Eye-opening and compelling, the overlooked world of freight shipping, revealed as the foundation of our civilization
On ship-tracking websites, the waters are black with dots. Each dot is a ship; each ship is laden with boxes; each box is laden with goods. In postindustrial economies, we no longer produce but buy. We buy, so we must ship. Without shipping there would be no clothes, food, paper, or fuel. Without all those dots, the world would not work.
Freight shipping has been no less revolutionary than the printing press or the Internet, yet it is all but invisible. Away from public scrutiny, shipping revels in suspect practices, dubious operators, and a shady system of "flags of convenience." Infesting our waters, poisoning our air, and a prime culprit of acoustic pollution, shipping is environmentally indefensible. And then there are the pirates.
Rose George, acclaimed chronicler of what we would rather ignore, sails from Rotterdam to Suez to Singapore on ships the length of football fields and the height of Niagara Falls; she patrols the Indian Ocean with an anti-piracy task force; she joins seafaring chaplains, and investigates the harm that ships inflict on endangered whales.
Sharply informative and entertaining, Ninety Percent of Everything reveals the workings and perils of an unseen world that holds the key to our economy, our environment, and our very civilization.
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Ninety Percent Of Everything
Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate
By Rose George
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2013 Rose George
All rights reserved.
Formalization and Filipinos
Kendal looks enormous, but she is a midsized ship. Her deck is only three football fields long when the biggest decks now stretch for four. I find her beautiful, although sailors of tall ships and trim yachts will scoff at this. A container ship? So ugly and boxy. Those practical lines, that unsubtle stern slumped like a fat diner's backside on a restaurant chair. They feel superior with their wooden masts and sails and windy romance. Cruise ship fans dote on the flanks — pockmarked with cabins — of their floating holiday camps, with all that gleaming, preening white. Give me instead this working ship laden with her multicolored box stacks, waiting passively at the dock while industry is done to her.
The men who work here think there is nothing exceptional about what will happen next, which is a transformation. Once the loading is done, the ropes unlashed, and the gangway withdrawn, Kendal will become an astonishing, remarkable thing: thousands of tons of thousands of types of cargo, floating on miles deep of nothing but water, traveling safely to the other side of the world, just as she does every two months, reliable as a yo-yo or a boomerang. Kendal's job is to travel to Felixstowe, Bremerhaven, and Rotterdam; to call at Le Havre in France then go down the Suez Canal to Salalah, Oman; on to Colombo, Sri Lanka, then into the Straits of Malacca to stop at Port Klang in Malaysia, then Singapore before the final destination of Laem Chabang, Thailand, where she will turn around and come back. The World Shipping Council, attempting to amaze, informs visitors to its website that a container ship travels the equivalent of three-quarters of the way to the moon and back in one year. The council doesn't need to do that: an ordinary voyage on an ordinary ship is extraordinary enough.
At the top of the gangway, two more escorts await, one Asian and one not; one cheerful and one not. The grump is Igor, second officer, deck, and misery is his default setting because he was supposed to go home weeks earlier and now he exudes frustration in his face like sweat. He has been detailed to show me to my quarters. Some container lines carry passengers. Paying guests on working ships can bring revenue, and the experience can be sold as cruising without the crowds. But no commercial ships passing through the Indian Ocean take passengers anymore because of piracy risks. So I am here as a supernumerary (dictionary definition: "not wanted or needed; redundant," or "not belonging to a regular staff but engaged for work"). I will be the last outsider allowed on Maersk ships through the Gulf of Aden until further notice.
The people of Kendal live and work and play in its accommodation house, a cream superstructure placed toward the rear of the ship, a direction that I should now call "aft." The building rises ten stories up to the bridge, the navigational center of the ship, which stretches T-like over the breadth of the containers, or "boxes," in industry language, for superior visibility. I step inside the steel lip of a heavy metal door, into upper deck, the lowest level of the accommodation house but so named because of the decks below it, down to the engine room and cargo holds. Samuel Johnson wrote that "being in a ship is like being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned," and although Maersk is known for running good ships, the interior decor is the prison side of comfort: plain walls, institutionally dimpled rubber floors, clinical lighting. A ship is both workplace and home but workplace aesthetics have won.
The decks rise up through the alphabet. Senior officers live higher up; non-officers below. My cabin is on D deck, port side, in the officer levels but not at the heights of F deck, where the captain lives, beneath the bridge. The quarters are spacious because they usually house visiting officers: a dayroom, bedroom, and en suite bathroom. There is a computer, a printer, a DVD player, and TV; a hi-fi system, a compact shower room, and a biological sewage toilet. The furnishing is business-functional; the color scheme is beige and dark blue. It is better and bigger than many hotel rooms I have stayed in, and it floats.
Igor departs with a mutter that I will be summoned by the captain at some point, so I read a letter left by the Floating Society of Christian Endeavour thanking the cabin's resident for his or her part in bringing cargo to this country, then I pass the time before dinner by looking out of the porthole. The view is busy. Every port between Felixstowe and Singapore requires boxes to be loaded and others to be discharged. The blankness of the boxes is entrancing, although this is an unpopular, weird opinion among people who work with them, who think they are boring, opaque, blank. Stuff carrying stuff.
At her most laden, Kendal carries 6,188 boring TEUs, or twenty-foot-equivalent unit containers. TEU is a mundane name for something that changed the world, but so is the "Internet." I watch a crane lifting a TEU into the air, its cables dancing the box across onto the ship, thudding it into place in front of my porthole, then retracting with serpentine loops. The movement would be balletic if it weren't for the thuds. My view now is a gray box, its corrugated iron ridges slightly scuffed and rusted, its exterior branded with "MAERSK." Other boxes are stamped with "Evergreen," "Hapag- Lloyd," "CMA CGM," "Hanjin": household names at sea, in freight yards, and in maritime offices but nowhere else. Yet similar boxes and the same brands surround modern life. They lie in stacks in rail freight yards as you pass on a train. Attached to a truck they slow your passage on a highway. You buy hair products from market stalls set up in those familiar corrugated steel walls, or you sleep in a boutique hotel created from them. I have seen boxes dumped by African roadsides several days' drive from the nearest city, splashes of red among green jungle, displaced deposits of commerce. They are everywhere if you care to look, if you look harder.
This box is probably empty. Britain is postindustrial and has little to export. "Waste and hot air," one laconic port official said, when I asked him what our exports consist of. He could have included weapons, too, and scrap metal, exported to Turks who have invested in recycling plants to process it, unlike the British who call it waste, wastefully. But that would be it. The geographic boundary of the Suez Canal is also a gateway to plenty: beyond it Kendal will begin to collect what the East has made for the West, gathering up goods all the way to Thailand before turning around and bringing the bounty home. This is the pendulum of the supply chain and it swings with its own curious logic. Shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters. A Scottish newspaper called this practice "madness," but actually it's just shipping.
* * *
Dinner is at six on B deck. There are two eating rooms, one for crew and the other for officers, who are also part of the crew but who are not known as crew. This never makes much sense, along with why there are three words for going backward (astern, making sternway, aft). Ship life is a foreign country and I must learn the language. The crew mess is homely, with a large cauldron of rice that is always full and a microwave with two settings: Instant Ramen for one and Instant Ramen for two.
My seat is in the officers' saloon. Next door the crew eat off Formica, but here the tables have blue cloths and lacy paper doilies, already well used and grubby. I am directed to a seat next to the porthole, underneath a portrait of the Queen. Apparently she is standard decoration on British-flagged ships, although discomfiting to anyone who has traveled to countries — Iraq, for example — where the number of official portraits reflects the level of fear required in the population. But there she is, and I am too unsure of my place to argue about my place. Men drift in and take food from the buffet on the sideboard. No one speaks. My neighbor is a silent man who eats by holding his bowl close to his mouth in a way that is improper for Westerners but not for Easterners. Later I learn that his name is Chan, that is the third engineer and from Burma, and that ashore Burmese may be rare and exotic but they are common in shipping. They make up one of the modern labor pools, in the language of economists, as if rich shipowners take their rods and fish for able seamen, oilmen, bo'suns among the men of Bangladesh, the Philippines, eastern Europe. Opposite me is the third officer, a lanky young blond man, then Igor, still grumpy. The silence is intimidating but I try to make conversation with the third officer, from nerves.
"What's your name?"
I think he says, "Maris."
"Oh. Like the sea? What a good name."
"No. Not like the sea. Marius."
He looks at me with fatigued disdain and returns to fueling, fast and silently. With further effort I learn that he is Romanian. Igor is Moldavian. The captain is a chilly South African. The chief engineer is a Briton named Derek, from Plymouth or nearby, with the rounded vowels of Devon. Mike, another Romanian, is the second engineer; a languid Indian named Vinton is chief officer; and the man whose seat I have taken is Li, fourth engineer, Chinese. Eight places, five nationalities. A normal ship. At the table behind are two British cadets, apprentice engineers. Maersk takes on cadets to qualify for lower taxes from the British government, so here are lads from Newcastle and the Western Isles of Scotland, traditional maritime places that still send their young to sea. The cadets don't talk much either. At the end of this sad, silent meal, I wonder what I've done, signing up for weeks of this gloom with a big ocean outside to jump into.
* * *
I sleep through our departure. For someone used to land, the movement of the ship turns it into a giant crib, though one with engine noise. I wake in German Bight, something that sounds like a tree disease but is a parcel of sea past Dover. For most people it exists only in the BBC's Shipping Forecast, a nightly broadcast of weather and worse in South Utsire, Dogger, Rockall, Hebrides, of storms rising and boats falling, dispensed in tones so soothing you feel lulled by other people's danger and a sharp, guilty delight at being safe abed.
No ship can protect itself against the sea. When the cruise ship Costa Concordia was holed in 2012 by a rock off Italy and toppled, a headline read, BIG SHIPS STILL SINK, as if this were news. Kendal, despite the dimensions of her hull and engine — a Doosan-Wartsila the size of a house — is still a chunk of metal floating on an element that can withdraw its support at any time; that can list us, wind us, or hole us; swamp and sink us. So we are as prepared as possible, with lifesaving equipment for thirty-four persons and safety certificates from the American Bureau of Shipping, one of the leading classification societies, as the setters of ship safety standards are known. There is a comforting number of interests concerned in this ship and its safety: line them up and they would stretch from Kendal's smoothly curving bow to her squat backside. An incomplete list includes shipbuilders, owners, financiers, charterers, classification societies, regulators national and international, insurers for its hull, cargo, and war risks, and so on. Even with all those interests and oversight, every minute at sea is a minute in which danger has been avoided. Every minute trouble is expected, from other ships, from unseen obstacles, from something sailors call "weather" but which is more malign, more elemental than the weather we have ashore.
The English Channel, for example. A domestic sea, a stretch of water so unthreatening that swimming across it has become commonplace. In 2010, in this domestic sea, the yacht Ouzo disappeared, probably swamped by a passing P&O ferry named Pride of Bilbao, and its crew of three young men were found in the sea, correctly dressed in life jackets but dead. The Channel was called the sea of sore heads and sore hearts by sailors who knew they should fear it, who were not fooled by its size or proximity to two reassuringly safe, civilized countries. The Narrow Sea, as it is also known, is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. It contains small boats, fishing trawlers, yachts, container vessels, bulk cargo freighters carrying grain, coal, anything. There are slow-moving tankers and ferries that cross fast and furiously as if with God-given right to take priority. Those are the surface perils. The charts reveal sea places called Garden City, Fairy Bank, the Black Deeps, but also firing ranges and wrecks. They show the Sunk Traffic Separation Scheme, which is not a thoroughfare of disaster but a policing of a sea highway near a place called Sunk. Not being a sailor, I didn't know the sea had highways. My land maps show the smallest lane, but the sea is blank blue, serving only to contrast to land. Nothing to see, fly over it, move along.
Somewhere in German Bight, I go for morning coffee with the crew in their Ramen room. There was no chance of missing them: eating and drinking times on Kendal are strictly kept. Breakfast at 7:00 a.m., morning break at 10:00–10:30, lunch at 12:00, dinner at 6:00 p.m. They are usually well attended: eating punctures boredom. Some sailors still call the morning break the "smoke-o," although there is no smoking inside the accommodation house and hopefully nowhere near any containers containing flammable liquids.
There are twenty men and one woman — Pinky, the cook — employed on Kendal, a manning ratio that would baffle anyone working on a military ship, where thousands can live. I'm surprised to find a woman on board when only 2 percent of seafarers are female, but I'm glad to see her, too. The officers are mixed, but the crew are all Filipino. This is to be expected: Filipinos make up more than a third of all crews worldwide. A quarter of a million of them are at sea. They are popular, a Filipino seafarer once told me, because "We are cheap and speak good English." They are the new Malays, who were the new lascars — Asian seafarers widely employed up to the Second World War — and they will probably be replaced by the next wave of cheaper, English-speaking crews.
Introductions: the bo'sun is Elvis. He rules the realm of manual labor in which all the crew work: a marine factory foreman. Beneath him is Julius Jefferson, a muscled Able Seaman (AB) named for the U.S. president; Ordinary Seaman Dilbert; an electrician named Pedro; and Denis the painter, whose job is to chip rust, then paint, chip rust, then paint. There is Pinky in her chef's whites and her galley helpmeet and steward, Francis. There are Joselito and Axel, ordinary seamen or ratings, who do grunt work. Finally, a stocky AB who introduces himself as Archie. Actually, it's Archimedes. "Archimedes for long, Archie for short."
They look tired. The officers drive and navigate the ship, but these men care for it, with labor that is manual and exhausting: constantly climbing the stacks to check on six thousand boxes, hosing the decks of salt and oil, fixing, repairing, tending, welding, heaving. Even their work clothes look worn out, because the men leave their boiler suits hanging at the accommodation house entrance, with boots attached. The suits are so heavy they keep their shape, and they look like ghosts hanging there, faces turned despondently to the wall.
Still, the crew is as friendly as dinner last night was frosty. They have a ready humor that you'd expect from nationals of the Philippines, where the country's two long occupations by Spain and the United States are often described as "four hundred years in the convent and fifty in Hollywood." Besides, a new face is something new. Some have been at sea for months with hardly an hour ashore, but that is what they want. Unlike the senior officers, they don't belong to the ship but to a one-off contract. Pedro and Archimedes could be on Kendal for six months, moving boxes, then hauling cornmeal from Iowa or chemicals to Hamburg. Many months at sea puts off the uncertainty involved in getting a new contract. (Not just uncertainty. Some Manila manning agencies require job seekers to work for months unpaid before deigning to give them a contract.)
Excerpted from Ninety Percent Of Everything by Rose George. Copyright © 2013 Rose George. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
4. Open Sea,
5. Sea and Suez,
6. High-Risk Area,
9. Animals Beneath,
Also by Rose George,
About the Author,