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2/2Container ships, December 20th 2014 P36 (コンテナ船)

When Mr Jensen started sailing in the mid-1970s more than 30 people were needed to operate a container ship. The Marie Maersk crossed the South China Sea with 22, and can manage with 13. Jakob Skau, the chief officer, says that modern container ships can mostly sail themselves. Ship engines, like car engines, now self-diagnose:when something goes wrong they display the equivalent of a car's “check engine” light. That means fewer engineers. Paint has become more weather-resistant, which means ABS (Able Bodied Seamen, the ship's dogsbodies) spend less time painting - which means fewer ABS. E-mail has done away with radio officers. At night the only light on the bridge comes from the glow of screens showing the ship's pre-plotted course, engine performance, ballast-tank levels and speed, while radar displays depict nearby vessels and their courses as blobs and contrails of lurid green.
Port calls that used to take a week now last eight hours. Cargo used to come in barrels, boxes, cartons, bundles and drums, all of which had to be loaded and unloaded by hand. Now cranes stack containers in an order predetermined thousands of miles away. At Tanjung Pelepas some containers await lorries to carry them up the Malay Peninsula, others the ships that will convey them to smaller ports:Sihanoukville, Brisbane, Auckland, Tanjung Priok. The efficiency has put paid to extended shore leave. “Sail around the world see nothing,” jokes David Staven, the ship's bearish third officer.
And if automation has made ships easier to sail, it has also made sailors easier to watch. Maersk's are constantly monitored from a control centre in Mumbai, where a giant screen displays the position and course of every Maersk Line vessels in the world. The captain of a ship that deviates from its planned course or travels too quickly (thus using more fuel) can expect a prompt query. On this leg, for instance, Mr Jensen decides to sail east rather than west of the Paracel Islands, lengthening the journey but taking advantage of the current, which in October runs southward along the Vietnamese coast. “I send [the control centre] a long e-mail explaining our decision,” says Aditya Mohan, the ship's swaggering, Marlboro-smoking second officer, “and when I don't hear anything back, it's because they know I'm right.”
Still, sailing has always been tribal, and bean-counters on shore forever regarded as alien. The crew resembles those of Melville's day in other ways, too. Then the American whaling industry was centred in Massachusetts, and many ships were owned by Quakers from Nantucket, but crews were wildly cosmopolitan. The Marie Maersk's crew are Filipino, Danish, Ukrainian and Indian. Their meals reflect this diversity:Filipino greens, cooked in sweetened soy sauce, incomprehensible Danish cold cuts.
A mid-19th-century crewman described his quarters thus:“Black, and slimy with filth, very small and hot as an oven. It was filled with a compound of foul air, smoke, seachests, soap kegs, greasy pans, tainted meat.” Except for a couple of ABS, the crewmen on the Marie Maersk have their own rooms, which would pass muster at an American motel. The biggest complaint is the unreliable internet connection. “People come down,” says Mr Jensen, “have dinner for five or ten minutes, then go back to their laptops.” Mostly the sailors are motivated not by adventure or escape but by the salaries. Ronald Rivera, the engineer, says his is double what he could make in the Philippines.
Yet along with the mass-produced goods, container ships provide commodities that have grown increasingly rare. One is 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. Even when the ship pitches and rolls in a thunderstorm, the computers do the steering. But the crew watch. Eventually, as they come through, panels of white afternoon light slice through the grey on the horizon. Old hands stand transfixed, for a few moments, staring out through the bridge's high windows.
Then there is the scale, Ishmael, who narrates “Moby Dick”, asks, “Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage...did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land?” That sense of smallness and transience remains thrilling. In port the Marie Maersk seems huge, and on a map the distance between southern China and Malaysia looks tiny. At sea, those proportions are reversed. Even one of the world's biggest ships is a speck in a vast, peaceful emptiness. Beneath the sky is just sea, and above the sea just sky.
Finally, the silence. Conrad wrote that “the true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land.” The Marie Maersk never gets that far on the South China Sea. But late one evening, after the captain has lingered at dinner telling old stories (sharkfishing off Mauritius, minatory pods of killer whales at Vancouver Island), natural-gas rigs belch commas of fire into the cloudless night. The ship sails forward, through a silent crescent of Vietnamese and Cambodian fishing boats, beneath an impossibly broad and luminous canopy of stars.