For the European traveler during the early 1960s with more time than money, an unusual variation of the Atlantic crossing was sailing from USA west coast ports via the Panama Canal to Europe.
The Johnson Line offered the finest services for 12 passengers from aboard its fleet of eight deluxe Swedish motor-ships offering sailings every two weeks from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada.
Menus were in French featuring Continental and Swedish cuisine.
The luxury motor ships Los Angeles, Seattle, Golden Gate, Lions Gate, Silver Gate, Portland, California, and Canada featured beautiful wood paneling in the passenger staterooms and public rooms, stewardess service, and outstanding Swedish cuisine.
Fares began at $1,400 ($12,000 in today’s dollars) for the 80-day round-trip voyage, with air/sea combination with Pan American or Scandinavian Airlines system, preserving the round-trip discount. On the Johnson Line passengers could select a continental or Scandinavian gateway for his European holiday.
The voyages were from Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles to Panama and Curacao to Antwerp, London, Rotterdam, Hamburg, and Gothenburg and then return. The one-way voyage was about 30 to 40 days depending on cargo commitments and time in port. Round-trip was 60 to 70 days.
Passengers relaxed on an uncrowded deck in the comfortable deck chairs with a good book and binoculars in hand. They watched the ocean go by and experienced the occasional dolphins, whales, fish and sea birds in the ship’s path.
Staterooms were large in comparison to liners and cruise ships. Passengers took meals with the ship’s officers.
- There was ample deck space, with shuffleboard, deck tennis, and a small swimming pool. Johnson Line ships had beautifully appointed public rooms. Stewards and stewardesses served the passengers, with an all Swedish staff of crew and officers.
- Passengers needed to be self-sufficient because entertainment was limited, but they had interaction with staff members and crew members onboard. There was no cruise director but there dancing, charades, shuffleboard and card games.
This type of travel was a favorite with writers such as Graham Green and Somerset Maugham.
- This was the golden age of freighter travel before the concept of mass tourism. Romance and intrigue lurked in exotic foreign ports, and for many shipping lines, the passengers were just as important as the cargo.
- As air travel caused rapidly declining passenger numbers in the 1960’s, the shipping lines had to make drastic changes to survive – and the modern cruise industry was born. Since passengers no longer needed to travel by ship purely as a way of reaching their destination, cruise lines offered people entertainment and a vacation experience instead – the voyage itself was now the most important thing.
Freighter ships continued to operate all over the world, but soon they concentrated on the cargo side of the business – the only cabin space available was for ships officers and crew, with perhaps an owners cabin for when a member of the shipping line was onboard.
Freighter passengers enjoyed contact with the officers and crew and often become part of the shipboard family. Many passengers had a navy, coast guard or merchant marine experience and loved the opportunity to get back to sea and be a part of a working ship.
Time spent on the bridge and the ensuing conversations with officers are extraordinary experiences not possible on cruise ships where passengers in groups of 30 or more are given bridge tours.
With small passenger manifests of 12 passengers, lasting friendships were often formed between passengers and also with officers.
Passengers enjoyed the fun, relaxation, adventure, no crowds, companionship, and the informal atmosphere on board.