Ship’s Log: Day Fifteen (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Fifteenth day of the voyage; eighth day of the Pacific crossing.

Today marks the halfway point of our Pacific crossing. Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has a curious estrangement effect. It feels like summer (which has come early), the water looks inviting, and given that I swim at the beach for more than half the year – all of summer and most of spring, summer and autumn – I have the urge to go for a swim. But then I know that as a MOB (man overboard) in the middle of the Pacific I would have little chance of survival, given the difficulty of keeping one’s eye on a face bobbing in the water, the speed of the ship and its slow turn.

The big events of the world seem very distant from our day to day reality, appearing only as printouts on the back of used paper from the captain – World Cup Special; Stop Press; Britain Today (of all things). Julia Gillard might have become prime minister of Australia, we may have an election coming (I do not know as yet), the World Cup, Tour de France, Gulf of Mexico oil spill …

More interesting and important for our daily lives is the new menu at breakfast. The first meal of the day may be the same (four different versions of egg on toast; four types of breakfast meat, should you want them; some more toast), but after that everyone reads the menu for lunch and dinner with great interest. Without the incessant contact of internet, television and radio, life is much simpler, focused on fewer needs (it does help that we don’t have to clean, acquire food and prepare it).

More real is the daily business of capitalism on the high seas. I do not mean the fact that we carry more than 20,000 tons of freight and that we belt along at full speed in order to deliver it on time – that much is obvious. Instead I mean the small details that bedevil the lives of all on board. The captain talks of cost-cutting measures: the communications equipment was replaced recently for one that is far less effective and with smaller antennae – cheaper of course – so that now he can wait for up to two hours for a satellite connection to carry on the necessary business of container ship; he talks of the dropping food budget – from USD $12 to $9 to $7.25 per person per day – and the consequent pressures on the cooks and his own requisitioning ability. The first mate feels he is caught between the crew and the company, with the latter making demands for stringency and the crew complaining. He knows full well that as a Filipino chief officer, he gets far less than someone from, say Europe or the USA, but it is still big money at home and he has more work than he can take on. The chief engineer finds it a bit much that he should be questioned about requests for spare parts and why maintenance has to happen now and not later. We used to have four engineers, he said, but they want to cut us down to two. The catch is that then they have to pay for extra personnel while in port for maintenance work. Marx’s old point is still perfectly valid: in order to increase profits and market share, companies seek to cut costs in terms of personnel and equipment, shaving wherever possible, flogging people to work harder for less. Of course, the excuse for such cuts is hard economic times, a recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. But do they increase expenditure again when business improves?

A telling point from the engineer regarding ships: it is not that the Chinese build inferior ships because they don’t know how to build good ships. The reason lies with the one who orders a ship and that for two reasons. Firstly, for the buyer an expensive one that will last 30 years or more is no good, since by the time you have paid it off, it will be hopelessly obsolete. So you order a cheaper one without all the fancy gear, which will be paid off in a few years and can then turn a handsome profit for a few more years before it is sold – at the moment when problems begin showing up. Secondly, for the manufacturer a ship of lesser quality has a built-in obsolescence, since it will need to be replaced sooner. As with washing machines and computers and mobile phones, so also with ships.

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