Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Traveling the World by Container Ship: A Sheep Farmer Turned Sea Dog's Advice

From tumultuous oceans to raw steak dinners, John McGuffick has had a few hairy moments at sea. But the retired Australian farmer says there’s no better way to see the world than from a budget berth on a cargo ship.

McGuffick, 72, took his maiden voyage on a freighter in 1998 and hasn’t stopped holidaying on them since. He’s notched up thousands of miles at sea, criss-crossing the globe on trips such as Southampton to Gothenburg, Philadelphia to Brisbane and Dunkirk to Singapore.

He recommends first-time cargo-ship travelers to spend time watching and observing before getting up close and personal with the crew and their equipment.

While crews are generally friendly, McGuffick recalls once being dressed down by a young Polish captain for almost delaying the boat’s departure after a trip to shore. Another time, when he was on deck near the Malaysian coast, McGuffick was rebuked for using his camera flash to capture the rising sun—startling the captain, who was trying to avoid gas pipelines.

“Once they get to know you and you know them,” he says of the crew, “you can have a look at the charts. If they want to use them, well, you step out of the way.”

The ship’s cook can make or break a trip. While food served from the galley can sometimes be bland, McGuffick says he’s enjoyed some great meals. Much depends on the nationality of the crew: One chef was happy to indulge his German captain’s love of raw minced steak drizzled with a cracked egg, McGuffick recalls.

“I’ve had some magnificent meals that you wouldn’t even get on passenger ships,” says McGuffick, who reared sheep and cattle and now lives in Cooma, New South Wales state. “One Filipino chef made crepes the size of dinner plates and stacked a foot high.”

While container ships may be among the world’s biggest vessels, they can still struggle in bad weather. 

A few days out of Auckland, violent seas rocked one fully laden vessel McGuffick was traveling on, leaning it 33 degrees one way and almost as much in the other direction—an experience he describes as “hellish.”

A routine call five years ago to the South Korean port of Masan, when McGuffick’s ship was on the way from Singapore to Shanghai, turned into a sleepless night. Caught in a typhoon, the ship couldn’t anchor in port; the only safe option was to sail beyond the harbor wall and ride out the weather.

It was a “scary one,” McGuffick says. “She was on the move all night, doing figure eights.”

In almost two decades at sea, one of McGuffick’s most-treasured memories is of entering San Francisco harbor and passing under the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It was a magnificent sight,” he says. “Clear sky and illuminated. It was fantastic.”