What to expect on a Cargo Ship Voyage

Preparing for our cargo ship journey from Hong Kong to Brisbane was a little daunting. What do you need for 12 days at sea with no internet? Would we be bored? Hungry? Who knew?

Here’s what we learned about what to expect from a cargo ship voyage.

First things first.

Is there a bar?

Cargo ships don’t have any kind of formal social area like a bar. The the only dedicated social space on the ship is the dining room and the mess. Our ship had a symmetrical layout, with the officers dining room and mess on the port side of the ship (true left), and the crew dining room and mess on the starboard side. There was a TV in each mess, and a ping-pong table in the officer’s mess, where we often whiled away an hour after dinner or lunch. We seemed to be the only people using it.

But, they do have a slop chest. And it’s really called that. We weren’t sure if there would be booze available onboard, so we’d brought a couple of bottles of wine and a six pack of beer just in case. It turned out that we shouldn’t have bothered, because there was plenty available, and even better, duty free.

Read about how to find and book a cargo ship journey.

If you fancy spending a couple of weeks at sea getting quietly drunk, this would be a very affordable way to do it. Gordon’s gin, Bacardi and Teacher’s whiskey were about $10 US for a litre bottle, wine started at $3.50 for a bottle, and you could get a 3 litre cask of NZ wine for $10. Crazy. It was $11 for a 24 pack of Korean beer, which is nice enough, or $15 to $20 for 24 kiwi beers from big breweries, which I didn’t think would be much better. So we went Korean.

On our ship the weekly orders from the slopchest had to be in on Friday afternoon, and they were delivered to our cabin after dinner after dinner. We ordered 24 beers, another bottle of wine, a litre of whisky, litre of gin, and 30 cans of tonic, which was way too many.  We also got some peanuts and popcorn. The Captain had asked the Steward to bring us some glasses and an ice bucket as well, so we suddenly had a private bar in our cabin. There was an ice machine on the bridge, I suspect this might have been a crew addition, so we could top our bucket up for afternoon gin and tonics. Bring a lemon if this is your thing!

Snacks and soft drinks were also available from the slopchest, at reasonable prices, though not crazy cheap (no duty to be freed from), and there was a small selection of toiletries in case of running out between the chance to shop in port, or forgetting something.

We settled our slopchest bill with the Captain in US dollars cash at the end of our voyage.

What other facilities are onboard?

Some ships have small saltwater swimming pools where you can do a few lengths. I’ve even heard of paddling pools on deck. Alas, our ship didn’t have a pool. Apparently they’ve stopped building pools on new ships because they’re not totally necessary, and everyone is trying to cut costs. Shipping profits aren’t what they used to be.

Our ship did have a gym though, with a treadmill, exercise bike, and some weights machines. And there’s always ping-pong, of course.

There was also a small laundry room, and a drying room. Laundry powder was available, and we managed to do a couple of loads while on board. Bear in mind that the whole crew is sharing one machine, and they have grubby work clothes to deal with, so you might have to wait your turn.

What’s the food like?

I was a bit worried about the food, being vegetarian. We’d mentioned this to our agent when we booked, but were told we’d just need to let them know onboard, and take our luck. I didn’t want to be a nuisance, but I had a quick chat with the cook at the beginning of our journey to explain what I didn’t eat, and to say it might be nice to have an egg or two instead of meat if the meat could be easily left out, but otherwise I’d just eat the sides. Generally this worked out pretty well.

Breakfast was eggs how you like them, with a different optional extra each day. Once a week this was the Hawaiian toast pictured. Then there was bread and cheese laid out if you wanted, and a different fruit juice on the table each day. Coffee we had on the bridge, where there was a bean-to-cup machine. Yum.

The main meal on our ship was lunch, which was usually massive. There would be a soup starter, a hot main course, and a dessert. This was usually fruit, but twice a week it was ice cream for a treat. With a toppings bar. 😲 Salad, cheese and bread were also laid out at lunch time. We ate a lot.

Dinner was another hot main dish, but without the starter or dessert. Bread and cheese were available again.

On our ship breakfast was from 7.30 to 8.30, lunch from 11.30 to 12.30, and dinner from 17.30 to 18.30. We ate in the officers dining room, and most of the officers would have their meal at the start of the mealtime, so we did too. Except breakfast, which we usually just managed to drag ourselves out of bed in time for.

Being out on the ocean with nothing in particular to do turned out to make us very sleepy. We slept about nine or ten hours a night, and napped too. I suppose we needed a bit of a rest after a year of constantly being on the move.

What do you do all day on a freighter cruise?

Apart from napping (sometimes twice a day), we mainly read books while drinking time-of-day-appropriate beverages. Mornings were spent sitting outside on the bridge deck, within reach of the coffee machine. The Captain sourced us some deckchairs from somewhere, which made this spot hard to leave.

After lunch we would read a bit more, or have a nap, and then do something a bit energetic. Arthur went to the gym every day. I went sometimes, but also did some yoga in our cabin, and a couple of times right out on the bow deck, steaming into the wind. The Captain told us he sometimes does Tai Chi out there.

The front of the ship was our favourite place to hang out in the afternoons, usually reading or writing, or just watching the flying fish jumping from the bow wave and cruising along above the water for a little while.

Once we’d had enough sun, we’d usually adjourn to our cabin to do some writing, or organising and editing of our photos from the last year on the road. I kept a long diary of our cargo ship journey, so I added to this most days, as well as drafting some blog posts.

Come early evening, we’d have a G&T on the bridge or in our cabin, or bring a beer out to the bow, and watch the world go by. Especially if there was anything but water to look at. We spent most of our voyage out on the open ocean, so any glimpse of land was very exciting. Especially a volcano!

Most evenings we watched a movie in our cabin, though we couldn’t watch all of the DVDs we’d bought in Hong Kong. The pirated ones all worked fine, but some of the ones we’d got from a real shop were the wrong region for the DVD player in our cabin. I guess piracy pays off at sea.

A couple of evenings we were invited to gatherings, in the Captain’s cabin, or in the crew mess. The latter involved mostly Filipino karaoke…

Some of our time was also spent touring the ship. We were given a look around some of the lower decks, and also a tour of the engine room, and one afternoon was also pleasantly broken up by a lifeboat drill.

It’s really very hot inside a closed top lifeboat in the tropics.

Do you feel the swell on a cargo ship?

We were travelling in the tropics, so the sea was mainly alarmingly flat. You could imagine what it would have been like to be becalmed here back in the days of sail. We went through some slightly rough water early on, in the wake of a typhoon, but you could barely feel the movement most of the time.

The very worst of it happened at night, when we were already in bed, so it was almost pleasant, being rocked up and down to sleep. I think you would get shaken about a bit in really rough seas, but the movements are so slow on such a big ship that I don’t think they’d make you sick too easily.

Cargo ship voyage packlist

We spent much of the two days we had in Hong Kong before our voyage madly dashing around trying to stock up on food and entertainment, and other freighter cruise essentials.

I was slightly gripped by a terror that we’d be horribly bored and hungry stuck in the ocean for 12 days with no escape. It turned out we were neither, and that just staring at the sea is surprisingly time consuming. But there were some things we were glad to have along.

All of the books. You can leave the ones you’ve read onboard, they’ll probably be gratefully received.

Our cabin had a TV and a DVD player. It’s a very long evening when dinner’s at 5.30, and you’ve already been reading a book all day. Movies (and meals) added a nice bit of structure to pleasantly empty days.

Worldwide plug adaptors
We weren’t able to find out what type of plug sockets we’d find on board, so we bought a global adaptor.

Fridge magnets
We didn’t bring these, but we really wished we had. The walls on the ship are magnetic, so you can use magnets to pin up photos, or maps of the next stage of your trip. Our cabin was huge and bland, and it would have been really nice to jazz it up a bit with some souvenirs and maps.

Grippy shoes
Some grippy shoes for exploring on deck are essential, and closed shoes if you’re going to have a tour of the workings of the ship.

Sensible clothes
Likewise, if you want to explore the ship, some vaguely sensible clothing is handy. Consider that you’ll probably be moving through different climates. Our sailing was mostly very hot, but it we needed to have long sleeves and trousers for our engine room tour. We were a little worried before boarding that we didn’t have smart enough clothes for meals onboard, but it turned out everyone wore normal casual stuff.

Despite all of the food, we got kind of hungry in the evenings because dinner was so early. We brought some cheese and crackers, and ended up having a bit of a cheeseboard later on in the evening most days. Our cabin had a fridge, which we mainly filled with beer, but there was a bit of room for cheese. We also brought along some chocolate for nibbling in the evening, and a pack of biscuits, but we could easily have got these from the slopchest onboard instead. The only other food we brought was a jar of peanut butter, which I’d chucked in our shopping trolley because I was worried about getting enough protein if I was skipping meat.

We were able to have a look through a pair on the bridge whenever we fancied, but it would be nice to have your own if you’ve got them. When there’s been nothing to look at but sea for days, a closer look at a distant piece of land is much appreciated. It’s also fun to examine passing ships in closer detail.

Read about how to book a cargo ship voyage here.

More soon on our cargo ship journey!

4 thoughts on “What to expect on a Cargo Ship Voyage

  1. This was so interesting to read about! It sounds relaxing and like a totally unique experience. I’m tempted to try it out sometime, though I’m not sure how well I’d do on that long a voyage!

    1. Yeah, so interesting. And totally relaxing. You’re totally cut off from the rest of the world, and most of the time with nothing but sea to look at. Apparently David Attenborough has described ocean travel as like sensory deprivation. I think I agree a bit. It’s otherworldly. I think this was also probably the longest I’ve gone without any internet access for about ten years…

  2. This sounds like a perfectly slow and environment friendly means of travel. I think I would love to have 12 days with nothing to do, except look out to sea, read, sleep, go to meals, and drink beer. Were you and Arthur the only human cargo or were there other travelers on board?

    1. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that! We were expecting there to be other passengers, because every account we’d read mentioned there being others, but we were by ourselves. I think it would be nice to have some other passengers to chat to, though there is something to be said for the total peace we experienced. We chatted to the crew a bit, mostly at meal times, or with whoever was the current officer on duty on the bridge. But they’re obviously busy working a lot of the time, and certainly on our ship kept themselves to themselves a lot.

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