再1/2Container ships, December 20th 2014 P36 (コンテナ船)
Imagine the beginning of a sea voyage, and you probably picture something like the frenetic preparations that Herman Melville describes in “Moby Dick”：“There was great activity aboard the Pequod. Not only were the old sails being mended, but new sail sails were coming aboard, and bolts of canvas, and coils of rigging...the men...were working till long after nightfall.” Boarding a ship in that state was a perilous obstacle course. Boarding a modern container ship, by contrast, is a simple and subdued process. You walk up a steep, narrow ladder, hand your passport to the officer on duty and follow him to the ship's office - which, on Maersk's giant, Danish-flagged vessels, is as clean and screen-stuffed as any on land. At most you pass one or two crewmen：modern ships are huge but their crews small. A short walk down a broad, fluorescent-lit hall and a brief ride in a lift - festooned, as on shore, with safety regulations - brings you to the bridge, a long, glassed-in eyrie ten storeys above the deck. The bridge could easily accommodate 50 people, but at its busiest rarely holds more than ten. The high, surrounding windows and purposeful hush instil a vaguely ecclesiastical feel. At its centre is a large, sleek, wood-veneered steering while, used mainly when arriving and departing from ports. Otherwise the steering is automatic：if a human needs to intervene, he does so using a joystick the size of a child's finger. Like the rest of the ship, the bridge smells of new-laid rubber and disinfectant - not an unpleasant smell, but a sterile one, with none of the undertones (tobacco, salt spray, fish, sweat) associated with sea journeys. Even in the ship's bowels, the strongest odour is not the fuel oil used to power the engine but the coffee used to power the engineers. Which artefact is the best emblem of modern life? The personal computer, perhaps, or the mobile phone, or the car. Or maybe, instead, the container ship, which transports all of those things and much besides：“90 Percent of Everything”, as the title of Rose George's first-rate book on shipping industry puts it. These ships are the workhorses of globalisation；they are also exemplars of another contemporary megatrend, automation. Their sterility would make them almost unrecognisable to Melville, the novelist-whaler, or to Joseph Conrad (who spent nearly two decades as a merchant marine). Yet, as a crossing of the South China Sea on the Marie Maersk shows, not everything has changed. A voyage on these gigantic craft is a dizzying, paradoxical jumble of modernity and timelessness, gizmos and primitive wonderment. Like the other giants in its class, the Marie Maersk was built for the profitable Asia-Europe route：from Busan and Kwangyang in South Korea, then along the eastern and southern Chinese coasts, down to Malaysia, across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal to Tangier and southern Spain, then up to Scandinavia by way of the Netherlands and Germany. Then back again；the round trip takes around six months. The kaleidoscopic cargo might include iPads, smartphones, cars, bulldozers, baseball caps and T-shirt from Chinese factories；then, on the return journey, fruits, chocolates, wine, watches and whisky. The longest leg is from Malaysia to Port Said in Egypt. That takes ten increasingly stifling days - by the end, say the sailors, the containers that are refrigerated sweat almost as much as the crew. A power failure on this particular run would affect diners at sushi restaurants across Europe：among many other things, the containers hold 33,350 kilograms of frozen fish roe, loaded in Ningbo, China, plus roughly the same amount of surimi (the traffic-cone-orange fake crab that turns up in California rolls) and blast-frozen yellowfin tuna, both loaded in Kwangyang, South Korea, all bound for Gdansk or Algeciras. The scariest container is unrefrigerated. It contains 50 tonnes of fireworks, destined to Europe's new year's celebrations. The officers joke, mordantly and often, about what happen if it caught fire. The officers' life has changed utterly. Legal documents from the 19th century refer to merchant-marine captains as “Masters under God” for the absolute authority they wielded. These days captains on European-flagged ships are bound by labour and safety regulations just like any other manager. That, in fact, is what they have become：neither snarling tyrants keelhauling miscreants, nor heroic helmsmen, but managers. Globalisation has made container ships the indispensable conveyances of the modern world. Automation has turned the men who sail them into administrators, overseers and technicians. On this voyage, the Marie Maersk's captain is John Moeller Jensen, a slight, shaggy Bane who wears his uniform in port but at sea prefers T-shirt and daringly short shorts. He has a wry, watchful manner and is a practiced storyteller, given to punctuating his yarns with cartoon gestures, such as a riffling of hands to mime a corrupt port official pocketing money. “I'm not God sitting in an office,” Mr Jensen says of his daily rounds. “But you also have to keep a distance. You can't play cards and go ashore with people with people and then fire them the next day.” It is easy to imagine him sacking someone：like many successful managers he can quickly turn serious, even lightly menacing. Recalling a confrontation with a phalanx of Chinese port inspectors, something behind his light-blue eyes switched off, his jaw clenches and he seems to grow taller.