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A Passage from Hong Kong

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Edward Burtynsky/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz, New York
Edward Burtynsky: Container Port, Maasvlakte, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2011; from Burtynsky’s new collection of photographs, Water. The book includes essays by Wade Davis and Russell Lord and is published by Steidl. Burtynsky’s new documentary film, Watermark, codirected with Jennifer Baichwal, will be released in the US this April.

Imagine the Empire State Building. Now imagine tipping it on its side, nudging it into the Hudson, and putting out to sea. That was the scale of thing I contemplated one day in late November, as I gaped at the immense navy hull of CMA CGM Christophe Colomb, one of the world’s largest container ships, which stretched above and out of sight on either side of me, on a quayside in Hong Kong. Nearly twelve hundred feet long, it’s bigger than an aircraft carrier and longer than the world’s largest cruise ships. On Christophe Colomb, all of that space goes to boxes. The ship has a capacity of 13,344 TEUs—“twenty-foot equivalent units,” the size of a standard shipping container (although most containers today are forty feet in length). These are stacked seven high above deck and another six to eight below. In cheerful shades of turquoise, maroon, navy, gold, and green, they look like a set of Legos designed for a young giant.

Trying to see where one even boards such a vessel, I noticed a steep aluminum gangway and went up its seventy-four steps, through two hatches, and into the eight-story “castle” that sits above the main deck and houses the ship’s living quarters, offices, and bridge. This was to be my home for nearly four weeks, as I took passage on Christophe Colomb from Hong Kong to Southampton, England, via the Suez Canal.

No passenger liners cover such routes anymore, but many cargo shipping companies still offer a handful of passenger cabins on their freighters, selling travelers what CMA CGM (the French company that owns Christophe Colomb) calls “a thrilling and unforgettable way to discover the great maritime trading routes” for around $130 a day. I had become interested in these sea lanes while writing a book about the world circa 1900 through the life of the novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). Before he became a writer, Conrad spent twenty years as a merchant mariner, sailing chiefly between Asia, Australia, and Europe, and his shipboard experiences informed books such as Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. When I saw the itinerary of Christophe Colomb today—which plies a regular eleven-week circuit between China and Europe, taking in Hong Kong, the Straits of Malacca, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Gibraltar, and the English Channel—I saw a track that Conrad had often followed and wrote about in his fiction.

In Conrad’s day the world’s great cities had busy commercial waterfronts teeming with longshoremen, manufacturers, wholesalers, carters, innkeepers, ship-chandlers, and prostitutes. Port calls took days if not weeks, as each Burmese teak plank or branch of Central American bananas would be hefted in or out of a ship’s big open hold on a stevedore’s straining back. Ship officers had to double as logistics experts, since how efficiently you loaded your hold could affect how much cargo you could fit into it and how much profit you could make; and how you balanced its weight affected the speed and safety of your voyage.

In the 1960s, the shipping industry was transformed by the widespread adoption of the standardized shipping container. Developed by American trucking entrepreneur Malcom McLean, the container served as a one-size-fits-all package for goods. These twenty-foot boxes could be packed at the place of consignment (whether a factory, a warehouse, or a person’s front door), hitched up to a truck, driven to the quayside, lifted off the truck by a crane, and loaded directly into their designated places in a ship’s hold—thus eliminating expensive, time-consuming transfers from land transport to port warehouse, warehouse to ship hold. If 13,000 containers seem like a lot to load onto a ship, consider what it was like when every single item within those containers would have to be loaded individually; inventories of even modest-sized ships in the pre-container age ran into the hundreds of thousands of items. Now it can take less than a minute for a gantry crane to grab a container off the quayside, lift, swing, and drop it into place on a ship, then slide immediately back for another.

Containers needed ports able to handle them, with giant multistory cranes and stacking machines doing the lifting once performed by dockworkers. As new, mechanized ports opened—often at some distance from city centers, to have more space—one urban waterfront after another became a historical relic. By the mid-1970s, the wharves of Brooklyn and Manhattan were, according to Marc Levinson, “mostly a memory,” put out of business by the container port at Elizabeth, New Jersey.* In London, vast networks of docks that were handling 60 million tons of freight per year in the early 1960s were, by the early 1980s, a silent, shuttered wasteland.

When a container ship arrives in port today, it slides into a 24/7 operation superintended by logistics experts in distant offices. On board ship, the chief officer checks to make sure things go according to the computerized plan sent to him by the logistics office. As we watched the boxes pile on board Christophe Colomb in Hong Kong, I asked the chief officer if he had any idea what was in them. He shrugged, not even curious. All he knows—all anybody on board knows—is whether they need to be refrigerated, or whether they contain hazardous materials and need to be placed in a secure storage area. A port call lasts only six to twenty-four hours, and sailors rarely bother to get off the boat. The containers thus put up a wall between sea and land, making each side less accessible to the other.

By reducing the cost of transport, containerization accelerated a process of global economic integration whose earlier stages Conrad had witnessed. Today “shipping is so cheap,” writes the British journalist Rose George in Ninety Percent of Everything, “that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters.” Residents of the English port city Southampton were recently asked what percentage of goods they thought traveled by sea. All their answers, George says, “had the interrogative upswing of the unsure. ‘Thirty-five percent?’ ‘Not a lot?’ The answer is, nearly everything.” Ninety percent of everything, to be more accurate: most of the clothes you put on this morning; the coffee or tea you drank; your car, or at least parts of it, and some of the gas you put into it; your computer, television, phone, earphones—in short, the stuff of daily life.

George learned abut shipping firsthand by traveling from Europe to Asia on board Kendal, a 6,188-TEU ship belonging to the world’s largest shipping company, Danish-owned Maersk. She stresses the rarity of gaining access to “a working ship, usually barred to ordinary citizens.” What she reveals is an industry replete with appalling labor conditions, physical dangers, personal hardship, and environmental costs.

George organizes the book loosely around her voyage, using each stage to delve into associated aspects of merchant shipping. Her choppy, hard-edged prose rebuffs hopeful illusions about the sea. If you think the life of a sailor must be full of adventure and excitement, you’re wrong. It’s exhausting, poorly regulated, profoundly alienating, and often downright dangerous. Though “ships are the greenest of mass transport,” their noise pollution wrecks marine habitats: “A supertanker can be heard in the sea a day before its arrival,” and so you’ll see few dolphins or whales. Do you find sparkling blue seas beautiful, seductive? Look again at this “sonified, plasticated, damaged ocean.” “These are sad seas,” of desperate migrants clinging to makeshift rafts, harrowing shipwrecks, and ravaging storms.

Shipping companies are among the most “defiantly opaque” businesses in the world. They are masked by the system of flags of convenience, under which ships are registered in countries other than their owners’, allowing them to skirt fees, taxes, and labor regulations. Nominally, the world’s three biggest merchant fleets belong to Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands, even though not one of those ships likely has a Panamanian, Liberian, or Marshall Islander associated with it. More than a hundred ships are registered in landlocked Mongolia and Moldova. A ship will often be owned in one country, managed from a second, and chartered to a third, in “a dizzying Russian doll of ownership.”

Such shell games allow all kinds of abuses to pass unchecked. “The nonpayment of wages is common and blatantly done,” reports George. So is double bookkeeping, in which companies report one set of wages to appease the International Transport Workers’ Federation (which represents seafarers), but pay their employees substantially less. Criminal activity can be nearly impossible to prosecute. If a citizen of the Philippines working on board a ship flagged to Liberia, owned by a Greek, and sailing in international waters gets assaulted by a Croatian shipmate, then where would he or she file suit? Out of cell-phone range and with little or no private Internet access while at sea, crew members have no recourse to external help if anything goes wrong. In practice, the high seas are a legal no-man’s-land, where the captain’s will is law.

George dedicates two excellent chapters to the best-known form of lawlessness, the Somali pirates who have been the scourge of merchant shipping since the early 2000s. Unlike buccaneers of old, their primary objective isn’t to seize cargo; it’s to take hostages for ransom. Piracy has rendered the entire western half of the Indian Ocean a “High-Risk Area” on navigational charts. Ships crossing this area—which half of all container ships do, including Kendal and Christophe Colomb—are advised to adopt numerous security measures and to travel through the Gulf of Aden on an internationally patrolled transit corridor. George condemns the way “people love pirates. They are cartoons and thought harmless.” Harvard Business School even “chose Somali piracy as the best business model of the year” in 2010—a year in which 544 seafarers were captured in the first half alone. “In this rational business activity, attack rates on seafarers exceed violent assaults in South Africa, the country with the highest level of crime in the world.”

George spends a week on board a European Union (EU-NAVFOR) counterpiracy patrol vessel, part of an international policing operation in the region that has had considerable success. In 2013 there were only thirteen reported incidents of Somali piracy, as opposed to 2009, when there were more than two hundred—including the capture of Maersk Alabama, dramatized in the recent movie Captain Phillips. Even so, “EU-NAVFOR releases 80 percent of detained pirates because it can’t find willing courts,” says George, and as long as ransoms are paid, the pirates will come.

As Christophe Colomb cruised toward the Gulf of Aden, the crew took precautions. The sailors mounted fire-hoses over the rear railings, placed plastic sheeting over low openings to repel grappling hooks, padlocked the hatches, and scrambled our position information in the Automated Information System that tracks ships. Four sets of heavy bulletproof vests and helmets were laid out in the bridge. Notoriously, companies including Maersk and CMA CGM do not allow armed guards on their ships. Instead, if pirates do board, best practice recommends that everybody hide out in a safe room called a citadel, lock the door, and wait for naval rescue. Christophe Colomb’s citadel was stocked with two days of bottled water and emergency food rations, a chemical toilet in a box, a pile of air mattresses with pumps, a satellite phone, and a Monopoly set. “Whose idea was that?” I asked. “The company,” said the captain, smirking. “The idea is that while the pirates are on board we will be here buying and selling the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Gare du Nord.”

“We are like semi-prisoners,” said one of the Filipino officers on watch duty, his soft brown eyes fixed on the horizon ahead. “My life is on G Deck and B Deck.” He wrote the letters on the margin of the navigational chart in front of him, and pointed to them with the tip of his pencil, “That’s it.” He rubbed the letters out. I was reminded of Samuel Johnson’s quip, quoted by George, that “being in a ship is like being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” So why, given everything that I’d learned about the industry, would anybody choose to participate in it?

  1. *

    Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 97. 

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