The clothes you are wearing, the iPad you are holding, the computer I’m using to write this review have something important in common: they were, in all likelihood, manufactured someplace far away from where you sit, and they got to you by ship. A big ship. Brooklyn Heights readers need only walk over to the Promenade and look southwest across the harbor to see large ships, many loaded with the containers that revolutionized shipping in the last 25 years. What happens on those ships? Who owns them? Who are the people, largely invisible to many of us, whose life’s work makes those ships run? And what about piracy? In her fascinating and lively account of a voyage on a Maersk container ship Rose George sets out to answer those questions.
The Maersk Kendal, George tells us, is a midsized ship, though she looks enormous. She’s 300 meters long, more than 40 wide, and can hold nearly 6000 containers. There are only a few people on board: eight officers, two students, 20 seamen and one cook – the only other female. The officers between them are from five different countries, a common circumstance. The crew are all Filipino, as are, George reports, one-third of all crews, more than a quarter of a million people. In 2011 they sent home more than $4 billion. That’s a lot of money, but sailors aren’t always paid. “Exploitation of seafarers is easy when an owner can slip away behind his flag and brass-plate company. The nonpayment of wages is commonly and blatantly done.”
It’s not as if going to sea is safe; George cites anthropologists who says that seafarers are like firefighters, loggers, and miners, “where what binds the group is shared danger ill understood by others.” George also quotes a seventeenth century clergyman who said, “Seamen are . . a third sort of persons, to be numbered neither with the living nor the dead; their lives hanging continually in suspense before them.” Ferry accidents kill more people than airplane accidents. Even big ships can disappear under the waves.
Piracy is another risk. It’s an economic exchange, perhaps, but one with human costs: George describes the tedium of waiting out hostage negotiations, which can take months, quite movingly. One of the Kendal’s crew members was on a sister ship to the Maersk Alabama when it was captured by pirates.
The sister ship did the same route and was the same size and flag, but its captain was different and so were its tactics. [The sister] ship stayed six hundred miles offshore for as much of its journey as possible, as company guidelines dictated. Alabama didn’t. . . Alabama is still in the news: its crew is suing Captain Richard Phillips, although he became a national hero, for ignoring company policy.
George includes chapters about seamen’s missions (like the local Danish Seamen’s Church), whales and other sea life, shipwrecks, and lively descriptions of life on board. “Ninety Percent of Everything” is a terrific book, well and clearly written, full of interesting and entertaining stories. Don’t miss it.
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