January 20, 2018

Sea blindness

This is the term that the chief of the Royal Navy has used to describe our attitude towards the great expanses of water that cover our planet. “We travel by cheap flights, not liners. The sea is the distance to be flown over, a downward backdrop between take-off and landing, a blue expanse that soothes on the moving map as the plane jerks over it. It is for leisure and beaches and fish and chips, not for use or work.”

Not so – this is the driving force behind a recent read Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George, a comprehensive investigation into the world of container shipping. I have long had an unrequited respect and interest in shipping – it is one of the topics which can be endless source of fascination once you actually open your eyes to its importance. At the start of her book, George describes playing a numbers game on the train – you think through what goods will have been transported by sea and the answer is nearly everything : that man’s iPhone and headphones, his book printed in China, the fabric of the seats people are sitting on, the coffee the author is drinking, the fruit they are carrying in the bag and so forth.

The book itself is centred around a journey George made from Felixstowe to Singapore on a huge container ship – if the ship discharged its containers onto lorries, the line of traffic would be 50 miles long. However, the book is more than simply a description of this voyage- the author effectively uses it as a springboard to investigate many other weird and wonderful places, people and phenomena that connect into shipping. This takes her into spending a week on board an EU warship part of the international effort to counteract piracy off the Somali coast, accompanying the chaplain at the Seafarers’ Centre in Immingham, a port on the north-eastern coast of England, and even ringing up one of the ladies who knits the woolly hats that are distributed to sailors.

Despite this breadth of detail, I must confess that I finished the book with my curiosity not completely satisfied. I wanted more depth – to connect with what it really feels like to spend a month on one of these ships. What did she do each day, given that internet connection was sporadic, some of the crew didn’t talk much English and they weren’t really many of them? Come the end of her journey, George seems to be loath to leave the ship but I haven’t got enough of the experience to understand why this can be, given the potential for boredom hinted at earlier, coupled with the fact that she describes how vibrations from the ship’s engine (aside from any weather-related pitching and rolling) make sleep difficult, and she is vegetarian on a boat where the cook seems to struggle to understand what this means and there is very little fresh fruit and veg.

Perhaps what I was after was more poeticism. Just after finishing the book, I read a review of a more recent contribution which describes ten winter days on a Finnish icebreaker. According to the review, Horatio Clare, the author, writes “seeing silence”, and the ship itself seems to him no more than “the tip of a pencil line trailing off into empty space”. He is intoxicated by elemental extremes, dizzied, brought close to laughter. His dead mineral world—all crystalline ice and hard metal—stirs and quickens. Ice “sidles aboard, rinds the rails with icicles…is all but alive”. While down below, in the engine room, there grow “vines of copper piping and sprouting thermometers, the fuel pumps budded with bolts and flowering stopcocks”. There isn’t anything really like this in Deep Sea and Foreign Going. Perhaps just a few more pictures, and of better quality than the almost grainy, soul-dead black and white ones currently included, would have helped.


Griping aside – I must make clear that the book is definitely worth reading, incredibly interesting and well written. There are a couple of stand-out bits and pieces.

The first is the little discussed but very real issue of noise pollution. This is discussed in a chapter George devotes to investigating whales and their interaction with all those ships trekking back and forth across the oceans. Rose goes to visit a laboratory in Cape Cod whose scientists aim to better understand how to protect the declining North Atlantic right whale population. We know that whales have been affected by hunting as well as chemical and material pollution. Well, it seems that the additional sounds we humans create will have noxious effects too. This is not just from the incredibly noisy engines of huge ships, but also from laying out cables on the sea bed, firing airguns for seismic surveys, fishermen sending out pings for echolocation to find fish, whilst the military deploy sonar. Sometimes the effect of all this is tangible: forced change of habit to flee the sound, whilst military sonar induces the bends in dolphins and whales so that they arrive on the beach with blood on their brains. Sometimes, it is hard to work out what the impact might be, but one researcher found that a quiet and still sea resulted in much lower levels of stress hormones present in whales compared to days of noise.

The second picks up on the harsh and potentially dangerous livelihoods of those who work on container ships. There are the obvious negatives, such as being away from loved ones for long stretches of time, but this is exacerbated by the fact financial pressure often forces these individuals to all too swiftly sign up for another passage. In addition, a large proportion of those who make up crews come from parts of Asia and get their work through middle men whom they don’t want to annoy by refusing jobs. Then you have to factor in the risk of accidents from storms and the bigger worry of piracy, which becomes particularly challenging when it is not clear who has responsibility for looking after the workers when these problems arise. Is it their own country? But their own country would argue it is the company employing them, coming from another country? Or is it the flag under which they are flying, or the territory in whose water the incident took place? It isn’t clear and that’s why it is often takes a long time to get kidnaps resolved. Despite this, and the fact conditions all round can be compared to a sweatshop, the Fair Trade Association’s comment is of one defeat: “Incorporating shipping requirements into our standards and certification processes would add to auditing costs.”

The third and final point is that there is no mention of the possibility that the flows of good might possibly start to change. In the general media, there has been much hype around the potential for 3D manufacturing to make near-shoring a real possibility, whilst a shift to services as well as intangibles (think of streamed media replacing DVDs and CDs) means that less ‘stuff’ needs to be shunted around the world. But given the volumes currently involved, I am not sure a marked shift will happen any time soon. Until then, we need to remember to be less sea blind.


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