Tramp ships are like taxis on the ocean. They usually involve voyage charters, or carrying of a whole shipload of cargo from one port to another. The voyage charter specifies how much cargo is to be carried between what ports, and the time frame of the voyage, and the cost of the service. The owner of the cargo and the ship owner agree on this before the voyage, and after the voyage the ship owner must look for another voyage charter. Usually this type of charter is used for bulk cargoes such as grain, coal, and oil. It is a most common service for older ships that aren't in such good condition, but even newer ships are offered for a voyage charter. The owner of the cargo wants a safe ship, where his cargo won't be damaged by bilge water or from leaky hatch covers. He wants a ship that won't break down, so it arrives to it's destination on time. Other than that, he isn't particularly concerned about the age of the ship, or its crew, or its appearance. That's why such ships are called tramps. They have no regular schedule, such as "liners", or ships that schedule calls in the same port trip after trip. A tramp can go anywhere. For that reason, it can be more interesting and exciting for the crew. (A few tramp ships are some times available for passenger travel. They are of recent vintage and operate in a general area such, as S. E. Asia/Australia.)

During the Viet Nam war, the U.S. Navy chartered many merchant ships to supply the war effort. Most of the ships at that time were built during WWII, and were at or near the end of their designed life. The same could be said for the crews. The size of our active merchant fleet nearly doubled between 1965 and 1968 in order to supply the war effort. There was a ship shortage and a labor shortage, and it was not uncommon to have substandard ships with substandard crews. Many of my sea tales involve this era, before the elimination of subsidies, and before strict monitoring of drug and alcohol use in the transportation industry.

The worst case I heard about was from my friend Hans, who sailed for a small tramp company called Elwell as second mate.  You can read more about him under the Misadventure ection of this website. Elwell had some really dilapidated ships. Hans was an excellent seaman, and didn't mind the challenge. Getting across the ocean was an adventure, and he must have felt something akin to the pride the owner of a Model T Ford felt when he crossed the country in his car. One trip they had pulled into Agana, Guam to unload military cargo. It was on a C-2 cargo ship that had seen it's better days 20 years earlier. If there were four cargo winches on a hatch, seldom more than two of them worked, so that it was always necessary to "jury rig" the derricks for discharge. Operations that should have taken a few hours took a few days. Few in the crew were concerned about the situation. The captain was a heavy drinker, but not an unpleasant character. He looked something like the actor Terry Thomas, who had a silly grin that exposed a large gap between his front teeth. U.S. Army soldiers would come down to the ship to try to unload the cargo, but with little success. Finally, the Commanding General of Guam was called to find out what the trouble was. He boarded the ship with his entourage to find a well lubricated chief mate in his office at 10 A.M. He was really mad then, and went to see the captain, and threaten him with off- hire (termination of the charter). When he entered the captain's office, he saw the captain passed out at his desk, head back in the chair and his grin exposing his tooth gap. A bottle of whiskey sat in front of him. The Commanding general was beside himself. He had come to read the riot act to the crew, but nobody but Hans, the lowly second mate, was there to listen or care.

The general just sputtered, "No wonder this ship is such a shit house" and stormed off the ship, never to return. I am sure that if the chief mate or captain had been sober and conscientious, they would have been in big trouble. As it was, nothing was ever said about the incident and the ship never went off-hire.