By Rose George, September 6, 2013
No sensible sailor goes to sea on the day of the Crucifixion, or the journey will be followed by ill will and malice. So here I am on a Friday in June, looking up at a giant ship that will carry me from Felixstowe to Singapore, for five weeks and 9,288 nautical miles through the Pillars of Hercules, pirate waters and weather. I stop at the bottom of the ship’s gangway, waiting for an escort, stilled and awed by the immensity of this thing, much of her the colour of a summer-day sky, so blue; her bottom painted dull red; her name – Maersk Kendal – written large on her side.
There is such busy-ness around me. Everything in a modern container port is enormous, overwhelming, crushing. Kendal of course, but also the thundering trucks, the giant boxes in many colours, the massive gantry cranes that straddle the quay, reaching up 10 storeys and over to ships that stretch three football pitches in length. There are hardly any humans to be seen. When the journalist Henry Mayhew visited London’s docks in 1849, he found 'decayed and bankrupt master butchers, master bakers, publicans, grocers, old soldiers, old sailors, Polish refugees, broken-down gentlemen, discharged lawyers’ clerks, suspended Government clerks, almsmen, pensioners, servants, thieves’. They have long since gone. This is a Terminator terminal, a place where humans are hidden in crane or truck cabs, where everything is clamorous machines.
The public is not allowed on this ship, nor even on this dock. There are no ordinary citizens to witness the workings of an industry that is one of the most fundamental to their daily existence. These ships and boxes belong to a business that feeds, clothes, warms and supplies us. They have fuelled if not created globalisation. They are the reason behind your cheap T-shirt and reasonably priced television. But who looks beyond a television now and sees the ship that carried it? Who cares about the men who brought your breakfast cereal through winter storms? How ironic that the more ships have grown in size and consequence, the more their place in our imagination has shrunk.
Nearly everything is transported by sea. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. The game is to reckon how many clothes and possessions and how much food has been transported by ship. The beads around the woman’s neck; the man's iPhone. Her Sri Lankan-made skirt and blouse; his printed-in-China book. I can always go wider, deeper and in any direction. The fabric of the seats. The rolling stock. The fuel powering the train. The conductor’s uniform; the coffee in my cup; the fruit in my bag. Definitely this fruit, so frequently shipped in refrigerated containers that it has been given its own temperature. Two degrees Celsius is 'chill’, but 13 degrees is 'banana’.
Trade carried by sea has grown fourfold since 1970 and is still growing. In 2011 the 360 commercial ports of America took in goods worth $1.73 trillion, or 80 times the value of all American trade in 1960. There are more than 100,000 ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live. Only 6,000 are container vessels like Kendal, but they make up for this small proportion by their dizzying capacity. The biggest container ship can carry 15,000 boxes. It can hold 746 million bananas, one for every European, on one ship. If the containers of the Danish company Maersk were lined up, they would stretch 11,000 miles, more than halfway round the planet. If they were stacked instead, they would be 1,500 miles high, 7,530 Eiffel Towers. If Kendal discharged her containers on to trucks, the line of traffic would be 60 miles long.
A sweater can now travel 3,000 miles for 2.5 cents by sea.
Trade has always travelled and the world has always traded. Ours, though, is the era of extreme interdependence. Hardly any nation is now self-sufficient. In 2011 Britain shipped in half of its gas. Every day 38 million metric tons of crude oil sets off by sea somewhere, although you may not notice it. As in Los Angeles and New York, London has moved its working docks out of the city, away from residents. Ships are bigger now and need deeper harbours, so they call at Newark or Tilbury or Felixstowe, not Liverpool or South Street. Security concerns have hidden ports further, behind barbed wire and badge-wearing and keeping out. To reach this quayside in Felixstowe, I had to pass through several gatekeepers and passport controllers, and past radiation-detecting gates alarmed by naturally radioactive cargo such as cat litter and broccoli.
It is harder to wander into the world of shipping now, so people don’t. The chief of the Royal Navy – who is known as the First Sea Lord, although the Army chief is not a Land Lord – says we suffer from 'sea blindness’. We travel by cheap flights, not liners. The sea is a distance to be flown over, a downward backdrop between take-off and landing, a blue expanse that soothes on the moving flight map as the plane jerks over it. It is for leisure and beaches and fish and chips, not for use or work. Perhaps we believe that everything travels by air, or that it does so magically and instantaneously like information (which is actually transmitted by cables on the seabed), not by hefty ships that travel more slowly than pensioners drive.
You could trace the flight of the ocean from our consciousness in the pages of great newspapers. Fifty years ago, the shipping news was news. Cargo departures were reported daily. Now the most necessary business on the planet has mostly been shunted into the pages of specialised trade papers such as Lloyd’s List and the Journal of Commerce, fine publications, but out of the reach of most when a subscription to Lloyd’s List costs £1,785 a year. In 1965 shipping was so central to daily life in London that when Winston Churchill’s funeral barge left Tower Pier, it embarked in front of dock cranes that dipped their jibs, movingly, out of respect. The cranes are gone now or immobile, garden furniture for wharves that house apartments or indifferent restaurants.
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Humans have sent goods by water for at least 4,000 years. In the 15th century BC Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent a fleet to the Land of Punt and brought back panther skins and ebony, frankincense and dancing pygmies. Perhaps Hatshepsut counts as the first shipping tycoon, before the Romans, Phoenicians and Greeks took over. She was certainly the only Egyptian queen who preferred to be called king. Shipping history is full of such treats and treasures. Cardamom, silk, ginger and gold, ivory and saffron. The routes of spice, tea and salt, of amber and incense. There were trade winds, sailor towns and sails, chaos and colour. Now there are freight routes, turnarounds and boxes and the cool mechanics of modern industry, but there is still intrigue and fortune. Maersk ships travel regular routes around Australia and Yokohama named Boomerang and Yo-Yo, and the Bossa Nova and Samba around South America. There are wealthy tycoons still, Norse, Greek and Danish, belonging to family companies who maintain a level of privacy that makes a Swiss banker seem verbose. Publicly listed shipping companies are still a minority. Even shipping people admit that their industry is clubby, insular, difficult. In this business it is considered normal that the official Greek ship-owners’ association refuses to say how many members it has, because it can.
Maersk is different. It must be, because it is letting me on to its working ship, where no members of the public are allowed. Even Maersk officers are no longer permitted to take family members to sea, because of concerns about their safety from pirates. But Maersk is known for risks, at least in the places where its name is known at all, which is in shipping and Denmark. I find Maersk fascinating. It is the Coca-Cola of freight with none of the fame. Its parent company, AP Møller-Maersk, is the largest company in Denmark, its sales equal to 20 per cent of Denmark’s GDP; its ships use more oil than the entire nation.
I like the fact that Maersk is not a household name outside the pages of Lloyd’s List; I like that Maersk is a first name. It’s like a massive global corporation named Derek. For much of its recent history the company was run by Arnold Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller, the son of the founder, a pleasingly eccentric patriarch who stayed working until he died in 2012 aged 98. Møller was known for his firm control of his company; for walking up five flights of stairs to his office (although when he reached 94 he allowed his driver to carry his briefcase up); for being one of only three commoners to receive the Order of the Elephant; and for driving around Copenhagen in a modest car although he was one of the two richest people in Denmark. (The other inherited Lego.)
There are more than 100,000 ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live
Reuters, in a profile of Maersk, describes it as 'active primarily in the marine transportation sector’. Behind that 'primarily’ are multitudes. Founded in 1904 with one ship named Svendborg, Maersk now operates the largest container shipping company in the world, with a fleet of 600 vessels. It also has the vast and dizzying interests of a global corporation. It is active in 130 countries and has 117,000 employees. It is looking for and drilling for oil and gas in Denmark, Angola and Kazakhstan. If you have visited Denmark, you have probably shopped in a Maersk-owned supermarket. You can save in a Maersk-owned bank. The list of its companies and subsidiaries is 12 pages long, double columns. Its revenues in 2011 amounted to $60.2 billion, only slightly less than Microsoft’s. Microsoft provides the software that runs computers; Maersk brings us the computers. One is infamous; somehow the other is mostly invisible.
This is remarkable, given the size of the com-pany’s ambition. Maersk is known for its experiments with economies of scale. Emma Maersk, its E-class ship (rated according to an internal classification system), was built in 2005, and excited the industry partly because she could carry at least 15,000 containers. Triple-E-class ships, expected in 2014, will carry 18,000, and be able to fit a full-sized American football pitch, an ice-hockey arena and a basketball court in their holds, if they care to. Emma was envied by naval architects and engineers, but her arrival in Felixstowe in December 2006 also caught the public imagination. Along with her 150 tons of New Zealand lamb and 138,000 tins of cat food, she carried 12,800 MP3 players, 33,000 cocktail shakers and two million Christmas decorations.
At her most laden, Kendal carries 6,188 boring TEUs, or twenty-foot-equivalent units. 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 it across on to the ship, thudding it into place, then retracting with serpentine loops. It would be balletic if it weren’t for the thuds. A grey box, its corrugated iron ridges slightly scuffed and rusted, its exterior branded with maersk. There are 20 million containers crossing the world now, quiet blank boxes. Before containers, transport costs ate as much as 25 per cent of the value of whatever was being shipped. With the extreme efficiencies that intermodality brought, costs were reduced to a pittance. A sweater can now travel 3,000 miles for 2.5 cents; it costs a cent to send a can of beer. Shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent 10,000 miles to China to be filleted.
I have met well-meaning men – and too few women – in boardrooms across London and New York who complain about widespread ignorance of shipping. They want a better public image for an industry that in Britain alone employs 634,900 people, contributes £8.45 billion in tax and generates two per cent of the national economy, more than restaurants, take-away food and civil engineering combined, and only just behind the construction industry. They despair that shipping only emerges with drama and disaster: a cruise ship sinking, or another oil spill and blackened birds. They would like people to know such names as the Wec Vermeer, arrived from Leixões and heading for Rotterdam, not just Exxon Valdez and Titanic. They provide statistics showing how the dark days of oil spills are over. Between 1972 and 1981, there were 223 spills. Over the past decade, there were 63. Each year, a publicist told me, 'more oil is poured down the drain by car mechanics changing engine oil than is spilt by the world’s fleet of oil tankers’.
Yet that invisibility is useful, too. There are few industries as defiantly opaque as this one. Even offshore bankers have not developed a system as intricately elusive as the flag of convenience, where ships can fly the flag of a state that has nothing to do with its owner, cargo, crew or route. Look at the backside of boats and you will see they name their home ports as Panama City and Monrovia, not Le Havre or Hamburg, though neither crew nor ship will have ever been to Liberia or Panama. To the International Chamber of Shipping, which thinks 'flags of convenience’ too pejorative (it prefers the sanitised term 'open registries’), there is 'nothing inherently wrong’ with this system. A former US Coast Guard commander preferred to call it 'managed anarchy’.
Kendal has also 'flagged out’ in this way, but to the national registry of the United Kingdom. She flies the Red Ensign, the maritime Union flag. This makes her a rarity. After the Second World War, the great powers in shipping were Britain and America. In 1961 Britain had 142,462 working seafarers. America owned 1,268 ships. Now British seafarers number about 24,000 and there are fewer than 100 ocean-going American-flagged ships. At a nautical seminar held on a tall ship – a proper old sailing vessel – in Glasgow, a tanker captain told the following anecdote, which got laughs, but was sad: when online forms offer him drop-down options to describe his career, he selects 'shipping’, and is then given a choice: DHL or TNT?
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Two men have descended from Kendal to fetch me. They look Asian and exhausted, so they are typical crew (although the captain and chief engineer are British). The benefits of flagging out vary according to registry, but there will always be lower taxes, laxer labour laws and no requirement to pay expensive American or British crews protected by unions and legislation. Now the citizens of rich countries own ships – Greece has the most, then Japan and Germany – but they are sailed by the cheap labour of Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Indonesians. They are the ones who clean your cruise cabin and work in the engine room, who bring your gas, soy beans, perfumes and medicine.
Seafaring can be a good life. And it can go wrong with the speed of a wave. On paper the seas are tightly controlled. The Dutch scholar Grotius’s 1609 concept of mare liberum still mostly holds: a free sea that belongs to no state but in which each state has some rights. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is known as the umbrella convention with reason: its 320 articles, excluding annexes, aim to create 'a legal order for the seas and oceans, which will facilitate international communication and promote the peaceful uses of the seas and oceans, the equitable and efficient utilisation of their resources, the conservation of their living resources, and the study, protection and preservation of the marine environment’. Nations that ratify it (America has not, disliking its deep-sea-mining regulations) have a right to a 12-mile boundary from their coastline, and also to a 200-mile 'exclusive economic zone’. Beyond that is the high sea. The International Maritime Organization, a UN agency, has passed dozens of regulations since the 1940s to regulate ships, crews and safety, more than most UN agencies. The International Labour Organization looks out for seafarers’ rights. There is also an International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which resolves any boundary disputes.
The sea, though, dissolves paper. In practice, the ocean is still the world’s wildest place, both because of its fearsome natural danger and because of how easy it is out there to slip out of the boundaries of law and civilisation that seem so firm ashore. Television crime dramas now frequently use ports as a visual shorthand for a place of criminal, suspicious activity. I don’t know why they don’t just go to sea. If something goes wrong in international waters, there is no police force, no union official to assist. Imagine you have a problem on a ship while you are on that ship. Who do you complain to, when you are employed by a Manila manning agency on a ship owned by an American, flagged by Panama and managed by a Cypriot, in international waters?
Or imagine you are a 19-year-old South African woman named Akhona Geveza, fresh out of maritime college, the first in your family to reach higher education, the household earner and hope. In 2010 you go to sea as an apprentice navigator on a good ship, Safmarine Kariba, run by a good company, Safmarine. On 23 June your shipmate reports to your captain that you have been raped by the Ukrainian first officer. He summons you and the officer to his cabin the next day at 11am, as if an alleged rape is a regular human resources matter. But you don’t turn up, because you are already dead in the sea. The Croatian police, whose jurisdiction covered the sea Geveza was found in, concluded she had committed suicide. She had been in a relationship that was 'consensual but rough’. An inquiry by Safmarine also concluded suicide, and found no evidence of harassment or abuse. And that, according to sea law, was all that could be demanded.
Reporters from South Africa’s Sunday Times then interviewed other cadets from the same maritime school. They found that two had been made pregnant by senior officers; two male cadets had been raped; and there was a widespread atmosphere of intimidation. A female cadet said embarking on a ship was like being dropped in the middle of a game park. 'When we arrived,’ one said, 'we were told that the captain is our god. He can marry you, baptise you and even bury you without anybody’s permission. We were told that the sea is no-man’s land and that what happens at sea, stays at sea.’
Other workers and migrants have hard lives. But they have phone lines and internet access, unlike seafarers. They have union representatives, a police force, firefighters, all the safety nets of society. Only 12 per cent of a ship’s crew have freely available internet access at sea. Two-thirds have no access at all. Mobile phones don’t work either. Lawyers who work for seafarers’ rights describe an industry that is global but also uniquely mobile, and difficult to govern, police or rule. They are careful to say that most owners are scrupulous, but for the unscrupulous ones, there is no better place to be than here. For the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a global union representing four million transport workers, the maritime and fishing industries 'continue to allow astonishing abuses of human rights of those working in the sector... Seafarers and fishers are routinely made to work in conditions that would not be considered acceptable in civilised society.’
If that sounds like typically combative union rhetoric, ITF will point to, for a start, the £20 million they recovered in 2010 of wages unpaid to seafarers who had earned the money. The blankness of that blue sea on our maps of the earth applies to the people who work on it too: buy your Fairtrade coffee beans, by all means, but don’t assume that Fairtrade governs the conditions of the people who fetch it to you. You would be mistaken. The great Norwegian-American seafarer unionist Andrew Furuseth – known as Lincoln of the Sea for his cheekbones and achievements – was once threatened with prison for violating an injunction during a 1904 strike. 'You can throw me in jail,’ he responded. 'But you can’t give me narrower quarters than, as a seaman, I’ve always lived in, or a coarser food than I’ve always eaten, or make me lonelier than I’ve always been.’ More than a century on, seafarers still regularly joke that their job is like being in prison with a salary. That is not accurate. When the academic Erol Kahveci surveyed British prison literature while researching conditions at sea, he found that 'the provision of leisure, recreation, religious service and communication facilities are better in UK prisons than… on many ships our respondents worked aboard.’
The International Maritime Organization once published a brochure about shipping, entitled 'A Safe and Friendly Business’. Shipping has certainly become safer, but not always friendlier. In this safe and friendly business, 544 seafarers are being held hostage by Somali pirates. I try to translate that into other transport industries: 544 bus drivers, or 544 cab drivers, or nearly two jumbo jets of passengers, mutilated and tortured for years for doing their job. When 33 Chilean miners were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010, there was a media frenzy; 1,500 journalists went to Chile, and even now the BBC news website dedicates a special page to their drama, long after its conclusion. The 24 men on MV Iceberg held captive for 1,000 days were given no special page and nothing much more than silence and disregard.
The men from Kendal are ready to go. They advise me to hold the gangway rail tightly: 'One hand for you, miss, and one for the ship.’ I have travelled plenty and strangely on land: to Saddam Hussein’s birthday party in Tikrit, to Bhutanese football matches blessed by Buddhist monks, down sewers and through vast slums. I look at this gangway, leading up four storeys of height to 39 days at sea, six ports, two oceans, five seas and the most compellingly foreign environment I’m ever likely to encounter. Lead on, able seamen. I will follow.