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Idealog takes a ride on a cargo ship

Fact: a large percentage of goods that are sent overseas get there by ship.

Another fact: there are more sailors in the world today than at any other time.

Translation: understanding the shipping industry is pretty bloody important for anyone who wants to sell their stuff overseas.

But how, exactly, does your stuff get from one place to another? I decided to jump aboard a cargo ship this past holiday season to find out, sailing from Port Klang, Malaysia to Hong Kong. Armed with enough anti-seasickness tablets to kill an entire barn’s worth of horses, I quickly realised my expectations of fleas, scurvy, rats, bunk beds with scratchy wool blankets, terrible food, “swearing like a sailor” and bad karaoke featuring “In the Navy” and “I’m on a Boat” were doomed to a watery grave.

Without further ado, here’s a short recap of what went down.

Friday, 30 December

It’s only taken more than a day to get here from New Zealand, but I’m finally in Port Klang, Malaysia. The hotel I’m crashing in is plainer than Bill English’s suit game, but then again, I’m only supposed to be here one night before hopping aboard the CMA CGM Amerigo Vespucci to sail to Hong Kong.

I’m not sure what to expect. All I really know is that the ship is supposed to be about 365 metres long – longer than Auckland’s Sky Tower is tall – and that I’m slated to be aboard for about a week. Other than that, I’m as clueless as that time I went to a cricket match at Queens Park while living in Invercargill and needed to use the bathroom and somehow accidentally wandered into the locker room. I’m praying I don’t accidentally get locked in a refrigerated shipping container (known as a “reefer”), only for some hapless soul to discover my frozen corpse several weeks later in some random port with a seedy reputation that 99.999 percent of the world’s population has never heard of before. One can hope, right?

The CMA CGM Amerigo Vespucci in Port Klang, Malaysia.

Saturday, 31 December

I’ve made it aboard, somehow. After a last-minute moment of crisis when I was informed by the Amerigo Vespucci’s captain – a rather gruff Monsieur Mouchotte – that I needed proof of insurance if I wanted to ascend the massive gangplank and board the ship (who knew there’d be so many rules at sea), and then scrambling with a Google search to find an insurance plan that covers literal acts of piracy (yes, it’s as hard as it sounds), it’s a massive relief to be able to kick back and stretch out on the bed that’s far softer than the one I normally sleep on back in Auckland. My private cabin is also far bigger than the room I rent in the house that I live in with four other people.

Already, I’m impressed by how high-tech everything is. There’s a crew of just 32 on board, because almost everything is automated.

Similar to an airplane’s autopilot or a giant drone, the vast majority of the ship’s navigation is also done by computer. I don’t know why, but I find that unsettling. I mean, how does it account for things like rocks, or changes in the sea? Apparently the program is able to collate the data from the ship’s other systems – like sonar, radar, and GPS info – and make incredibly precise calculations. I am assured the program hasn’t caused the Amerigo Vespucci to crash once since it was launched in 2010. Still, I can’t help but think of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the USS Enterprise’s main computer becomes self-aware and nearly kills everyone on board.

Sunday, 1 January

The first full day at sea, and I’m already questioning the wisdom of jumping aboard a large piece of floating metal and essentially entrusting my life to a computer through what apparently are the most pirate-infested waters on Earth. While the French-speaking safety officer assures me we’re still more likely to be hit by lightning than boarded by bloodthirsty buccaneers, he’s also quick to mention that the realities of modern economics mean they’d be more likely to simply shoot us and throw us over the side and steal the cargo than hold us against our will in what would undoubtedly become an international incident that would likely end with incoming US president Donald J. Trump doing something incredibly stupid. Although I believe all life is valuable, I rather doubt mine is worth as much as the 7,738 containers we’re apparently carrying, which probably adds up to hundreds of millions – if not billions – of dollars worth of goods. And who says every person doesn’t have a price?

I’m also amazed how, with so many containers that all look the same from the outside, it’s possible to know whose is whose. Surprise, surprise: there’s another computer program for that.

The level of technology aboard the ship has me utterly bamboozled. While most of the crew can technically be called sailors, they are far from the blue-collar, covered in tattoos stereotype I was expecting (I’m actually somewhat disappointed to discover I easily have more visible tattoos than everyone else on board). Most of them have at least a Bachelor’s degree in computer science or a similar discipline, and several have advanced degrees in things like engineering. For proof of how technical their job is, one of the crewpersons attempts to explain what some of his duties are. I assume he’s speaking Ancient Greek.

Monday, 2 January

We’ve made it through the infamous Strait of Malacca without incident. I’m actually somewhat disappointed. I was hoping for a bit of high drama on the high seas so I could write about something other than how thoroughly discombobulating attempting to understand anything about how the ship works is. I’m wishing I’d paid more attention in the computer science course I took my freshman year of high school.

The crew has made me the ship’s unofficial mascot. I think it has something to do with the fact I’ve been wearing a cheesy sailor’s cap – the kind you see in forgettable campy musicals starring actors whose names still cause your grandma to swoon – everywhere I go. Go figure.

The officers’ dining quarters.

I’m also learning heaps about how high-tech shipping containers themselves are. Apparently, they’re shaped the way they are because it allows them to be transported in a variety of different ways – ships, trains and trucks – and to be stacked on top of each other. Much of their design is also thanks to the work of a trucker named Malcolm McLean, a fellow who clearly has me beat in the “coming up with cool ideas that make the world a better place” department.

The idea of refrigerated shipping containers – which the crew calls reefer containers – is also pretty neat. Most of them are able to keep their interiors cool by expelling air via large fans installed at the ends of the containers. Because the amount of power they’d drain from the ship would be massive if they were hooked up to a central power source, they often have their own diesel generators to produce their own electricity. Being able to refrigerate goods – especially produce, dairy and meats – also prevents such goods from flooding the local market all at once, driving down prices to the point that no-one makes any money off them. Although I wouldn’t have any qualms about paying pennies for a pint of Lewis Road Creamery ice cream blended with Whittaker’s.

The mystery of what’s in the containers we’re transporting is no closer to being solved. CMA CGM has been busted multiple times for “accidentally” shipping weapons on behalf of Iran – often enough that the US Congress has called for an investigation into the company – and been boarded by Israeli commandos more than once over suspicions of sending weapons to Hamas. In November 2009, South Africa seized arms on a CMA CGM vessel that were found in two containers filled with tank parts and other military equipment allegedly from North Korea, including “gun sights, tracks and other spare parts for T-54 and T-55 tanks and other war material valued at an estimated US$750,000.” The equipment was allegedly hidden in containers lined with sacks of rice. Shipping documents said they were “spare parts for a bulldozer.” The incident was the second involving the alleged transport of arms from North Korea in a year, and resulted in a UN investigation thanks to the fact that shipping weapons to or from the Asian nation just so happens to be in violation of several Security Council resolutions.

Considering there may or may not be an actual live bounty on my head due to the fact I may or may not have been to the country twice as an undercover journalist without disclosing this fact to the North Korean authorities, I am just slightly concerned. The first officer is helpful enough to point out that there are no agents of the North Korean government working aboard the ship as far as he is aware, though he says it’s theoretically possible to stow away in a shipping container. He adds he has no idea what’s really in any of the containers beyond what’s written in the manifest.

Tuesday, 3 January

Terrible weather and choppy seas, but we haven’t had any containers fall over the side, despite the fact they’re stacked taller than most buildings in Auckland. Surprise, surprise: a big part of the reason is maths. The highest towers of containers are in the middle of the ship, where they’re less likely to shift in rough seas, while on the edges are shorter stacks. It also can cost more money to have your containers placed in the centre, I’m told.

Traffic is much lighter in the open waters of the South China Sea compared to what it was around Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but we’re still in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The captain is letting me wander basically wherever I want. Most of my days are spent up on the bridge. Despite the fact everything is automated, sailors still take down measurements by hand with a protractor, compass and pencil as a backup in case all of the electronics fail. There’s also a telex machine. It’s the first time I’ve seen one outside of a museum.

Wednesday, 4 January

The weather has improved somewhat, slowing from a gale to a light breeze and constant drizzle. Everything is gray, gray, gray. Even the containers – normally garishly bright in hues of green, red, yellow and blue – seem to have had the colour drained from them. Capitaine Mouchotte has informed us that sometime late tonight or early tomorrow we should be passing through the Paracel Islands. This promises some excitement, as China has recently declared the islands – most of which are glorified reefs, but may be sitting atop billions of barrels of oil – part of its sovereign territory, and has gone about installing radar stations and missile launchers as if there is no tomorrow while threatening World War III on anyone who disagrees with their plans to turn the islands into the most heavily fortified pieces of land on the planet. I’m secretly hoping we’ll get boarded by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, if only because the monotony has me fearing my grip on sanity may be slipping. My level of respect for people who work on ships for a living is increasing exponentially by the day.

An incident of attempted piracy that happened a couple of degrees of longitude east of where we were while we were at sea.

Thursday, 5 January

Capitaine Mouchotte was right. We passed through the Paracels at about two in the morning under a fog almost as thick as proverbial pea soup. No-one boarded us, though flitting in and out of the fog in the distance I could make out a ring of fluorescent lights and, straining my eyes even with the high-powered binoculars – a pair of helicopters. I knew they were Chinese military vessels because the ship’s radar – displayed on a device that looked like a giant iPad – identified them with the acronym “PLAN” (“People’s Liberation Army Navy”) before their name. But no-one came on board guns blazing, a la that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazis board a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean to take back the Ark of the Covenant from the good Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. Excitement over, I went back to sleep in my cabin two decks below the bridge. Apparently it really is not the years, but the mileage.

My quarters on board the ship.

Friday, 6 January

I awoke to find us passing Hong Kong. The golden rays of dawn illuminating the glittering facades of an endless army of skyscrapers while it set the sea on fire, it was a sight I won’t soon forget. A couple hours later we were in Chiwan, a Chinese port on the outskirts of Shenzhen. Watching the hours-long process of unloading the containers and replacing them with new ones was strangely mesmerising. None of the building-sized cranes had people in them – it was all automated via a central control room somewhere else in the sprawling port (which in itself was bigger than most Auckland neighbourhoods). I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before even those jobs were replaced by robots.

Saturday, 7 January

We made it back to Hong Kong! Ironically, it’s with a heavy heart that I grab my backpack and step off the boat for the last time.

Disappointment at not seeing a real-life version of Long John Silver aside, I’ve learned a lot from my voyage, which (cliché as it sounds) wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. Not only were the accommodations far more luxurious than I expected (and the food… God, the food was unreal. All meals were prepared by a French-trained chef. Fancy cheeses and wine with every meal. Every. Freaking. Meal.), but I was fortunate to be able to have a peek at a way of life and an industry that’s more important now than ever, but far too often taken for granted. And the most important lesson I’ve learned is this: Who knew sending your stuff from one place to another could be so complicated?

Review overview