Rob Hardy on books


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The Hidden, Colossal Container Ships



Rob Hardy


Rose George's last book, The Big Necessity, was about an important subject that we wish would go away: human waste. It was all about toilets, sewage, and society. Her current one is about an important subject that has no chance of going away as it is just as vital, but some of its aspects are just as unpleasant: international shipping. Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate (Metropolitan Books) is the story of a subject that is invisible for many reasons. The biggest is that we take ships and shipping for granted, but they are a cornerstone of globalization. "They are the reason behind your cheap T-shirt and reasonably priced television," writes George, and indeed ninety percent of everything else you buy that comes from overseas. Another reason is that the ships do most of their work way out of sight of anyone. Yet another reason for the invisibility is that this is just what most shipowners want. You are not allowed to take a tour of the gigantic vessels each of which carries thousands of containers. You cannot even get to the docks that serve them. This is one of the things that makes George's book distinctive. The gigantic Maersk Lines invited her to board one of its many enormous container ships, probably because it is proud of the work it does, and possibly because it would like a little less invisibility. It must be said that like on most such missions, not much happens and there is no real excitement; but there is always the threat of bad weather, sinking, or pirates, and George lets us in on those, too. 




The ship that she boards in Felixstowe, England, is the Maersk Kendal, just one of thousands of ships with a huge capacity to carry the truck-sized metal boxes full of anything. Kendal is four years old, and at 80,000 tons is somewhere in the mid-range of container ships. Even so, the 4-year-old vessel is three football fields long, and can take on 4,700 of the boxes, stacked seven-high above the main deck and making her look like a floating apartment block without windows. Maersk itself is a huge corporation, "the Coca-Cola of freight with none of the fame," writes George. It has an income only slightly less than Microsoft, and while everyone knows Microsoft, and while Maersk has an online shop that sells tee-shirts and cookies, it is far from a household name. Even George's exuberant book will not change this. The Kendal took her from Felixstowe, on a 9,000-mile, five-week journey through the Suez Canal and onto the pirate-infested sea off the Horn of Africa, and finally to Singapore. She is able to report on almost everything the ship does. When a Scottish cadet on the ship hears what her topic is to be, he can't believe it. "But it's boring," he tells her. Her book proves him wrong. 




He is right that boredom can be a problem. Seven days a week the engineers and the deckhands and the officers face just one task, of getting from point A to point B. With any luck, the work is just routine. There is no drinking on Maersk ships; this is a relatively recent rule, and the crew can no longer have a beer after going off watch. They are also not supposed to consume alcohol in port. After work, they wind up not enjoying a drink with others who have just finished a shift, but retreating to their personal spaces with a laptop and a DVD. There is little access to the internet, and cell phones do not work at sea. The sailors joke that their jobs are just like being in prison but with a salary; one researcher found that prisoners are better off for leisure and communication activities. 




Even the call of seeing foreign lands is now muted. As late as the 1960s, merchant vessels sailed in search of cargo, unloading it and selling it, and spending days at the dock while the skilled longshoremen removed the crates and barrels from the hold, and put new ones in for the next voyage. The shipping container has done away with this inefficiency. The captain of the Kendal remembers seeing his first shipping container as a cadet in Hong Kong, where he heard from his seniors that such a novelty was never going to catch on. It was Malcolm McLean who had the idea of putting all freight into standard boxes, rather than in the barrels and piles that used to be what ships carried. The standard boxes (called TEUs, an abbreviation for a dull full name, "Twenty-foot-Equivalent Unit") could easily be stacked in and on ships, but also could fit on trains and trucks, and cranes could be automated to stow or unload them. Now ships like the Kendal get into port, discharge boxes, take on new ones, and the captain doesn't have time even to have a dinner ashore before she heads to sea again. Also, the captain does not know what is in the boxes. He could, if he wanted to spend the time, try to look up a manifest of the cargo, and some computer surely could spit one out, but there is no such manifest on board. George writes, "A modern container ship is crewed by people who have no idea what they are carrying." (This is not quite true; they know, for instance, what containers carry toxic or flammable materials, just in case.) One crewman explains, "When the navy call us in the Gulf of Aden and ask us what type of ship we are, we say, 'container.' 'What's in the containers?' 'No idea.'" 




The efficiency of shipping in containers, and doing it on huge vessels, makes for surprising transactions. Scottish cod, for instance, can be shipped ten thousand miles to China to be filleted, and then the filleted fish sent back to be sold in Scotland, cheaper than paying Scottish filleters to take care of the job on site. In the name of efficiency, too, is the practice of a ship owned by a firm in one country being registered in a land-locked, war-torn, or simply cash-hungry nation in order to avoid regulations. (Prohibition started this; American cruise liners could not serve alcohol as long as they were a floating piece of America, but solved the problem by registering as Panamanian.) George implies that Maersk is run sensibly and humanely, but that other firms take advantage of shipping's invisibility to take advantage of labor. Crews are often made up of Filipinos because, as one told her, "We are cheap and we speak good English." George devotes many pages to piracy here, and to the way shipping lines deal with the risk, negotiations, and inevitable loss. There is, however, in-house piracy. "Exploitation of seafarers is easy when an owner can slip away behind his flag and brass-plate company. The nonpayment of wages is common and blatantly done." There are proposals to have some international law make things fairer; the best hope now is that there might be a global fund set up that would at least allow seafarers who have been vocationally and financially abandoned to draw enough money to go back home. They continue, for now, at risk. If you have a problem, asks George, "who do you complain to, when you are employed by a Manila manning agency on a ship owned by an American, flagged by Panama, managed by a Cypriot, in international waters." 




George is a funny and observant writer, the perfect investigator for us to have in a realm most of us are never going to see. She tells plenty about the solitude of work aboard the Kendal, and the retreat to the solitude of watching a DVD on a laptop, separate from other crewman (it used to be they showed movies communally). She gives us the food, the weather, the accommodations. She tells about going through the Suez Canal, and we learn it is called the Marlboro Canal because although a ship like Kendal pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to go through the canal, there will be delays from port health or security guards or others if the captain does not dispense cigarettes. These are listed on the ship's budget under the cost of entertainment. (A joke among the crew: "The Egyptians can't have built the pyramids; there were no Marlboros then.") George tells us about the ships' effect on polluting the atmosphere, and shipwrecks, and storms, and mostly the dull transit, but she is never dull. She has been a superb ambassador to introduce readers to a strange, silent, invisible, and crucial business. 




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