Travelling by cargo ship: 'Our passengers do not like entertainment'.

- by Robin van Wechem,, 13/02/2021

Distant views of the horizon, worldly conversations with the crew and sniffing the salty sea air under the stars: sailing on a cargo ship breathes roughness and romance. And it is now also possible as a passenger, for those who prefer not to take a holiday flight. However, the cargo ship is not yet a large-scale alternative to the aircraft.

It sounds cliché, but at the Flemish company CptnZeppos the journey is actually the destination. Since April last year, founder Joris van Bree rents out empty cabins (sleeping accommodations for one or more persons) of shipping companies to a maximum of twelve passengers per trip. About a hundred people have already made use of this service.

In eight days you can travel from Antwerp to Finland, in two weeks from Antwerp to New York and in 41 days from Rotterdam to Sri Lanka. Passengers are allowed on container ships, ships with containers and 'rolling stock' (trains, bulldozers, trucks) and ships carrying bulk cargo (coal, steel and grain). Gas and oil tankers do not take passengers for safety reasons.

"Interest in authentic vacation experiences has been on the rise for years."

- Jan van der Borg, KU Leuven

For a guide price of 100 euros a night you get a cabin and three meals a day. There is also a fitness room on board, usually a sauna and sometimes a swimming pool. Still, according to Van Bree, the trip can't be compared to a cruise. "Our passengers like seas and oceans, but not entertainment and crowds of people."

Back to basics is popular'

Tourism experts see freighter holidays as a niche product. "The interest in authentic holiday experiences has been increasing for years," says Jan van der Borg, professor of Tourism Management at KU Leuven. "On a cargo ship you can play cards with the crew and look at the stars at night."

"There will certainly be people who want to experience this," says Bas Hillebrand, professor of Marketing Management and Innovation at Radboud University. Sailing on a cargo ship does not seem to him to be a competition for a cruise, because tourists on a cargo ship have a different experience than on a cruise ship, so it will appeal to a different type of person. Eke Eijgelaar, researcher at Breda University of Applied Sciences, thinks that a trip by freighter could be interesting for adventurers with a big bankroll, or working people on a sabbatical. "A bit of back to basics is popular again these days."

Simplify bus and train ticket

Jeppe Bijker, founder of route planner Green Tickets, is familiar with CptnZeppos. Green Tickets should make booking an international bus or train ticket as easy as booking an airline ticket. Last year Bijker organised a sailing trip to the climate conference in Chile, which was moved to Madrid due to protests. "A large number of participants of Sail to the COP returned by cargo ship, some even with CptnZeppos."

Although Green Tickets focuses on Europe for the time being, further trips by freighter certainly fit in with its offer. "At the moment this is the only sustainable alternative to transatlantic flights. Except for sailing, but that takes a lot longer and there are no scheduled sailing services (yet)."Karel de Boer of Fair Ferry is working on that. He wants to apply the technology of racing sailboats in passenger sailing ships. "If that is successful, a sailing ship can be as fast as a cargo ship. Then you can sail from Rotterdam or Antwerp to the US in a week, without fuel. That's a lot faster than the fifty days it currently takes with a traditional sailing ship."

Until then people can book a trip on a traditional sailing ship (tallship) at Fair Ferry. Unlike CptnZeppos, where passengers are not allowed to help on board, this is the intention at Fair Ferry. "They hoist the sails together and keep watch at night. In retrospect, it turns out that people enjoyed working with strangers almost more than the destination."

Anything but flying

A trip at Fair Ferry is a little more expensive than at CptnZeppos. A five-day trip to London, including all meals and overnight stays, costs just under 1,000 euros. According to De Boer, this is because the ships have to meet strict requirements and a relatively large number of crew members are involved. CptnZeppos will take you from Antwerp to Finland and back in eight days for about the same amount of money. In eleven or twelve days by freighter from Antwerp to Saint-Petersburg and back via Finland costs about 1,800 euros.

Also the trips of CptnZeppos will not be accessible for every budget, especially when compared to airline tickets. But those are way too cheap, says Bijker: "If you would calculate the fair price of an airline ticket, including a tax on kerosene and the climate impact, the difference is already a lot smaller. And since the cargo ships go anyway, you as a passenger hardly add any extra CO2 emissions."

"You're maintaining a much less polluting industry by sailing along than you are by flying."

- Jeppe Blijker, Green Tickets

Nevertheless, Bijker doesn't think that flying along can replace flying. "The capacity is very limited and there is little data available. At the same time shipping companies earn their money with cargo, not with passengers. Therefore you don't maintain a polluting industry as much as you do with flying."

Eijgelaar does have a comment about that: "If people only book an outward journey to a distant destination with such a cargo ship, and fly back, it is no longer so sustainable."



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