Telling friends that we were going to cross the Pacific on a container ship always got the same response - how long would that take? (17 days) and that they didn't even know such a trip was possible. We had come up with the idea just because we thought it would be more interesting than flying and would offer a unique chance to experience a large ocean.
Ideally we wanted to travel from Tokyo to San Francisco however only a limited number of cargo ships that cross the Pacific take on passengers and we settled for the Hanjin Ottawa which travels from Shanghai to Seattle with two quick stops in Busan, South Korea and Prince Rupert, Canada.
We didn't really know what to expect when we boarded in Shanghai. The first impression was the sheer size of the ship and that the ladder we boarded on was very long and a bit wobbly. We said a quick hello to the Captain and was shown where the officers' mess hall was by the mess man and then to our cabin which was more spacious than expected with portholes looking above the containers towards the front. We also found out that we would be the only passengers onboard for this trip.
While the ship was being loaded, we tried to get our brains around a few of the main facts; the Hanjin Ottawa is 278 metres long, carries up to 6000 containers and guzzles 60-70 tons of oil on an average cruising day. It's manned by a team of 20, a mix of Europeans (from Germany, Poland and Ukraine) and 15 Philippino making up the deck crew but also some of the senior officer positions.
Everybody onboard were friendly and curious why we had chosen to travel this way. Although we found conditions onboard very comfortable, there is no escaping the fact that the crew are stuck onboard for 4-6 months at a time with little entertainment during their time off which explains their curiosity. And in return, we loved learning about life onboard and some of the technicalities involved in operating such a large vessel.
Early in the trip the Third Officer showed us around the deck, all the way from the stern to the aft which on calm days makes for a nice walk. The next day the Ship Mechanic gave us a tour of engine room. As we were led down into the belly of the ship, the roar of the engine got louder and louder. The main engine is absolutely ginormous weighing in at 1700 tons! To give it some perspective it has 10 pistons each 3 metres high and a metre wide. But that is not all. Apart from the 4 story engine room, there are other massive chambers containing all sorts of mechanics from auxiliary engines to compressors and other compartments house spares for repair and rows and rows of CO2 cylinders and full fire fighting equipment. Coming directly out of the engine is the 35 metre long propeller shaft spinning at 60-100 revs a minute and driving the 8 metre tall propeller.
Within a day or so we got used to the constant rumble of the engine although we think it contributed to being excessively hungry all the time, which then lead to 9pm visits to the pantry for cheese sandwiches. There is a routine set by the mealtimes but apart from that we were free to relax in our room or roam the ship. We visited the bridge, located on top of the accommodations approx 35 metres above the water, whenever we felt like getting the best view, checking our exact location and catching up with the officer on duty. Although nothing much happened we never had time to be bored. We read, chatted, watched movies and playing ping pong in the gym became a bit of an obsession!
One of the surprises is how liberated we felt being without internet and email! I nearly think this alone is enough of a reason to travel by sea, as time becomes truly your own with no outside input or demands. Sitting in our cabin we sometimes felt as if we were suspended in time with nowhere to go and not having anything that we had to do.
To the crew the view over the containers doesn't hold much mystery but to us, it was different every day depending on the weather and we saw some spectacular sunsets
It was hot and steamy leaving Shanghai and we had some beautiful days with sunshine and blue sea. Further north towards the Bering Sea the weather was grey and foggy, at times we couldn't even see the 70 metres stretching from our cabin to the mast. We didn't have any really bad weather - the worst was rain, strong wind and waves of up to 4-5 metres but because of our size the ship rolls slowly and gently up and down and from side to side.
Once we got into the Gulf of Alaska the weather cleared again and we started looking forward to our stop in Prince Rupert where we were able to go ashore for the day and from there it was only another day and a half until Seattle. One of the highlights of the trip was passing a pod of 50+ whales shortly before arriving in Prince Rupert. Wherever we looked, we could see 3 or 4 jets of water at the same time and then as they got closer they breached or flipped their tails.
Disembarking in Seattle, we had covered a total distance of 5276 nautical miles (9771 km). Enroute we crossed 9 time zones (and found out that yes, you do get 'jet-lagged' when you move the clock an hour forward daily for a week) and also the date line meaning two consecutive Wednesdays in a week.
Travelling on cargo ships is not for everyone but if time is not an issue it's most definitely worth considering for the adventure and exposure to a different world. There are many shorter routes and options to travel on smaller ships. As for the cost our trip was equivalent to an economy flight across the Pacific and 17 days worth of midrange accommodation and food. A small price to pay for a completely unique experience.