Experiences Living or Working on a Cargo Ship/ Freighter
July 5, 2016 5:58 AM   Subscribe

Need recommendations on experiences working or living on a cargo ship/ freighter (within the last century). Fiction or essay or article or non-fiction acceptable. Research for a book.
posted by moiraine to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Looking for a Ship by John McPhee
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:13 AM on July 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

Just came in to suggest Looking for a Ship. I haven't read it yet, but The Docks by Bill Sharpsteen might also be a good one.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:23 AM on July 5, 2016

Dorothy (cat and girl, verysmallarray) Gambrell booked passage on a transpacific freighter in 2006. A multipart travelblog resulted.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:58 AM on July 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Slow Boats to China by Gavin Young. He traveled on all types of boats but it does include cargo ships. He also wrote a sequel which I haven't read.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:59 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

An oldie but goodie, The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes (1956) a novel, set on a freighter.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:16 AM on July 5, 2016

Maya Jasanoff wrote a blog and a New York Review of Books piece on travelling on a freighter from Hong Kong, which may be of interest.
posted by AwkwardPause at 7:18 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Supership by Noel Mostert. About oil tankers of a then (1974) unprecedented size.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:49 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Linda Greenlaw (the most successful swordfish-er of all time), who had a sort of peripheral part in the real-life 'perfect storm' (on the Hannah Bowden, not the Andrea Gail), wrote a pretty great memoir: The Hungry Ocean.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:42 AM on July 5, 2016

Seaspray and Whisky. Absolutely hilarious memoir of tramp steaming in the 1950s.
posted by Miko at 10:09 AM on July 5, 2016

Cargo shipping has changed tremendously since the advent of shipping containers. It's now a very lonely life with ships discharging and picking up cargo often at far-from-cities cargo hubs. No romance left unless you're writing a book about loneliness at sea in a scenario of constant movement
punctuated by brief (like 18 hour) stops at distant cargo terminals. Berthing at a location where sailors can have any sort of shore leave, or even re-provision is exceedingly rare. Everything is coordinated so stops are as brief as possible. Time is money on the sea.

I know about this because my husband was a merchant sailor (European ships, Panamanian flags) for about 7 years in the late 70's and early 80's. He left because we got married, but his friends who have remained lament the lonely life. They could sail around the world, and some do, and never set foot on dry land. The money for officers is still pretty good, but most sign on for only short, like 6 month contracts max, with longer stays at home. Otherwise it's just too lonely for them. It used to be that officers occasionally took their wives along (officers had private rooms) for portions of the cruise if they were going someplace interesting, but I don't think that's done anymore, and I don't know why they'd want to go along without any chance to visit any of the destinations they sail to.

The laboring staff on ships, in contrast to the officers, was largely from developing countries like Thailand or Ceylon, who ship out as a group with their own cook, speak their own language among themselves, and bunk together. Not sure if this is still the case, but I suspect it is. Also, no matter the origin of the crew the common language is English, and all ship-to-shore communication is in English.

I'm not sure if this is the kind of information you're looking for, but I think it's interesting that cargo shipping has changed so dramatically in only 25 years, all because of shipping containers.
posted by citygirl at 11:46 AM on July 5, 2016 [11 favorites]

On the radio side, check Cargoland, a fantastic series by Lu Olkowski presented by KCRW.
posted by mykescipark at 2:16 PM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not a book, but you might try following GCaptain at http://gcaptain.com. Daily stories about the shipping industry. Every now and then there is a story like crew marooned on idle freighter or the like. There is a daily newsletter which is free.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:20 PM on July 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

+ Running away to sea: round the world on a tramp freighter - George Fetherling
+ Saddled at sea: a 15,000 mile journey to New Zealand by Russian freighter - Josie Dew
posted by little eiffel at 8:33 PM on July 5, 2016

Thanks for the suggestions so far, will go through them slowly. In reply to citygirl's question: Indeed, I am not looking for romance, but rather the somewhat surreal and perhaps boring experience of being in a massive cargo ship surrounded by large containers. I have been on a modern drill ship (drilling rig that can be sailed away) before and it was all metal and steel and engineering and people as small as ants. I need some cargo-ship specific experience though, with shipping specific terminology.
posted by moiraine at 11:32 PM on July 5, 2016

Postcards from a Supply Chain is a great multi-part blog about following the progress of goods through... well, a supply chain. There are many ships and containers.

Slow Boat from China is another good one from the excellent Roads and Kingdoms blog.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:55 AM on July 6, 2016

Polar Express is a New Yorker essay in that polished NY style that we dig. Comes with a hypnotic short video.
posted by ovvl at 9:18 AM on July 6, 2016

I believe Miss Smilla's Sense of Snow involves containership travel. At least, she travels on an icebreaker, which is pretty industrial and not cruise-like in any way.
posted by Capri at 1:54 PM on July 6, 2016

It appears you are looking for anecdotes about life sailing on a container ship? If so, please MeMail me and I'll loop cityboy in.
posted by citygirl at 9:45 PM on July 6, 2016

Non fiction book about cargo shipping that I absolutely loved - The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. The author talks about how the container changed the shipping industry, going into both sea and land aspects. There are interesting bits around how different unions for ships negotiated differently in Europe and US, and how the container changed the shipping culture dramatically.
posted by olya at 8:40 AM on July 12, 2016

I posted a load of links on the Blue from the blog of a couple who travelled for 28 days on a cargo ship a fews years ago. Some anecdotes about fishing and barbeques on there.
posted by jontyjago at 9:01 AM on July 13, 2016

Previously on the Blue: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
In case you haven't seen those yet.
posted by Kabanos at 10:00 AM on July 14, 2016

Photographer Maayan Strauss's photoessay: Freight.
Strauss has gone on to help create a Container Artist Residency, "a unique artist-in-residence program that takes place onboard commercial cargo ships."
posted by Kabanos at 10:08 AM on July 14, 2016

My dad's done a cargo ship trip from SF to Honolulu on my cousin David's ship - he's whatever the senior level of qualified US Merchant Marine is -- all ratings all seas or something like that? It's apparently a pretty good job as a captain at least, and US to US ports have to have US officers I believe.
posted by tavella at 4:41 PM on July 14, 2016

Check out the film Lakeboat (2000). I enjoyed it.

Synopsis from Wikipedia: "A student takes a job working on a cargo ship in the Great Lakes during the summer, where he witnesses life through the eyes of his fellow poorer crewmates."
posted by duoshao at 8:51 AM on July 17, 2016

Working my way slowly through this list! I am slowly marking answers that I have liked the best -- for the description and content -- but I appreciate them all.
posted by moiraine at 9:27 AM on July 17, 2016

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