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What It’s Like to See the World for Almost No Money by Traveling on Container Ships

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Are you flexible about time? Are you cool with being rocked out of bed by a storm? Container ship travel might be for you!

Last month, the super villains that run United Airlines invented something called “basic economy,” a new way to make flying shitty that reimagines meager comforts like “space for your bag,” or “the option to choose an aisle seat,” as premium options you have to pay for. It feels like a day is coming when you’ll have to wear goggles that show GEICO ads for your entire flight, and you’ll have to buy an upgrade just to blink.

But if you need to travel across, say, an ocean, planes are the only game in town, right?

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Well, you could always try a container ship—one of those hulking, quarter-mile-long vessels with hundreds of what are essentially train cars piled onto them. Container ship travel is sometimes an option for travelers who are, um, extremely flexible about a lot of things. For example, crossing an expanse like the Pacific Ocean takes about 12 hours by plane and about two weeks by container ship. But the time investment is just the beginning.

Thor Pederson is more than halfway through an effort to set foot in every country in the world without ever flying, and that means he has no choice but to arrange for himself to be shipped from continent to continent like a pallet of discount office supplies. Speaking from Kenya, he told me container ships are no place for landlubbers, and they can be a hassle just to board, but they’re also full of hidden luxuries. Best of all for Pederson: The price tag on most of these voyages—which is normally comparable to flying, if not more expensive—is zero dollars.

VICE: Why are you traveling on container ships?
Thor Pedersen: Fewer than 200 people have reached every country in the world, and all of them have been flying at one point or another. I’ve been going for more than three years now. I’ve reached 121 countries, and so far, I haven’t been back home, and I haven’t flown. When I need to cross an ocean like the Atlantic, there’s no way around it. You basically need to get onboard a container ship.

Aren’t these long trips incredibly boring, though?
As long as this [project] is going, I don’t get a break. I’m investigating a visa, or a border crossing, or I’m meeting people, or the Red Cross, or the press. And I feel like I get a break when I’m on these ships. I’m able to work for maybe two to four days without internet, and then then I can’t get any farther. So I get everything done that I can, and then I’m truly off.

What do you do then?
They use desalination to make fresh water, so you get free water, and the engine is immensely hot. And they run the water past the engine, so you get hot water for free. So when you’re on the ships, you can have a shower that lasts two or three hours and not feel guilty about the environment. You can sleep in. You can read a book. I spend a lot of time on the bridge, because when you’re on the bridge, you know everything. That’s where the information comes from.

Are there any luxuries?
The last one I was onboard there was a sauna and an indoor swimming pool. Sometimes there’s WiFi. On [one], I also saw the Northern Lights, and I saw whales and dolphins. It’s quite extraordinary sometimes. But most of the time, you just see water.

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Is it ever scary?
[One route in the North Atlantic] was supposed to be an eight-day voyage, but we ran into some really heavy weather, and I was pretty sure I was going to die. The ship was all over the place, and the waves were crashing on the containers, and the bow, and they had to slow down to 4 knots. You’re thrown around if you don’t hold onto anything. So I asked, “Is this normal?” And they laughed their asses off. And they looked at me and were like, “Son, this is absolutely nothing.” Then I felt calm. “Ok, they say this is nothing. I just need to ride it out.” So I spent four days like that.

Can you sleep in rough seas?
You’re in your bunk, and you try to sleep, but it’s almost impossible. You’re rolling out of your bed. There was a chair on the floor, and it kept tipping over. Try pushing a chair and see how much it takes for it to tip over. You try and get something to eat, and you’re holding onto the table with one hand, so you don’t fall off your chair, and you’re holding onto your plate with your other hand. And then you’re sort of out of hands, so you’re a bit challenged when you try to eat.

Pederson prepares a vaccine booster on a ship between Iceland and Canada.

How do you get onboard?
It’s hard work to get on a container ship. There are a few container lines around the world that will offer you a cabin. You can go [to a cargo ship travel agency’s website] or call them and buy your way onboard. I haven’t done that. Container ships have no incentive to bring a passenger onboard unless they’ve made a business out of it. The days when you could come onboard and work are long gone. These days you need all sorts of permits and whatnot to work on a container ship. You are a liability to the ship, and there is no reason why they should bring you onboard. Most ports are secured to a level where you cannot access them. Life onboard the ships come down to a few things: work, eat, sleep, recreation. A passenger is an interference to the ships routine.

Why are you different?
I’m traveling as a goodwill ambassador of the [Danish] Red Cross, and sometimes that opens doors, especially with the captains and the other officers onboard. They relate to something like this. They’ve been sailing for 40 years. They have their own stories. They’re just curious to see who this nutcase is who is traveling around the world without flying. So I’m treated royally. I dine with the captain.

What does it cost?
I [once] had to pay $15 per day for my cabin and food, and a one-time fee of $60 for insurance. And they wanted me to write a story about how wonderful it is to travel onboard a container ship.

Have you paid for any others?
Everything else has been free.

Toward the end of your trip, you’ll have to visit tons of individual small island countries in the Pacific. Are you going to try something other than container ships for that?
Yeah, I’m definitely not going to try and go for sailboats and shit like that. All the [Pacific] islands receive containerized goods at one point or another. But they probably do not receive ships every day, so who knows? You might get to an island, and then it’ll be offloading the ship. Then they’ll load empty containers onboard, and then leave, but I have [a rule that says] I have to be in each country for 24 hours. So if they do all that within eight or 14 hours, then they’ll leave. And I might have to wait a month for the next ship because of that. So we’ll see.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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