This book by Rose George (Called “90% of Everything” in the US) is an investigation into the current state of International Shipping, combined with her story of a voyage from Europe to the Far East aboard the container ship Maersk Kendal. This book interested me partly because in an earlier life I earned my living as a marine engineer, mainly on container ships. In fact the shipping company that I spent most of my time working for, Overseas Containers Ltd, became following a series of mergers and takeovers part of the Maersk Group.
I am sure that Maersk Line are by current standards one of the better shipping companies to work for. However, I am glad, having read the book, that my time at sea ended 25 years ago. Going to sea today strikes me as being a very lonely way of life. The ships that I worked on did not have particularly large crews, generally around thirty, the crew of the Maersk Kendal seemed to be around half that. In addition, the crew of the Kendal was decidedly multi national and multilingual. When I was at sea, while the officers and crew might be from different nations, for example U.K flagged ships often had Indian or Chinese crew, the officers were normally British or Commonwealth and mono lingual (give or take the occasional Gaelic speaking Hebridean). I know from my own experiences that even if you are functionally fluent in a second language, holding a conversation in it is hard work, so consequentially you tend to opt out.
In addition when you sign on to a Maersk line ship you are agreeing not to drink alcohol. The ships are dry. In addition you are not allowed to drink ashore either, not that there appears to be much time to go ashore for a meal or drink. These two factors completely change the social side of going to sea. Social life used to centre on the officers mess or the crew bar, only very occasionally would the twain meet socially. While I will admit that at times some people abused the duty-free alcohol, the opportunity to relax with your shipmates when off duty helped to make going to sea a bit more normal. After a midnight to four watch sitting on the aft deck, with a cold beer, watching the sun come up is one of my best memories of my time at sea. A run ashore, whether to go sightseeing or just to have a meal or a drink in different surroundings broke up the routine.
When I was at sea, while there were pirates, they did not present a significant problem, especially to a large fast container ship. This has changed. Piracy now is a significant problem, especially in the Indian Ocean. This brings all sorts of complications and stress to the crew. From having to mount extra lookouts and being ready to man fire hoses to repel attackers armed with Kalashnikovs and R.P.Gs., to the constant background noise of what could happen. Some shipping companies have taken to sailing with armed guards. Piracy has also done away with another civilising factor from my time at sea; you can no longer bring your partner with you for a trip.
This is turning into the story of my time at sea rather than a book review, back to the book. Rose George’s investigation into the current state of the industry that keeps the world running is thorough and incisive. The travelogue, of her voyage on the Maersk Kendal, with a side trip on the Portuguese Frigate Vasco da Gama on anti-piracy patrol in the Indian ocean provide the links between the various bits of investigative journalism.
Very few people come out of the book with their reputations intact. Ship owners who abandon their vessels and the crew because it suits them. Ship owners who fail to pay the crews wages. Ship owners who send their crews to sea in ships that are not fit to be on a millpond let alone the North Atlantic in winter. Various flags of convenience that can’t be bothered to conduct investigations into shipping losses. Corrupt officials who require a bribe to do anything. She condemns, without reservation the pirates who make life difficult for everyone and absolutely miserable for those seamen who are unfortunate enough to be captured.They are all duly exposed.
As she exposes the villains you might wonder who comes out of the book well? She thinks highly of the men and women who staff the ships, with a few exceptions. The various church based organisations that run the seaman’s missions and welfare around the world such as the Anglican “Flying Angel Club” or the Catholic “Stella Maris” are universally lauded for the work they do. Maersk Line come out without too much criticism. But not many others.
As you read the book she recalls the history of merchant shipping, and you discover that merchant seamen have always been under valued and badly treated. As one example, during the second world war, when the merchant navy was keeping Britain alive, at the cost of at least 35,000 merchant seamen dead. The seaman’s wages stopped the moment the ship went down.
I am proud that I was part of that service, and consider myself lucky that my time in the merchant service coincided with the 20 to 25 years when going to sea, in the United Kingdom, was at least a semi-respectable occupation.
This is a TED talk on this subject by Rose George.