Of Floating Nikes, Pirates, and TSA for Containers

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate - Rose George

I love ships.  I remember looking at a silhouette picture of an old man in my ChildCraft set, his hand on the shoulders of a young boy, looking out over the sea at a three-masted schooner. The image still creates a frisson of nostalgia for something I never really experienced but always wanted.  Some of that interest stemmed from four voyages on transatlantic liners to and from Europe in the fifties and sixties when I was younger, and I’m sure that my view was unrealistic and nonrepresentational as I watched movies and enjoyed the sumptuous meals.  (We will NOT discuss the bouts of seasickness that preceded succeeding pleasurable days.)


I have zero interest in taking a cruise since they seem to be simply resorts with no destination and gambling dens. And the idea of dressing for dinner?  And too many people!  Geesh.  I want to GO someplace and watch the business of shipping, to see how things work.. I’ve read accounts of traveling on freighters (a list is below of some related books) and would still like to try it some day (the mal-de-mer does give me pause, however.)  This book is the next best thing.


This book does tend to take the shine off the freighter business.  One thing I did not know was that while shipping is a relatively green form of transportation (well, except for the particulates), it generates considerable *noise* pollution. Supertankers can be heard coming through the sea a day before they arrive at any given location which drives away most sea life.  Oil spills have been greatly reduced, however. Between 1972 and 1981, there were 223 spills. Over the last decade there were 63. An industry publicist reported,  “More oil is poured down the drain by mechanics changing their engine oil than is spilled by the world’s fleet of oil tankers.”


The industry, itself,  is dangerous, poorly paid (by our standards - not theirs) , and virtually unregulated, with ships being flagged under whatever country has the lowest taxes and the fewest inspectors.  Double bookkeeping and non-payment of wages is common and criminal actions are impossible to prosecute. Where does a Croatian sailor attacked by a Filipino mate file a complaint?  Cell phones are useless and there is no private internet so reporting incidents or getting assistance is impossible. The captain is God and Supreme Magistrate all rolled into one.  “Buy your fair-trade coffee beans by all means, but don’t assume fair-trade principles govern the conditions of the men who fetch it to you. You would be mistaken.”


Piracy is not the glorified practice of movies and childhood.  (Harvard Business School chose Somali piracy as the “business model of the year” in 2010.)  The author spent a week on an EU counter-piracy patrol vessel which reduced the number of incidents from 200 in 2009 to only thirteen in 2013, but ships passing through the Gulf of Aden (and more than half do to get to the Suez canal) still must hide out in safe rooms on board if fighting them off with firehoses fails, while awaiting naval rescue. Crews are like prisoners even while not under attack, live basically on two decks.  (Samuel Johnson famously wrote that “being on a ship is like being in jail, with the chance of being drowned.” Yet “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 U.K. prisons than … on many ships our respondents worked aboard.” )  Mostly we ignore, or chose to remain ignorant, of seafarers. “ in 2011, 544 seafarers [were] being held hostage by Somali pirates. I try to translate that into other transport industries; 544 bus drivers, or 544 cabdrivers, or nearly two jumbo jets of passengers, mutilated and tortured for years. When thirty-three Chilean miners were trapped underground for sixty-nine days in 2010, there was a media frenzy. Fifteen hundred journalists went to Chile and, even now, the BBC news website maintains a special page on their drama, long after its conclusion. The twenty-four men on MV Iceberg held captive for a thousand days were given no special page and nothing much more than silence and disregard.”


The company she sails with is Maersk, a company just slightly smaller than Microsoft yet one that hardly appears on anyones radar even though it accounts for 20% of Denmark’s GDP.  The ship is the Kendall.  She uses that voyage as a springboard to discuss the impact of shipping on the ecology, piracy, anti-piracy and the business of shipping.  Chapters focus on different issues: poor working conditions, a trip on one of the patrol boats, a pirate’s trial leading to a discussion of the different perspectives on Somalian piracy (she is not at all sympathetic,) and the huge amount of tonnage lost at sea and what the effect might be of floating Nikes and sunken computers (not good.)


The economics of shipping are rather mind-boggling. Would you have guessed that it’s cheaper to ship fish to China from Scotland to be filleted and processed than to pay Scottish workers to do it? Shipping  blouse from China to the U.S. coast less than one cent, even while the large container ships burn thousand of dollars of bunker fuel (like tar and about as dirty) per hour.  Containers have made loading and unloading so fast that sailors and officers have no time in port to relax.


Security is a huge issue in her mind. Only a minute portion of containers are ever inspected and they are used to smuggle all sorts of goods and probably weapons. “ One of the crew tells me he can overcome the blankness of the boxes, although that’s not how he phrases it. He can break a container seal and reseal it convincingly, although I suspect his intent would be for monetary, not intellectual, gain. This skill is more common than it should be. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol study that “existing container seals provided inadequate security against physical intrusion.” Criminals who don’t know how to reseal a seal could do an adequate workaround by taking the door off. Much of modern security rests on theater and assumption. That applies to airport lines, questionable laws about liquids, and the supposed safety of twenty million containers containing who knows what. Who does know? Only 1 to 3 percent of containers in Europe are physically inspected.”


Really interesting book. BUT, I still want to take a voyage on a freighter.

Recommended reading:


https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/154066642 (anything by Max Hardberger)