Like the other giants in its class, the Marie Maersk was built for the profitable Asia-Europe route: from Busan and Kwangyang in South Korea, then along the eastern and southern Chinese coasts, down to Malaysia, across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal to Tangier and southern Spain, then up to Scandinavia by way of the Netherlands and Germany. Then back again; the round trip takes around six months. The kaleidoscopic cargo might include iPads, smartphones, cars, bulldozers, baseball caps and T-shirts from Chinese factories; then, on the return journey, fruits, chocolates, wine, watches and whisky.
The longest leg is from Malaysia to Port Said in Egypt. That takes ten increasingly stifling days—by the end, say the sailors, the containers that are refrigerated sweat almost as much as the crew. A power failure on this particular run would affect diners at sushi restaurants across Europe: among many other things, the containers hold 33,350 kilograms of frozen fish roe, loaded in Ningbo, China, plus roughly the same amount ofsurimi (the traffic-cone-orange fake crab that turns up in California rolls) and blast-frozen yellowfin tuna, both loaded in Kwangyang, South Korea, all bound for Gdansk or Algeciras. The scariest container is unrefrigerated. It contains 50 tonnes of fireworks, destined for Europe’s new year’s celebrations. The officers joke, mordantly and often, about what would happen if it caught fire.
The officers’ life has changed utterly. Legal documents from the 19th century refer to merchant-marine captains as “Masters under God” for the absolute authority they wielded. These days captains on European-flagged ships are bound by labour and safety regulations just like any other manager. That, in fact, is what they have become: neither snarling tyrants keelhauling miscreants, nor heroic helmsmen, but managers. Globalisation has made container ships the indispensable conveyances of the modern world. Automation has turned the men who sail them into administrators, overseers and technicians.
On this voyage, the Marie Maersk’s captain is John Moeller Jensen, a slight, shaggy Dane who wears his uniform in port but at sea prefers T-shirts and daringly short shorts. He has a wry, watchful manner and is a practised storyteller, given to punctuating his yarns with cartoon gestures, such as a riffling of hands to mime a corrupt port official pocketing money. “I’m not God sitting in an office,” Mr Jensen says of his daily rounds. “But you also have to keep a distance. You can’t play cards and go ashore with people and then fire them the next day.” It is easy to imagine him sacking someone: like many successful managers he can quickly turn serious, even lightly menacing. Recalling a confrontation with a phalanx of Chinese port inspectors, something behind his light-blue eyes switches off, his jaw clenches and he seems to grow taller.
When Mr Jensen started sailing in the mid-1970s, more than 30 people were needed to operate a container ship. The Marie Maersk crossed the South China Sea with 22, and can manage with 13. Jakob Skau, the chief officer, says that modern container ships can mostly sail themselves. People are there mainly to react to the (often irrational) behaviour of other people. Ship engines, like car engines, now self-diagnose: when something goes wrong they display the equivalent of a car’s “check engine” light. That means fewer engineers. Paint has become more weather-resistant, which means ABs (Able Bodied Seamen, the ship’s dogsbodies) spend less time painting—which means fewer ABs. E-mail has done away with radio officers. At night the only light on the bridge comes from the glow of screens showing the ship’s pre-plotted course, engine performance, ballast-tank levels and speed, while radar displays depict nearby vessels and their courses as blobs and contrails of lurid green.
Port calls that used to take a week now last eight hours. Cargo used to come in barrels, boxes, cartons, bundles and drums, all of which had to be loaded and unloaded by hand. Now cranes stack containers in an order predetermined thousands of miles away. At Tanjung Pelepas some containers await lorries to carry them up the Malay Peninsula, others the ships that will convey them to smaller ports: Sihanoukville, Brisbane, Auckland, Tanjung Priok. This efficiency has put paid to extended shore leave. “Sail around the world and see nothing,” jokes David Staven, the ship’s bearish third officer.
And if automation has made ships easier to sail, it has also made sailors easier to watch. Maersk’s are constantly monitored from a control centre in Mumbai, where a giant screen displays the position and course of every Maersk Line vessel in the world. The captain of a ship that deviates from its planned course or travels too quickly (thus using more fuel) can expect a prompt query. On this leg, for instance, Mr Jensen decides to sail east rather than west of the Paracel Islands, lengthening the journey but taking advantage of the current, which in October runs southward along the Vietnamese coast. “I send [the control centre] a long e-mail explaining our decision,” says Aditya Mohan, the ship’s swaggering, Marlboro-smoking second officer, “and when I don’t hear anything back, it’s because they know I’m right.”