Wet, Wet, Wet: Hitch-hiking on Boats

By: Bernd Wechner
© February 1, 2001

Wet, Wet, Wet: Hitch-hiking on Boats

Wet, Wet, Wet: Hitch-hiking on Boats

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: February 1, 2001

I've long wanted to touch on the topic of hitch-hiking on boats here at Suite 101. On the survey we're running, one question explicitly asks if the respondent has hitch-hiked on boats, and the question is often met with a smile of wry amusement, as if the idea were a little off the deep end.

When Chris Markham got in touch recently I had the catalyst I needed. In the late '70s he hitched the length of the Mississippi River and recently the tale was republished by the folk at Backinprint.com.

Chris was a hitch-hiker with a passion for this great Father of Waters so his mission was clear: to hitch its full length. He'd read all he could lay hands on about this river before setting out, and made every effort to cover the entire Mississipi from its headwaters to the its mouth, over 6000 km away, by hitching rides.

He had no choice but to follow the river as closely as possible by road as far as Minneapolis where the river becomes navigable. A string of rides bring him there in two days (no small adventure itself) and he starts hailing boats from the shore. It's not as simple as he'd have liked though and he soon changes his plans a little - fishing a ride with the help of a lock-keeper.

A few short rides at the start until he's sorted out, and one significat ride at the end through the Mississippi Delta on a freighter, brace a long long ride on the tow boat Harriet M from Minneapolis to New Orleans which forms the bulk of this journey.

In essence it's not a classic hitch-hiking tale that emerges, much rather a fascinating tour of the river, in the hands of a man well equipped to share the lifestyle and much of the history and culture of the river and its towns. It's probably inspired a few others to try their thumb at the Mississippi in the 20 years since it was first published!

You'll find Chris Markham's Mississippi Odyssey (2000, Authors Guild Backinprint.com) at any decent on-line book store.

But maritime hitch-hiking isn't limited to great rivers of course. Indeed it's far more common for the nautical thumber to attack the great seas and oceans, targeting private yachts and even commercial freighters.

Perhaps my favourite little guide-book is Alison Muir Bennett's The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Oceans: Crewing around the world (1990/1996, Adlard Coles Nautical, A & C Black Publishers, London). In this popular little book Bennett sums up all the basics for the would be ocean going hitch-hiker and most elegantly maps the key seasonal movements of private yachts throughout the world. Bennet crewed and sailed on yachts for 10 years to bring us this resume.

Another, equally worthwhile guide is Greg Brian Becker's The Seagoing Hitchhiker's Handbook: Roaming the Earth on Other People's Yachts (1994, High Adventure Publishing, San Clemete, California). Becker ended up sailing over 55,000 km to over 42 countries on 6 continents by tagging along on a yacht. It fulfilled a dream of his, and he collected a lot of information on the way, which he shares in this book so as to help us fullfull ours. It's meatier than Bennett's guidebook, though, having covered the basics it is essentially a large list of ports where yachts dock (descriptions and phone numbers) or tips on how to go about finding them almost anywhere on the planet.

But if you have your mind on commercial freighters rather than private yachts, take a look at Hugo Verlomme's Travel by Cargo Ship (1995, Cadogan Books plc, London). Verlomme romaticises travel by Cargo Ship somewhat, but has a charmin sales pitch all the same, underlining a rising popularity in this mode of transport with an appreciation for relaced pace and disdain of the polluting airline industry. The bullk of this guide is a list of shipping companies and their itineraries, how to get in touch and pricing outlines.

It's not cheap (generally dearer than flying), and hitch-hiking is a very very slim option. Verlomme points out it's not really possible at all (insurance and general corporate bureaucracy tie the hands of many a would-be hitcher friendly captain) but that exceptions exist ...

And Gavin Young seems to be one of them. He hitched from Greece to China in 1979 tankers, schooners, ferries, you name it, and tells his story in Halfway Around the World: An Improbable Journey (1981, Random House, New York). But I'll review Young's tale some other time, and wind this one down with a quote of Bennet's:

    On night watches, when one spends a lot of time in thought to while away the hours and when the stars are glittering overhead, I've had the thought that yachties must be the most appropriate group of people to be considered for a Space Odyssey. Here we are, familiar with space for the purposes of navigation using sun, moon and stars, and getting into more and more sophisticated electronic navigational devices. Here we are, living self-sufficient and independent lives cut off from the rest of the world. Self-sufficient in food and water and transport, self-sufficient medically and in any emergency needing repair, self-sufficient for entertainment and social needs. Here we are, mastering the art of living in a confined space and constantly in motion, in a craft designed more for the efficiency of transport than for ease of living, and being contained in time, space and vessel as we cross oceans, prepared to deal with anything they may bring. These seem to me to be the requiremend of 'pioneers' in space when the exodus occurs.

And if that doesn't conjure thoughts of Adams, I don't know what does ... the next chapter!

If you're feeling generous and want to express gratitude for the work presented here, by all means donate some money.