Over the festive season we came across a wonderfully written article about life at sea in modern times. The article, written by a journalist for The Economist, follows the crew of a Maersk container ship on a journey across high seas in the age of quantification. It’s a riveting read! Below we share a summary of its high points; you can read the full article here.
Life On a Ship NOW VS Life On A Ship THEN
Ships used to require an extensive crew to make a journey, these days automation and proper logistics allow a large container ship to do it with between 13 – 22 crew members. This is because ships mostly sail themselves, the engines self-diagnose any issues before raising a red flag, we communicate by email and even the paint we use is more weather-resistant. In short – fewer engineers, ABs (able bodied seamen) and no radio officers. Up in the bridge, things are also a whole lot different. The wood-veneered steering wheel is only used when arriving and departing from port; if a human needs to intervene on the ship’s pre-plotted and automated route during the journey, they would do so using a rather unimpressive joystick, roughly the size of a child’s finger.
TYPES OF CARGO
One thing that hasn’t changed is that cargo ships are pretty much floating bazaars. On the way from Asia it carries everything from iPads to smartphones, bulldozers, scarves and cars, even fireworks; on the way back from Europe it’s stocked to the rafters with fruit, timepieces, whisky and wine. These days, however, a power outage could have a knock-on effect across multiple countries. E.g. if a container of fish from South Korea should go off, sushi- and seafood restaurants across the European continent could be affected.
ROLE OF THE CAPTAIN
Captains used to be seen as ‘masters under god’, but these days they are administrators, overseers and technicians rather than heroic helmsman and forbidding tyrants. But even though a modern-day captain can very easily go about his duties in T-shirts and a boardshort, they still have to maintain their distance when it comes to socialising with the crew. They may not be telling anyone to walk the plank soon, but the captain still has to keep the crew in check and take ownership of the ship’s overall workings and efficiency.
The one thing that has stayed the same is that any given crew upon any given long-haul ship will be a motley of characters from all over the world. The Maersk-ship in question was populated with crew members from the Philippines, Ukraine, India and Denmark.
CALLING AT PORT
Port calls used to take a week; now it can take as little as 8 hours. Previously, cargo was packages in barrels, boxes and drums that had to be unloaded by hand; these days cranes neatly stack the containers in a specific order is pre-determined by the logistics company. Some containers are picked up by lorries that stand ready to ferry it to its final destination the moment it’s off-loaded, others are directly loaded onto different ships that will take it smaller ports.
One thing, the writer of the article notes, that will never change is the ‘elemental awe: to board a ship is still to step into an in-between world, perhaps the only one this side of the grave defined equally by boredom and sublimity.’ Our ships may be bigger and our tech more impressive, but once you can no longer see the land, the vastness of the ocean never fails to astound.
What an exciting time to be alive! For more interesting perspectives and insights on cargo ships and the people who captain them around the globe, keep an eye on the Link Ship Chandlers & Ship Suppliers blog in coming weeks and months. We keep our ear to the ground and will share all our most interesting finds.