All the Ships at Sea

A question. What percent of world goods are shipped by sea? Unsure? Oh, about 35%? Not a lot?

The answer is nearly everything, in fact, 90%, although in Hawaii, it is close to everything.

The question is discussed in a fascinating article (New York Review of Books 4/6/14) on container ships by Maya Jasanoff in her review of Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate.

Jasanoff reviews the history of shipping goods at sea, the development of container ships, techniques for loading/unloading them in port and the “byzantine ownership patterns,” where a ship can be registered in Liberia, fly the Greek flag, owned by a Norwegian company and have neither a Liberian or Greek or Norwegian in the crew. The ships are enormous, larger than aircraft carriers and the huge containers are stacked, stem to stern, seven high above the deck and another six below.

She also describes George’s experience on one of these ships, as well as her own, somewhat briefer excursion, and the dangers of Somali piracy. What they reveal is “an industry replete with appalling labor conditions, low wages, physical dangers, personal hardships, and environment costs.”

I happen to have considerable interest in this offbeat topic, not only because I live in Hawaii, but also because I look out at the ocean and wonder about all the container ships and barges heading to and from the Port of Honolulu. I first began noticing giant barges following behind something that was clearly a tugboat. Then I began wondering if the tugboat is used only to pull the barge to or from the harbor and or if it tows it all the way across the Pacific.

So I searched Google, “Do barges across the Pacific Ocean have engines or are they towed?” And the first listing takes me to page that in a flash answers my question. “A pioneer in ocean towing to Alaska and the islands of the Pacific, X has provided marine transportation services for more than 115 years. Today, the X fleet offers point-to-point towing worldwide with some of the most advanced and powerful tugs in the industry.”

So in a blink of an eye my question has been answered. I think what would I have done in all those days before Google? Nothing. The question is by no means sufficiently important to draw me to the library and those people around here, who I have asked, don’t have the foggiest idea. Moreover, I suspect the X or any other towing company hasn’t written any books that reside in the very fine university library hereabouts.

So now my days of looking out at the sea and staring out at the barges that slowly pass by are no longer times of wondering and I think that is really unfortunate. But I remain hopeful that other questions will drift in as I look out at the sea. Like, why do the airplanes take off and head this way when there’s scarcely any wind? Where are they headed, anyway? Oh yes, who does that gorgeous yacht parked in the harbor belong to?

I don’t know what I’d do without questions. Answering them is far less important. And I know that if eventually I chance upon an answer, it will only lead to more questions, for which I am ever so grateful.

Later I see two large freighters that have been lying offshore for days. I cannot figure out why. No room in the port? They are under quarantine for some reason? Their cargo is suspect? The longshoremen are on strike?

At night I see the lights on in cabin area. During the day, the ships move about as the currents take them. Two large freighters rather close to one another. The pleasures of having a view of the sea. More questions emerge. Where are they from? Why do they remain offshore so long? What type of cargo do they carry?

I see the film Captain Phillips and wonder if the ships are under siege by Somali pirates. I see another film, All is Lost, where Robert Redford sails by himself somewhere off Sumatra. I wonder where he is going. While asleep one night, his beautiful sailboat crashes into an enormous steel box that fell off a container ship. Water cascades into his cabin. Then I watch a TED lecture on container ships.

Again I get interested in these container ships. I learn that in 2010 the Harvard Business School chose Somali piracy as the best business model of year. Funny guys back there.