship.

Larger ships, with a larger crew, will have two life boats just like this, though their size may differ. These boats are usually located on each side of the superstructure and are lowered to the sea via an air or electric powered winch. They may also have a small fiberglass dingy powered by an outboard engine. If your vessel is running ahead of time and, weather permitting, the captain may conduct a life boat drill during which the lifeboats are actually launched.

There are no physicians on container ships carrying less than 12 passengers. There are no exceptions. One or more of the officers can suture wounds, set fractures, administer medication, or give injections. However, if you are hundreds of miles at sea and have a heart attack, or a condition requiring surgical intervention, there can be a real problem. The lack of a physician is perhaps the most serious potential risk to a freighter traveler.

The most serious thing that can happen on any type of vessel is fire. Unlike a cruise ship, that carries no dangerous cargo (other than hundreds of tons of fuel), a freighter is a dangerous place in case of a serious fire.

Explosive materials, such as propane are often carried aboard freighters. There are stringent requirements for storing flammable materials aboard ship. Passengers need not be concerned about the ships' cargo. However, they must strictly adhere to the ships' regulations limiting smoking. A perceptive traveler will assume the ship is carrying dangerous cargo and will not smoke on the main deck. It is bad etiquette, not to mention dangerous, to flip a still lighted cigarette over board. The reason is too obvious to require explanation.

Seasickness is a potential problem, especially if the weather gets a little rough. Rough is a relative term. The pitch and roll of a ship will depend on her size, amount of cargo and fuel, the ships' heading, wind direction, its speed relative to the ship and the size of the weather disturbance. I have been aboard ships where local conditions produced winds speeds of 60 miles per hour, yet there was hardly any pitch or roll. The same ship, on a beautiful day, off the cost of Southern California, was rolling plus/minus 10 degrees, with a fast moment of roll. (I find a slow roll of 18-19 seconds quite pleasant; reduce it to 9-10 seconds and it becomes annoying, especially when trying to take a shower). Either way, for a susceptible voyager, seasickness is a possibility. I am told that even experienced seamen are subject to this phenomena in nasty weather.

Apart from seasickness, when there is a lot of ship movement be extremely careful on stairways. There are railings on both sides of stairways for a reason. There are handholds in showers; I have taken more than one shower one-handed. Look for a handhold next to the W.C.

Always be alert on deck, especially if wet. Be alert for things on deck that you can step on, trip over, or bump into. On my last voyage, on the Cho Yang Atlas, every railing around the super structure walks had a support brace that protruded into the walkway. One of these braces was located about every six meters (18 feet). I tripped over one of them on daily bases. It is wise to stay off the main deck at night, even in the best of weather; usually there are no deck lights while at sea. However, do take advantage of any moon lit night to go forward.

On smaller freighters, there may be watertight doors leading to external decks. These are often closed while at sea. Warning: They are heavy, so watch your fingers. If you go out a watertight door that you just opened, be sure it is shut tight and latched. There may be a riser in the hatchway, so don't trip over it. Large freighters, because of their height above the sea, will not have watertight doors leading to external decks above the main deck.

When the vessel is docked watch out for docking lines. They will be from knee to waist high, on the forward and aft decks. Stay off the decks when cargo-handling operations are underway. There is no reason to be on deck at these times. It is necessary to be careful when going up or down the gangway. They are steep. Just because you see the crew taking two steps at a time, don't try it. It takes practice. Hold on to both handrails.

Expect something to happen to the ship, either a mechanical or electronic failure. I have been on voyages where the following has happened:

  • failure of the shaft generator
  • failure of the ship's navigational system
  • failure of engine while docking
  • failure of engine to start while waiting for the harbor pilot
  • destruction of the boarding ladder dockside
  • running out of fuel for the aux. diesel engines due to failure of the shaft generator
  • failure of the ship's air conditioning
  • breakdown of the main engine turbo charger
  • Failure of the ship's salt to fresh water conversion equipment, requiring water to be taken aboard in port.

Moreover, these are only the things I know about. None of the above problems delayed the vessels more than a few hours and at no time were the vessels in any danger. It is because "stuff" happens while at sea, or in port, that your travel agent will tell you that your travel/vacation schedule must be flexible.

Before you exit the ship, check the pier area. They are busy places with gantry cranes and various kinds of cargo handling equipment. If you want to take a stroll along the pier, walk parallel to the ship in the area between the water and the track used by the gantry cranes. In some ports, there is a traffic lane between the edge of the dock and the gantry crane, for example Rotterdam. Watch out for traffic. In all ports, you can catch a ride from the ship to the main gate. To get to the pick up area you will have to cross under or near the cranes, and perhaps across a lane of traffic. Pay attention to where you are and where you are going.

Once you leave the vessel, you are on your own. You are subject to the laws, regulations, and customs of a foreign state. If you are in a port in the Middle East, you may not be allowed to leave the ship. In these ports, it may be illegal to drink aboard the docked vessel (in all ports the ships' slop chest will be locked). Any magazines or newspapers with a partly nude woman could get you and the ship in trouble. The captain probably will advise you of unusual restrictions in ports of call. Personally, I have no desire to visit Middle Eastern ports! Ten hours through the Suez Canal was all of that part of the world that I care to see.

Be careful what you take ashore or even have in your possession on the ship. For example, cigarettes. You are generally allowed to have one carton of cigarettes in your possession when you leave the ship and a liter/quart of alcohol. In free ports like Hamburg, Germany, there will be no custom officers to inspect what you bring ashore. Nevertheless, as you leave the port area your vehicle is subject to routine search if officials want to stop your car. If you have something you shouldn't, you may become acquainted with the local legal system.

The only time that I have ever had my bags checked in any port was upon return to the U.S. It seems that in the U.S. there is no concern for what is going out of the country, just what might be coming in. Being who I am, when I was asked to open my bag I looked at the customs officer and said, "There is nothing in my bag but dirty clothes and about a dozen cartons of cigarettes". He laughed, but I was pushing my luck.

If you are coming into to the U.S. from South American ports, I rather suspect customs will inspect the traveler's baggage.

Drugs, whatever you preference, should be left at home. Getting stoned while on ship isn't a good idea. (Ironically, you can buy and consume all of the alcohol you want on board). Should you be found in the possession of drugs aboard ship, plan to take a plane home from the next port. It is not that the captain gives a dam about your personal preferences, but is responsible for your safety. He cares what could happen to the ship if a passenger were found to have drugs in his or her possession in a foreign port.

This is probably as good a place as any to mention swimming pools aboard freighters. They are generally small, perhaps 3-4 meters on each side. They are of uniform depth, about 2 meters. They are filled with ocean water. This means that they are empty until the ship is in warm water. On smaller freighters they are usually only half filled to minimize the amount of water that escapes due to the ships movement. You would be surprised at the amount of wave action in a pool. If the pool is located below the main deck, usually aft, there is a good deal of noise and vibration from the engine. On newer ships, the pools are located about on the 4th or 5th deck. Here there is little noise or vibration and a minimum of wave action. Some ships have outside pools, though I have never been on one. I suspect that pools are relatively new to container ships. With smaller crews on today's ships, there is more room available for such things, including more cabin space for travelers.

A pool is a nice diversion; a swim is always welcomed. However, a ship's pool is a little more dangerous than a land based pool or a pool on a cruise ship. After you have slipped a couple of time and banged your head on the steel plating, you will get the hang of it. In my experience, pools remain empty unless you specifically ask the captain to fill it.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention that a freighter is a place of many new olfactory experiences and they are not all from the galley. One ship I was recently on had a container that was leaking both fumes and a liquid sufficient to gag a maggot. I moved past that container quickly while passing it on deck.

I hope that this little excursion into shipboard life will give the potential traveler a little better idea of what to expect aboard a working freighter/container ship. Life there is a little more basic than on a cruise to the Bahamas on one of those white monstrosities called a cruise ship. For me, freighter life is great. It's an experience you will always remember. I cannot wait for my next voyage. Perhaps I will see you on a freighter some where, some day.