Deep Sea and Foreign Going – Rose George
Deep Sea and Foreign Going
An unexplored childhood ambition of mine was to work on a large seagoing vessel – first choice an oil rig, but a container ship would do. I went to an all girls school that paid enthusiastic lip service to the abilities of girls to become whatever they dreamed of (while forbidding me from taking computer science because I was “too gregarious” – excuse me while I fall over laughing – and additional maths because it involved unavoidable proximity to boys at a nearby high school). These career options did not seem available when I matriculated, however. Even game ranging seemed hopelessly exotic, never mind becoming a sailor!
It was therefore with a combination of anticipation and envy that I started Deep Sea and Foreign Going. Rose George structures her expose of world shipping around a voyage she was allowed to take on board Maersk Kendal, a 300 metre long container ship, while it transported goods from Felixstowe in the UK to Singapore. The best known shipping line, Danish company Maersk Line, has annual revenues the size of Microsoft.
Shipping is the most cost effective way to move things around – long distance air and road transportation are far too costly for the massive tonnage involved, and transportation by train is also limited by cost, terrain, track gauge incompatibility, and the vast distances involved. Containerisation itself is a modern miracle of organisation and automation – more on that in Marc Levinson’s The Box.
The paradox of the shipping industry is that while almost every appliance we have in our homes, the fuel in our vehicles, the clothes in our wardrobes and the food in our kitchen cupboards is transported to our shores by ship, by and large we are completely oblivious to of this fact. (If you’ve read The Docks, perhaps you are one of the few who are aware of the scale of the industry.) The chief of the British navy has accused government ministers – and by extension the rest of the public – of a lack of maritime knowledge that he characterised as “sea blindness”.
George explores a wide variety of subjects related to shipping, but, bizarrely appears to overlook the Filipino crew of Kendal, with whom she spent five weeks. She meets and interviews an impressively wide range of people, but does not – to my mind – give the human engine of the shipping world its due. George does acknowledge the contribution of sailors from developing countries, but doesn’t engage with any of her Filipino shipmates to any great degree. Five weeks at sea would seem to provide ample opportunity to find a common understanding. The crew work long weeks and months on board in frequently parlous conditions, for pay that is significantly higher than what they could earn in an 8-5 job at home but is accompanied by conditions often characterised by injustice and lack of safety. When something goes wrong, it is often the crew of the ship who are taken care of last. E-Whale, which languished in Table Bay for two years with its crew on board, is a case in point.
Deep Sea and Foreign Going was originally titled Ninety Percent of Everything. There’s an extract from the book available here alongside a TED talk by George, if you want to get a taste of what it’s about. You can read a New York Times review here, a Guardian review here, one from the Telegraph here, and the Wall Street Journal here. A more critical review can be found at gCaptain.
You can get a copy of the book here, here or here if you’re in South Africa. If this kind of book floats your boat, you must read The Outlaw Sea.