The Colombo Bay

Overview

In the face of killer storms, fires, piracy, and terrorism, container ships the length of city blocks and more than a dozen stories high carry 90 percent of the worlds trade. This is an account of one ship's voyage and of the sailors who daily risk their lives to deliver six million containers a year to United States ports alone. Inside these twenty-foot and forty-foot steel boxes are the thousands of imports — from chinos and Game Boys to garlic and frozen shrimp — without ...

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The Colombo Bay

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Overview

In the face of killer storms, fires, piracy, and terrorism, container ships the length of city blocks and more than a dozen stories high carry 90 percent of the worlds trade. This is an account of one ship's voyage and of the sailors who daily risk their lives to deliver six million containers a year to United States ports alone. Inside these twenty-foot and forty-foot steel boxes are the thousands of imports — from chinos and Game Boys to garlic and frozen shrimp — without which North America's consumer society would collapse.

To explore this little-known and dangerous universe of modern seafaring, Richard Pollak joined the Colombo Bay in Hong Kong and over the next five weeks sailed with her and her 3,500 containers across the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. En route, this mammoth vessel called at Singapore and Colombo, passed through the Suez Canal (toll: $250,000), then put in at Malta and Halifax before tangling with Hurricane Karen on the two-day run to New York. Here is the story of the ship's unheralded twenty-four-man company; of the unflappable British captain, Peter Davies, a veteran of four decades at sea; of Federico Castrojas, who like the rest of the hard-working Filipino crew must daily confront the loneliness of being away from his family for nine months at a stretch; of Simon Westall, the twenty-one-year-old third mate, who reveals what it is like to be gay in the broad-shouldered world of the merchant service.

It is a world where pirates in the Malacca Strait sneak up behind ships at night in fast power boats, then clamber aboard and either rob the unarmed sailors at gunpoint and escape into the dark or throw the crew into the sea and hijack the ship, plundering her cargo and sometimes repainting her and setting out to do business under another name and flag. It is a world where families desperate to get to the United States or Europe pay thousands of dollars to the Chinese Snakeheads and other criminal gangs, who secrete these wretched migrants in stifling containers; after a week or more at sea these stowaways arrive in the Promised Land either starving or dead.

Pollak sailed on September 13, 2001, into a changed world, on one of 7,000 container ships whose millions of uninspected boxes suddenly had become potential Trojan horses in which terrorists could transport weapons of mass destruction into the heart of the United States.

Throughout his riveting narrative, Pollak interweaves the insights of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, whose masterful portrayals of seafaring make the voyage of the Colombo Bay a dramatic reminder of what a hard and rarely reported life merchant seamen have always led out on the "unhooped oceans of this planet."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Steven Brill

author of After

Don't think you want to read a book about shipping? Well, how about a Jules Verne-like tale of a journey across the world that begins two days after September 11 and makes issues like globalization, international trade, and port security come alive in a deeply personal, poignant narrative crafted by a truly gifted writer? You will be pulled along in the wake of the Colombo Bay. And you'll savor the trip.

James B. Stewart author of Heart of a Soldier

To the ranks of seafaring literature, we may gratefully add The Colombo Bay, an engrossing account by Richard Pollak of his global circumnavigation on a modern container ship. And to the traditional perils of sea crossings — piracy, tropical storms, running aground — we may now add global terrorism. Those who venture with Pollak on this remarkable journey will gain a new appreciation for the importance of the world's sea lanes, and the people and ships that populate them.

The New York Times
[Pollack] was asleep in his Hong Kong hotel when the twin towers fell. His wife and daughter were in New York, safe, but his eagerly anticipated book project now seemed ''indulgent and, worse, irrelevant,'' and like everyone else that day, he just wanted to get home. But at his wife's urging he boarded the ship anyway. As a result, The Colombo Bay is not only a meticulously researched examination of the container-shipping industry, which transports 90 percent of the world's goods via an armada that numbers more than 7,000 at sea on any given day, but also an original portrait of the blurry weeks following Sept. 11. — Louise Jarvis Flynn
Publishers Weekly
Container ships are the pack mules of the global marketplace. Their role is crucial, if unglamorous, and Pollak's exceptional piece of literary journalism should make readers appreciate the mostly monotonous, sometimes dangerous work of these ships and their crews. Pollak arranged to board the Colombo Bay on one of its regular westbound trips out of Hong Kong in the fall of 2001. The ship's five-week itinerary included calls at several ports in South Asia before passage through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic to New York. Pollak, a contributing editor at the Nation, learned of the 9/11 attacks just before he boarded and considered canceling his trip, but he and the ship sailed on. Had he held exclusively to a first-person travelogue, Pollak still might have produced a worthy book, but to his readers' benefit, he weaves in profiles of the officers and crew, facts about the history of merchant shipping since antiquity and lore about the romance of seafaring from Conrad and Melville. Many of the ports and passages (Singapore; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Aden, Yemen) already had a history with ships, pirates, smuggling and terrorism. Because the ship sailed so soon after 9/11, the calls at these ports were anything but routine, allowing Pollak to convey with greater urgency both the vitality and vulnerability of cargo shipping. To balance the somber realities, there are irony and humor, not to mention technical descriptions and analysis to rival the best of John McPhee. Agent, Lynn Nesbit. (Jan. 15) Forecast: The front-of-galley comparisons to Tracy Kidder and Paul Theroux are deserved. Although container shipping isn't the most glamorous of subjects, this book has the chance to become a sleeper hit, aided by Pollak's terrific writing and connection to the Nation. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Pollak (The Creation of Dr. B), a contributing editor at the Nation, provides a solid contribution to the journalistic travelog genre with his firsthand account of the five-week journey of the container ship Colombo Bay from Hong Kong to New York via the Suez Canal. Of the entire world's cargo, some 90 percent is moved across the sea by 7000 container ships, each container hoisted by crane to and from the trucks that move the goods across the country. Pollak's voyage began two days after the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the ship's itinerary included stops at Laem Chabang, Thailand, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, steaming through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a trip through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic, a brush with tropical storm Karen, and arrival at the final destination, the dock at New York City's Howland Hook container terminal. Pollak adds insightful profiles of the ship's officers and crew, a brief history of merchant shipping, romantic tales of shipping from the works of Melville and Conrad, the state of sea piracy that continues to threaten container ships, and the current heightened security and urgency of container shipping following 9/11. A fascinating inside look at how everyday goods now get to their final destination; highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Dale Farris, Groves, TX Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Let us go down to the sea-in containers. Along about 1937, writes Nation contributing editor Pollak (The Creation of Dr. B, 1997), a North Carolina freight entrepreneur named Malcolm McLean conceived the happy idea that a truck hauled up onto a ship could be transported around the world and drive off with its cargo into distant lands. By the 1950s, McLean Trucking dispensed with the trucks themselves, instead loading ships with stackable containers: and thus were born container ships. Packing volumes of Melville and Conrad as his shipboard reading, Pollak embarks on one such ship, the Colombo Bay, for a world-striding cruise from Hong Kong to New York via Suez. "There is not much romance left in the technologized, just-in-time world of twenty-first-century merchant shipping," he observes, though there's plenty of danger from killer waves and undercooked food. More usual, on this massive ship ("she is some 105 feet wide and more than 900 feet long. . . . She weights 60,000 deadweight tons"), are long days of checking GPS coordinates, monitoring ocean traffic, feeding stowaway crows, and keeping an eye out for pirates-a very real threat in the South China Sea. Pollak does a good job of explaining why so many ships fly flags of convenience, why so many merchant sailors these days are from the Philippines, and why container shipping remains an important vehicle for the world economy, especially for goods of Asian provenance. Still, the narrative is a little, beg pardon, dry; the British comic and traveler Michael Palin covered much the same ground, with plenty of circumstantial detail and much more entertainingly, in a single chapter of Around the World in Eighty Days (1991). An unfaircomparison, perhaps, for Pollak writes with an eminently serious purpose. He tells a story worth hearing, especially for readers interested in the grittier details of globalization and in true tales of the high seas. Agent: Lynn Nesbit/Janklow & Nesbit
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416568100
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 12/31/1999
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 967,304
  • Product dimensions: 0.62 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Pollak is a contributing editor of The Nation, where he previously served as literary editor and executive editor. He is the author of The Episode, a novel, and of The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim. He lives in New York City with his wife, the pianist Diane Walsh.

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Read an Excerpt

The Colombo Bay


By Richard Pollak

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2004 Richard Pollak
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-0073-X


Chapter One

"Come in, Colombo Bay," a radio voice squawks. "Ignore it," says Shakeel, who has just arrived on the bridge at noon to relieve Simon. "Come in, Colombo Bay, do you read me?" The two mates smile and continue to disregard the insistent pleas, which offer no official identification and likely come from an Egyptian vendor trying to drum up business, probably by selling us some stores. At 1230, Suez harbor control makes contact, and Peter, who has come to the bridge finishing his sandwich lunch, responds that our ETA is 1400 and our draft is forty feet. We are heading for the collection anchorage on the east side of the Bay of Suez, where ships gather to form the convoys that the Suez Canal Authority requires for passage in either direction. The chart shows twenty-nine spots in this marine parking lot, and Peter is hoping for one on the outside so we can make a quick getaway when entering the canal. We reach the bay right on schedule, with eleven hours to spare before the 0100 deadline that ships must meet to be included in the next morning's convoy, the only northbound transit of the day. Just a half dozen large vessels have arrived at the anchorage so far; nonetheless, harbor control directs us to a slot in the middle. Qué sera¡, sera.

I go up to the fo'c'sle to watch the anchor drop, the proper word, a somewhat testy Conrad advises. "Your journalist," he writes, "... almost invariably 'casts' his anchor. Now, an anchor is never cast, and to take a liberty with technical language is a crime against the clearness, precision, and beauty of perfected speech." He says cast is an "odious word" used by "benighted landsmen" who think an anchor is something thrown overboard, when in fact it is already overboard hanging against the hull and is simply allowed to fall. Thus, "the order is not 'Heave over!' as the paragraphists seem to imagine, but 'Let go!'" When will we be letting go, I ask Simon and the cadet, who have come to the fo'c'sle to oversee the drop but for the moment are preoccupied by the Mahmood, a small boat that has just chugged across the harbor and is now idling below our rail. A canopy covers the stern deck, where four men are eating lunch at a makeshift table. Do we have any rope or wire for sale? one of them shouts. Simon shakes his head and waves them away, and to his surprise, they shrug, return to their meal, and motor off. "Usually they're more persistent," he says of these approaches, a regular feature of the anchorage. At twenty-one, he already has passed through the canal more than a dozen times.

We are dropping just the starboard anchor, all that is needed to keep us from floating free in the calm waters of the bay. Ernesto, the bosun and top-ranking member of the crew, has loosed the gear of the starboard windlass and now awaits the order to release the brake, which comes at 1420 by walkie-talkie from Peter on the bridge. An explosion of clanks follows as, pulled by the anchor's twelve and a half tons, the chain's endomorphic links rattle over the windlass and down through the hawsepipe in the deck, throwing off a sirocco of rust that blankets the fo'c'sle as mud stirred up by the plunging iron swirls about the bow like an animated finger painting. The cadet now raises the symbol of a ship riding at anchor, a round wicker basket that when it reaches the top of the foremast looks like a homemade version of the ball whose descent in Times Square marks the new year.

The fo'c'sle is once again the most tranquil place on the ship, and we are about to take our reluctant leave when Peter reminds Simon via walkie-talkie to screw the covers on the hawsepipes. Last year at this anchorage, Peter didn't bother with the covers, and the next morning there were footprints in the dew on deck, signaling that thieves had shinnied up the anchor chain in the night and squeezed through the hawsepipes; they broke into a container and made off with a boatful of woolen garments.

In the morning the crows are gone, apparently having decided after nine days and almost 4,000 miles aboard the Colombo Bay, that the town of Suez and environs would provide them a more varied diet than bread crumbs. We weigh anchor and begin moving toward the canal as another hot, cloudless day dawns, a full moon casting a wan eye on the sunrise. We are number nine in the convoy; number ten, now maneuvering in behind us, is the Al Salamah, a sleek white yacht with four decks raking up to the bridge. The speculation at breakfast is that she belongs to a Saudi prince bound for sybaritic indulgences in the Mediterranean. Subsequent investigation, however, reveals that her owner is the aged King Fahd himself, and that the 482-foot vessel, built by a German shipyard in the late nineties at a cost of $250 million, is the world's largest "megayacht." Though she is less than half as long as the Colombo Bay and weighs a fifth as much, she is manned by sixty more seamen, none of whom seem to be stirring as I sweep her decks with the binoculars.

The harbor pilot, who arrived on the Colombo Bay's bridge just after we left the anchorage, explains that Al Salamah means "peace" and assures me that the vast majority of Muslims want peace and hate terrorism. He offers his condolences for the 9/11 attacks, observing that everyone suffers from fanatics, including the Egyptians, whose peace-making president Anwar el-Sadat fell to the bullets of extremist Muslim soldiers in 1981. His point made, he returns to his navigational duties and is soon gone, replaced by the first of three canal pilots as, at 0725, we enter the 132-year-old waterway, which stretches some 100 miles to Port Said on the Mediterranean and under normal conditions like today's takes about fourteen hours to transit. "When the girls were small," Peter says, "we had contests to see who could spot the most camels. Chocolate was the prize."

The canal has been Egypt's prize since 1956, when the country's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized it. Up to then it had been run by a private company with an international board of directors and was open to all shipping, under the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, though after the 1949 armistice between Israel and its Arab opponents, Egypt had denied use of the canal to Israel and any country trading with the new nation. Infuriated by Nasser's canal policies and by continuing raids by Arab terrorists, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, then Britain and France attacked Egypt after demanding without success that the country evacuate the canal zone. Nasser retaliated by sinking some forty vessels in the canal, closing it for several months until, in 1957, under international pressure, the three invaders withdrew and a UN peacekeeping force stood guard over the reopened waterway.

Egypt again shut down the canal after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and this time it stayed closed for eight years, becoming a fortified ditch in a war of attrition between the belligerents. Sadat, who had succeeded Nasser after he died of a heart attack in 1970, saw reopening of the canal as central to any détente with Israel, and - after Egyptian forces aided by the United States, British, French, and Soviet navies cleared the zone of mines, bombshells, and the other military detritus that had accumulated during the standoff - traffic resumed, on June 5, 1975; still, the canal was not opened to all nations, including Israel, until 1979, when Sadat signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state.

By then Egyptian leaders had recognized that shutting down the canal was like pulling a sustaining intravenous drip from their own arms. The government doubled the transit tolls when the canal reopened, in part to make up for revenue lost because the large tankers that had been constructed during the shutdown to carry greater volume around the Cape were too big to pass through the canal. Egypt began harnessing the waterway's economic potential with an ambitious modernization program, installing radar stations and other electronic navigation systems, and ultimately widening the canal to a maximum of 1,200 feet and dredging it to 68 feet, permitting passage of ships with drafts of up to 58 feet. When the canal opened it was 26 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom, and 300 feet wide at the surface; in 1870, its first full year of operation, 468 ships passed through carrying 437,000 tons of cargo. By 1967, more than 20,000 ships were moving through, loaded with a total of 267 million tons. By 2000 the number of ships transiting had decreased to 14,000, but their much larger average size enabled them to carry cargo totaling 374 million tons, bringing Egypt some $2 billion annually.

The government-run Suez Canal Authority levies tolls based on a ship's net tonnage, the gross tonnage minus deductions for the space occupied by the accommodations, machinery, navigation equipment, and bunkers but not by cargo and passengers. The charge is highest for the first 5,000 tons, then decreases as the tonnage rises. Add-ons are plentiful, including pilot and port fees, pay for an electrician to operate a searchlight on the bow at night, surcharges for deck cargo such as boats, and penalties for showing up late for convoy formation. I was disinclined ever again to complain about the $6 toll on the George Washington Bridge after Jeremy reported that the cost of getting the Colombo Bay's 45,429 net tons through the canal was roughly $250,000 per transit, not including today's $25,000 war and terrorism insurance surcharge.

We are proceeding down the center of the canal, the banks on either side an easy swim through the barely ruffled water. It is tantalizing to see land this close after more than a week at sea since Colombo, and I'd welcome an hour's stroll among the houses, gardens, and palm trees on the west bank, perhaps with a quick stop for some fresh mango juice and foul medames, the stewed fava beans in olive oil, lemon, and garlic that the Egyptians make so well, or even a short, nutritionless walk along the arid east bank, from which the baking desert of the Sinai Peninsula stretches to the horizon. But as always, moving the boxes comes first, and there will be no chance for anyone aboard to stretch his or her land legs until we get to Malta in two days.

At regular intervals we pass signal stations on the west bank, posts where the canal authority monitors our speed and the distance behind the vessel in front, which happens to be another, larger P&O Nedlloyd container ship, the Rotterdam. Regulations require that we stay one to two miles apart and travel at between seven and eight knots; pilots can be fined for speeding. A two-lane road hugs each side of the canal, the civilian traffic interspersed with armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles. We are less than an hour into our transit when we pass three lookouts atop a dune on the west bank where armed soldiers stand sentry around mounted machine guns. I wonder aloud if the entire length of the canal is fortified, and the pilot, looking up from the breakfast tray just brought to him from the galley, says no, what we have just passed is an army training camp.

His name is Ashraf Emam, and like the harbor pilot he looks a bit like a hospital orderly in his neat uniform of long pants, untucked open-necked shirt, and shoes - all white. He is in his mid-forties and has done this work for fifteen years, now commuting two hours by car from Cairo, where he lives with his family. He is voluble and friendly, revealing between drags on his cigarette and apropos of nothing that Moses parted the Gulf of Suez and not the Red Sea. "It is not known exactly where, but they were going to Sinai," he says. I do not challenge this revisionism, mostly because I am no biblical scholar but also because parting the waters, wherever it may have taken place, has seemed to me something of a doubtful achievement ever since I saw Charlton Heston do it.

I ask if any naval vessels have come through the canal recently. Yes, says Ashraf, seventeen British and U.S. warships transited south about two weeks ago; they are likely the flotilla that had set Katherine Davies to worrying, in the email she sent her father a week ago, about our safety during this passage. My question opens the gate for a polite but firm lecture about the United States' behavior as the most powerful nation in the world. "I love the American people," Ashraf says, "but your leaders are very bad. They only recognize terror when it is on your shores. Besides, you are responsible for bin Laden because your CIA supported him when he fought with the Afghans against the Soviet Union." Ashraf abruptly abandons this criticism and, echoing the harbor pilot, offers his sympathy for the 9/11 attacks and stresses that the Muslim religion does not condone terrorism. He punctuates this change of tack with a good-natured smile and returns to his breakfast, which he finishes while reading a newspaper, occasionally looking up through the haze from his cigarette and ordering the helmsman to give the Colombo Bay a tweak to keep her within the flanking channel buoys.

By 1000 we have reached Little Bitter and Great Bitter Lakes, so named because of their extra salinity; on the chart, their contiguous bulges make the canal look like a python that has swallowed but not yet digested a rabbit. Floating moorings on the west side of the lakes accommodate thirty-six vessels, and some two dozen are now tied up, part of a southbound convoy, the first of two that leave Port Said each day, one at 0100, the other at 0700. Despite considerable widening over the decades, the canal is too narrow to handle two-way traffic in ships the size of the Colombo Bay, which is by no means the beamiest of the vessels that regularly make the transit. Northbound convoys leave Suez only once a day; once the last of our twenty or so ships passes beyond the lakes, the southbound convoy will leave its lay-by and continue toward the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. On our port as we pass between the two lakes is El Kabrit, site of an airfield used by the RAF in the World War II battles of El Alamein and by MiGs when Egypt was a Soviet client in the 1960s; now, on a spit of land jutting toward us, a collection of grand whitewashed houses stand amid an oasis of lush greenery, a compound of second homes to which Cairo's elite repairs on weekends. At midday we arrive at the halfway point, Ismailia, on Lake Timsah, where a beach, like a taunting tongue, sticks its carefree bathers almost in our path. They suggest - as does the local museum devoted to the papers of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat who oversaw the decade-long construction of the canal - that a pleasant and instructive twenty-four hours could be spent here by somehow going over the rail and catching another New York-bound container ship tomorrow.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Colombo Bay by Richard Pollak Copyright © 2004 by Richard Pollak. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2005

    Informative but biased

    A good history of the past and now present container shipping industry. Author uses book as a soapbox to inject his liberal view as part of the blame American business crowd.

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