Super Cargo: A Journey Among Ports

Super Cargo: A Journey Among Ports

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If you have been fortunate in reading some of the great travel writers such as Joseph Conrad or Jack Kerouac you will notice there was always a romanticism attached to travelling to the world’s famous port cities. Would we be able to discover this same atmosphere if we travelled in today’s modern cargo ships to ports located in Italy, Greece, Africa, the Middle East and India? That is the question Thornton McCamish, an Australian journalist based in London, attempts to answer in his book Super Cargo: A Journey Among Ports.

Unfortunately, the author conveys to the reader that he is somewhat disillusioned and the culture of travelling in freighters is nowhere near what it was like when Conrad wrote his great novels.
As he muses, “the dream of finding, in the backwaters of the globe, taverns full of men of uncertain reputation seemed to be fading fast in the sterilising of the Mediterranean.”

Put it another way, when the author interviews one of the crew members about his life at sea the reply is as follows: “If you go ashore, you see a movie, maybe have some drinks, some food. Then back to the ship. You are always thinking it is an exciting life at sea, he smiled, but we’re just the same as you. Ordinary guys.”

McCamish conveys to the reader that the idea of adventure within the port cities is somewhat ludicrous and “passé.” The bar room brawls and many of the other intrigues have had “their marrow sucked out of them by containers and efficiency.” This is quite evident in the structure of the ships that lack the character they once exhibited. More precisely, as the author describes one of the ships he travelled on: “not the biggest ship in the port, but big: a low, sleek hull painted green and a superstructure perched like an upstanding cereal box at the aft end. The Anneke Schliemann.”

One criticism I have pertaining to the book is that McCamish does not seem to be able to bring the ports to life. We do not seem to be able to experience the interesting sounds, tastes, smells and conditions of many of the ports visited. Surely there must be some interesting people to interview in these ports who can bring life to the place with their dialogue and observations.

It may be true that the “good old days” are gone, but what about today’s atmosphere? Is this not interesting or is it bland? Where is the passion and perspective of ports such as Marseille, Tunis, Naples, Genoa, Cape Town and the Canary Islands to name only a few of the ports visited by the author? In a way I felt cheated when just as we are entering a port we seem to be fleeing to another without bothering to find out the spirit and the soul of the place.

“Copyright 2002, Originally published at”

  • Super Cargo: A Journey Among Ports by Thornton McCamish


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