Search This Blog

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Weighing anchor on a container ship

From the Economist

IMAGINE the beginning of a sea voyage, and you probably picture something like the frenetic preparations that Herman Melville describes in “Moby Dick”: “There was great activity aboard the Pequod. Not only were the old sails being mended, but new sails were coming aboard, and bolts of canvas, and coils of rigging…the men…were working till long after nightfall.” Boarding a ship in that state was a perilous obstacle course.

Boarding a modern container ship, by contrast, is a simple and subdued process. You walk up a steep, narrow ladder, hand your passport to the officer on duty and follow him to the ship’s office—which, on Maersk’s giant, Danish-flagged vessels, is as clean and screen-stuffed as any on land. At most you pass one or two crewmen: modern ships are huge but their crews small. A short walk down a broad, fluorescent-lit hall and a brief ride in a lift—festooned, as on shore, with safety regulations—brings you to the bridge, a long, glassed-in eyrie ten storeys above the deck.

The bridge could easily accommodate 50 people, but at its busiest rarely holds more than ten. The high, surrounding windows and purposeful hush instil a vaguely ecclesiastical feel. At its centre is a large, sleek, wood-veneered steering wheel, used mainly when arriving and departing from ports. 

Otherwise the steering is automatic: if a human needs to intervene, he does so using a joystick the size of a child’s finger. Like the rest of the ship, the bridge smells of new-laid rubber and disinfectant—not an unpleasant smell, but a sterile one, with none of the undertones (tobacco, salt spray, fish, sweat) associated with sea journeys. Even in the ship’s bowels, the strongest odour is not the fuel oil used to power the engine but the coffee used to power the engineers.

Which artefact is the best emblem of modern life? The personal computer, perhaps, or the mobile phone, or the car. Or maybe, instead, the container ship, which transports all of those things and much besides: “90 Percent of Everything”, as the title of Rose George’s first-rate book on the shipping industry puts it. These ships are the workhorses of globalisation; they are also exemplars of another contemporary megatrend, automation. Their sterility would make them almost unrecognisable to Melville, the novelist-whaler, or to Joseph Conrad (who spent nearly two decades as a merchant marine).

Yet, as a crossing of the South China Sea on the Marie Maersk shows, not everything has changed. A voyage on these gigantic craft is a dizzying, paradoxical jumble of modernity and timelessness, gizmos and primitive wonderment.

No comments: