Realities of a Tramp Freighter

Firefly presented a fresh take on a concept that more or less defined the 1977 RPG Traveller; that is, a crew of Player Characters with a spaceship and all of the shenanigans that ensue as they strive to find a job, get paid, and keep flying.  Below we will look at what a crew of a single ship can expect when it comes to finding a job and what they can realistically expect to be paid. 

How are things moved?
Super Freighters – The vast majority of goods are moved in super freighters that carry hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cargo on strict schedules via well-established routes. And while they move very slowly through the black and have little to fear from pirates, super freighters will often have escorts none the less. Super freighters are owned by the major corporations of the Verse, are based in the Core Worlds, and cost millions of credits to build and maintain. There are not a lot of these ships and only a very small percentage are privately owned. Because of the overhead costs associated with running them, they only sail when they are full, and they only go to places where they can fully unload and fully reload their cargo holds. They do not make multiple stops, they do not shuttle things around, they do not land or go atmo, and they do not travel partially full. Consequently, they move from resource point A to resource point B, carrying a full load each time.

Large Freighters –  There are a lot of places that need goods that are not capable of purchasing a full load from a super freighter or don’t have the resources to refill one. Moving things on this middle scale falls into the hands of the large freighters, which are owned by smaller corporations. Still, these are large vessels that carry thousands of tonnes of cargo, but not nearly on the scale of the super freighters so are less expensive to run and capable of much smaller loads. However, they cost a lot to build and maintain, so they also try to avoid moving partially full. That said, these ships are generally used for moving bulk cargo from primary super freighter stops to other worlds in a region, distributing the load to the various planets in the area that don’t warrant a super freighter stop of their own. While large freighters can go atmo, they prefer unloading in zero g and letting smaller ships bring the material to the ground.

Small Freighters – Lastly there are the small freighters, the mid-bulk transports and the like. These are capable of carrying hundreds of tonnes worth of cargo and prefer to go atmo themselves to make deliveries, and are able to hop from planet to planet and colony to colony regardless of their size. Small freighters are either run by businesses that manage a small fleet that contracts specific routes or by private individuals that run tramp jobs as they can find them. This can literally be anything that needs to be transported ranging from a single computer to a herd of livestock. Corporate pilots at this level, who are part of a fleet are insured and bonded, which gives them a huge edge over private contractors because of the risk mitigation, so competition at this level is fierce. If you’re insured or bonded, you’re insured or bonded to a specific level, and you can’t (legally) carry cargo beyond that limit. For example, if you’re bonded for 1 million credits, you can’t wisely carry 2 million in medical supplies, and the customer can easily validate your level of insurance so they will know, unless you’re scamming them. If you’re a private owner, unbounded and uninsured, your reputation is all that you have to secure jobs; which means that if the shipper doesn’t know you and trust you, they won’t do business, and one bad deal (or even the rumor of a bad deal) can ensure you never get work again in that region. The more valuable the cargo, the more profit that can be made, but the more likely the customer will want risk mitigation in place beyond “I promise you I’ll get it there.”

What is being moved?
There are five general categories of trade that can be engaged in: Freight transport, Passenger transport, Slaving, Salvage, and Speculative Trade.

Freight transport is mostly locked down by the super freighters and large freighters.  They move the majority of necessities from world to world in such vast quantities that it makes no sense to ship any other way. Because of the massive quantities they deal in, their per/unit cost is very low so the only way to make any money shipping them is by doing so in bulk. Because of the size of the cargo, the risk is relatively low; no one hijack’s a super freighter full of grain and runs off with it, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is super freighters don’t “run” anywhere. Getting into the super freighter and large freighter business is virtually impossible, much like the railroads of the old west…if you don’t already have a super freighter, you’re not likely to be able to afford one, and even if you got one, all of the major corporations have their contracts locked down tight. In fact, most of the major resource producers have their own super freighter and large freighter subsidiaries and transport their own goods, further reducing their over-head.

Small freighters can only hope to compete in freight shipping by offering tramp services – that is, taking on small load, short notice cargo that would not be worth a larger ship’s time.  In a lot of cases these are one off propositions so there is no hope for a long term contract, or even repeat service in many instances, but the payoff is usually worth it to the small freighter as the client is expected to pay more for the convenience of last minute shipping needs.  Additionally, tramp shipping is often sought out due to its ability to ship small cargoes much faster than the larger alternatives.  There is little to no delay while waiting for hold quotas, or scheduling concerns.  A tramp freighter is often willing to sail on a moment’s notice, if the price is right.

Passenger transport is split evenly between large freighter-like passenger transport ships and the small freighter offering low volume passage as an alternative to high volume minimal convenience passage offered by the larger ships.  For some, having one’s own room and being able to move about an actual working transport ship with a small crew is more desirable than being packed into a shared stateroom and confined passenger areas of the larger ships.  Additionally the more flexible schedule of passage on the small freighters is often times more desirable as well.  On the flipside, the larger passenger ships do offer assurances and safety that the small freighters often cannot even begin to match.

Slaving is primarily done on the small freighter scale, as there simply isn’t a lot of it happening.  Slavery, while technically illegal under the Alliance, is allowed under the guise of indenturement – the fact that sometimes whole communities are pressed into indenturement against their will is besides the point. 

Salvage is primarily done on the small freighter scale as well, though a proper salvager’s license is required for it to not be considered illegal scavenging.  Salvage is a risky business regardless of how it is undertaken though, if the dangers of debris and wrecks were not enough, there is the ever present hazard of scavengers waiting until all of the difficult work has been done before they attempt to steal it.

Speculative Trade is the final category and again is almost exclusively the prevue of the small freighter.  Buying low and hoping to sell high somewhere else while avoiding pirates, scams, and malfunctions that leave you adrift in the black.  It takes a certain form of bravery, skill, and start-up capital to engage in speculative trading, but the payoffs often times far outweigh the risks, at least until they are stuck with a hold full of goods they cannot sell. 

Some mention should be made regarding the smuggling of contraband.  The Alliance has a zero tolerance policy regarding contraband and a crew that is found guilty of smuggling will be bound by law, subject to heavy fines, and lose their ship.  But smuggling remains the most profitable venture a ship can engage in.  The risks are extremely high, as everything is on the line, but the payoffs are equally as high for those with the moxie.

How do I find jobs?
I know a guy – The oldest, easiest, and most common method of finding a job is knowing someone who has a job that needs doing. Of course, this requires having contacts and allies out there in the industry that trust you and your good name. The better your name is, the more likely word of mouth will spread your name around and create more work for you. This is the least reliable method however, because it relies upon who you know and the off chance that they have stuff that needs to be moved.

Broker – Kind of like an extended “I know a guy” that you pay for, you deal with someone who knows a lot of people. What a broker does all day long is look for jobs for you, and takes a cut of your profits from the jobs you accept. Also known as fixers, brokers handle ship owners who know how to fly a ship but not so much how to run a business. If you’re dirtside for a day, in space for two weeks, and dirtside for a day, you don’t have much time to get a feel for the locals and their business dealings. But a broker does that for you. They make the contact, close the deal, notify you of the specifics of the job, handle all of the paperwork, and do all of the communicating. Then you show up, pick up the cargo, fly it to where it needs to go, and drop it off at the destination. That’s it. It’s like working for a Trade Fleet except you choose the jobs you do and can refuse jobs at any time…with the understanding that your broker may drop you as a client if you prove unreliable or too finicky.

Trade Guild – The trade guild is the closest thing independent ships can get to the stability of a corporate owned Trade Fleet.  Membership in the trade guild requires a regular payment of dues and adherence to their rules and regulations, but the tradeoff is an established clientele base and an excellent reputation for fast and reliable transports.  The trade guild operates a number of offices on every Core world and on many of the Border worlds (and a handful of Rim worlds). Ship owners looking for work keep an updated listing of their schedule and whereabouts, so that people can contact them about getting room in their ship for their cargo. This can be risky because you’re basically announcing your intentions to any pirate or scavenger that happens to be looking for targets. Potential clients let the trade guild know what they need moved from where to where, and how much they’re willing to pay.  And the trade guild posts the various jobs to individual ships based upon their schedule and preferences.

How much do I get paid?
Small freighters can expect to get paid between ½ Credit and 2 Credits per ton of legal freight that belongs to someone else.  ½ to 1 for freight that simply needs to be moved from point A to point B and 1½ to 2 for freight that requires a more active role from the crew, usually in the form of specific deliveries or the collecting of payment.  This is usually tramp freight, meaning it is short notice cargo or on a tight schedule.  A bonus of 10% is usually offered for delivering on time and a penalty of -10% for delivering late.  For illegal cargo, small freighters can expect to be paid about two to five times the rate per ton, depending on a number of factors – such as nature of the cargo and where it needs to be delivered.  Smuggling bonuses can often be expected for hazards encountered on the way, and likewise hefty penalties for confiscated cargo.

Passengers normally pay a flat rate for accommodations and food and a percentage of the fuel bill for the amount of time they are on the ship.  Unless specifically set up as a passenger transport, most small freighters cannot offer First Class accommodations which run for a flat rate of 100 Credits per person.  Second Class, which is normally better than any of the crew can expect runs 50 Credits per person.  Steerage is what can normally be found on small freighters, which is the same kind of accommodations a typical crew has, and runs 20 Credits per person.  Fuel percentage is normally based on the number of people aboard with a slight discount if the passenger can bring something else of value to the table (such as their own food, a willingness to work, and the like). 

Slaving normally pays 5 to 10 Credits per head with circumstantial bonuses or penalties based on a number of factors. 

Salvage has several tiers based on what exactly is collected.  For simple scrap, a salvager can expect 1 ton 2 Credits per ton.  Parts can normally fetch 50 to 100 percent of the full cost depending on supply and demand.  Whole ships are usually paid based on the amount of damage the ship has sustained and the costs associated with repair and resale.  But this can range from between 10% of the total cost of the ship to 90%.

Speculative trade is the most lucrative outside of illegal smuggling.  The crew purchases cargo at a low price per ton and hopes to sell at a high price per ton somewhere else.  This usually involves having a buyer in mind before making the investment, but luck also plays a part.  The speculative trade market is finicky and irregular in the best of times.  But in addition to simple payment, speculative traders are also in a position to barter for some or all of their cargo depending on circumstances. 


Rabidchild said...

I just finished reading this and the how do I get paid section reminds me a bit of taxis, which I suppose is normal: transport for pay is going to have similarities regardless of scale.

Working for a broker or guild and pudding them off results in them pulling your tag, which is a pain but isn't the end of the world. Captains just need to be careful how many bridges they burn: even in a solar system there are only so many people in your line of work, it isn't so big as all that. Gossip is the fastest thing in the 'verse.

Komorigumo said...

Excellent points all around. I think that your statement that "Captains just need to be careful how many bridges they burn" is especially poignant.

I had been considering the idea of adding a Reputation score that might help track this kind of thing. Good rep with the right people and maybe you get a little more cash... bad rep and maybe not so much. The thing is, it can get really granular really fast. As GURPS taught me, you can have multiple reputations - even with the same group or person - and it can get ridiculous keeping track. I think we'd do best to leave it all to the roleplay side and not the system side.

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