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FREIGHTER TRAVEL IN THE 1950s and 1960s…


Johnson Line’s Silver Gate sails out of Vancouver for Europe via the west coast and Panama Canal in the 1950s…

Prior to JET air travel in the late 1950s and 1960s, travel by cargo ship was commonplace. For those seeking privacy and wanting to avoid the large ocean liners and cruise ships freighter travel was perfect.


Accommodations aboard the Johnson Line…


Accommodation plan on the Johnson Line cargo passenger ships…

Regular passenger services were available to any destination you wished aboard 12-passenger freighters. Most of the freighters, unlike many of the passenger ships, were built after World War 2. Except for American President Lines, most of the US freighter services were rather ordinary. But the foreign lines, in many cases, offered very outstanding service and accommodation.

A number of lines operated from the Los Angeles and San Francisco, via the Panama Canal, to Europe. The service was usually first class with a lounge, bar and dining room. There was ample deck space and a small swimming pool. Passengers needed to be self-sufficient because they were not entertained. There was no cruise director. They dined with the ship’s officers and service could be elaborate. Johnson Line provided very good services. Their cuisine, public rooms and staterooms were first class. The limit on 12-passengers was because a ship’s doctor was not carried.


Ellerman’s Wilson Line – SS Sacramento in Capetown – 1950s…

This type of travel was a favorite with writers such as Graham Green, Somerset Maugham and the celebrated American author Alex Haley. He traveled aboard the very deluxe American President Line freighters. The ships offered solace and an environment very conducive to writing. Haley, like many of the passengers who sailed on APL vessels from 1973 to 1987, welcomed the chance to escape from a busy life. In contrast to passenger liners and cruise-ships, the cargo vessels provided passage to only 12 stalwart individuals.

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(Smoking room on a cargo-passenger ship) According to a crew member from this era, “ships weren’t as connected to the rest of the world as they are today. No one text or go online the way they do now, and many of the passengers who sailed on these ships enjoyed being beyond the reach of their day-to-day lives back home. Because of this, Haley and his assistant traveled often on APL ships. Described as a night owl, the author was very much at home on freighters because he had sailed on Coast Guard vessels for many years before turning his attention to writing. Even years after the success of his best-known work, Roots, Haley continued to seek the solitude afforded by life at sea.


Captain on the bridge as Johnson Line MS Portland approaches port in Los Angeles…

During the 1950s and into the early 1960s was the golden age of freighter travel, before the concept of mass tourism had been invented or the “Carnival” cruise concept introduced. These were not the herds of people flooding 5000 passenger Vegas style cruise ships. These people would have never tolerated drifting at sea, with no power and toilet facilities provided in garbage bags.

5(Left: Crew member taking sun) This was an era of romantic luxury, tramp steamers and long passages. Conversation, sun, good books and maybe a movie filled the time.

Romance and intrigue lurked in exotic foreign ports and for many shipping lines, the passengers were just as important as the cargo.

In the 1950s, containerization started to be introduced, which massively increased the efficiency of the whole transport industry. Most cargo are now shipped in standard 20′ or 40′ containers, which ports all over the world could unload quickly.

As air travel caused rapidly declining passenger numbers in the 1960s, 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 now 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.

Today… The ships are much more informal and sparse in comparison to the luxury accommodations of shipping companies such as Johnson Line, APL

Passengers travel on freighters for a variety of reasons including fun, relaxation, adventure, no crowds, companionship, and the informal atmosphere onboard. Some passengers use a transatlantic crossing or a segment of a longer itinerary as leisurely transportation from Point A to Point B, but most passengers book a freighter cruise for its full itinerary with durations from 2 weeks to 5 months. Freighter fares typically range from about $90-$130 per person per day, inclusive of all meals on board.

Informality reigns on freighters. Passengers are not required to dress for meals. Men can leave their ties and ladies their cocktail attire at home. Freighters do not offer any preplanned activities such as cruise ships do and mealtimes are the only daily structure. Before my first freighter cruise experience in 1980, I thought a freighter cruise might be boring and without enough activity. But I found that my days disappeared quickly and I was busy all the time. Most freighters offer a small exercise room, swimming pool and TV for viewing a selection of video movies. On most ships it is possible to walk completely around the main deck and this is always a popular exercise pastime for passengers.

How many of us take the time to relax on an uncrowded deck in a comfortable deck chair with a good book and binoculars in hand? Just watch the ocean go by and experience the occasional dolphins, whales, fish and sea birds in your path. These are some of life’s special moments and partly what freighter cruising is all about.

Freighter passengers enjoy contact with the officers and crew and often become part of the shipboard family. Many passengers have navy, coast guard or merchant marine experience and love 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 special experiences not possible on cruise ships where passengers in groups of 30 or more are given bridge tours. Most foreign flagged freighters are liberal with bridge visitation and unrestricted bridge visitation is not uncommon. With passenger loads typically from 2 to 12 passengers, lasting friendships are often formed between passengers and also with officers.

Passengers generally eat the same meals as the officers. No special diets are accommodated. Passengers can expect a well-balanced and varied menu, which while not fancy is at times of excellent quality.

Why cruise by freighter? For a change of pace away from crowds, you may discover that freighter cruising is a way of traveling you’ll love. A motto of Freighter World Cruises is, “If you have the time to relax and a cruising spirit, a friendly freighter waits for you.”


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