British author Rose George has described international shipping as the invisible industry that brings us ninety percent of everything. Her 2013 book, first released in England under the title “Deep Sea and Foreign Going”, was titled “Ninety Percent of Everything” in the US release. It is a good read. Even people familiar with various aspects of the shipping industry and globalization learn new things in her book.
As a journalist and author, George has taken on subjects that others prefer not to discuss like her bestselling nonfiction book in 2008 on human waste called the “Big Necessity”. That would be a topic for another day for someone. As for now, continuing with the reality of globalization and shipping, George’s book is in part an adventure story. Part of her research for the book was a five week trip aboard the container ship Maersk Kendal. She traveled over 9,000 nautical miles from Felixstowe, England to Singapore. The journey included traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, pirate waters off the coast of Somalia, good weather and bad, and miles of open ocean.
The book highlights some interesting points. The ocean can be a deadly place. On average, two thousand seafarers die at sea each year and more than two ships are lost each week. Seldom do these matters make the news. Life aboard the ships can be lonely and isolated, not so different from prison, except for the possibility of drowning. Cellphones do not work; there is no Internet available; no alcohol is permitted; and the food can be dreadful or at best monotonous. The ship George is on, the Kendal, is nearly 300 meters long (envision three football fields end to end) and can carry a maximum of 6,477 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units). The vessel has a crew of only twenty people who work shifts to cover all 24-hours each day, for weeks to months of the voyage.
Global shipping is about economies of scale. The shipping containers often referred to as boxes, are 20 feet long, 8 feet tall and usually hold nine to eleven standard pallets. The 2006 book by Marc Levinson titled “The Box” is another good read. His book explains the rise of the intermodal container and how it changed the shipping of goods around the world. And while some cargo is delivered by airplane, that amount is small and expensive. A recent example is shipping boxes of Alaskan sockeye salmon to Brussels. After the fish are frozen to a minus 40 Fahrenheit and packaged with dry ice, three pallets can be airfreighted for five thousand dollars. That same five thousand dollars would pay for a 20-foot container on a ship. Do the math and it is obviously more economical to ship goods by water if time is not an issue.
Even the casual observer knows that container ships do not transit the Matagorda Ship Channel to visit the port in Point Comfort. The majority of the cargo delivered in Calhoun County is liquid, making the tanker the most common ship sighting in the bay. An example this month would be the Chem Polaris which is 146 meters long and carries oil products. Built in 2008, the ship is currently operated under the flag of Liberia. Their last two ports of call were in Mexico. How many crew members are on board? Most likely there are between 21-25 members. I wonder where they call home.