Among the Polar Bears, or, How My Children Almost Became a Meal

Who did that?’ The driver barked at the few passengers. A polar bear had just reached up the side of the vehicle – a tundra buggy – sniffing and searching for food.

‘Who did that?’ He glared at us. ‘Someone tossed a sandwich out of the window. That’s why the bear is here, looking for more’.

Not a word was said, although we were delighted that a polar bear had come so close.

‘If anyone had so much as a hand out of the window’, he explained, ‘or even a dangling scarf, that bear would have hauled you out’. We were somewhat less delighted, but no one owned up to the sandwich. I had my suspicions: later, it would turn out that my younger son was the culprit. Although he was now six, he was still in the midst of the terrible twos – and would be there for the next couple of decades …

We were out on the tundra on the shore of Hudson Bay, Canada. It was late October, when the polar bears come out of hibernation and await the freezing up of the bay so they can hunt seal. Meanwhile, they are ravenously hungry, seeking out whatever food is available – kelp, the town garbage tip, any stray human being who might be out on their own.

How did we get here, in the frozen north of Canada? ‘We’ were three small children (aged 8, 6 and 1) and two parents, and we had wanted to see the bears. Easier said than done. To do so, we had to overcome the great temptation of buying a house, two cars, squabbling about money and ceasing all travel – an assumed condition once one has children.  Actually, that vision of ‘familial bliss’ was no temptation at all, so we spent our last cent on a long rail journey.

Six days it took us, from Montreal (our home at the time in 1989) to Churchill and back. The Canadian Pacific (now Via Rail) from Montreal to Winnipeg may have been a sleek affair, with modern cabins (we needed two) and a panoramic viewing car, but not so the old locomotive from Winnipeg to Churchill. This ancient machine takes two days to cover the 1700 kilometre route north to Churchill. In fact, this is the only overland way to travel to Churchill, for no road has been laid. When we first left Winnipeg, I watched the lights of the city fade as I tucked the boys in bed. The train was travelling at a good clip, so I thought it had some life in it yet. But within a day it slowed and began to rock significantly. Was there something wrong? Would we soon be stranded in the frozen north? Looking out, I noticed that the telegraph posts had begun to change. No longer were they single poles driven into the ground, for now they were tripods, resting upon permafrost in which is it is dicey to dig a deep hole. Looking down, I also noticed that the rails lay lower the ground. They too had been laid on permafrost, which is below the surface and a relic from the most recent ice age. Disturb the permafrost by digging and you encourage it to melt, disturbing the landscape for kilometres around. Track ballast can sink or even be washed away during the artificially produced thaw. Laying tracks on permafrost is a time consuming and intricate task (just ask the builders of the Trans-Siberian Railway). No matter how carefully you do it, the tracks are always uneven. No wonder the train was rocking so much.

What do you do with three small children for days on end in a small train? Did they drive us crazy? Not at all. We would go for walks in the train, occupy a whole table in the dining car, play games, read stories, go for walks at stations where we stopped for a while, watch for wild animals (outside as well), and the boys would fill in their diaries (for school). On the Churchill train, the two sleeping cabins opened out to become a room during the day, so we had a little more space to move – or at least we didn’t have to sit quite so much on top of one another.

Churchill at last – where the outside world felt very roomy indeed. Here, the early winter of October was as cold as Montreal in deep winter (about minus 25 degrees). Here, the buildings of the town centre were all part of one complex, to maximise heating efficiency – a couple of shops and eateries, a hospital, police station, library, municipal offices, and what not. Here, we met locals who had grown up in town, with parents working at the port facilities, or posted to Churchill by the government, only to stay on. Here, I was mistaken for the new priest at the Anglican Church that faced an icy bay. Why else would I ask to see the various places in town, meet the hospital administrator, attend worship, and seem just a little too inquisitive? And here, we took that tundra buggy ride to see the polar bears.

Bears we saw, including a mother with two cubs in tow and a couple of males wrestling. We also saw a ptarmigan and arctic fox. But we did not need to take one of these massively wheeled machines to trundle and smash its way over the tundra (this act is described as ‘environmentally friendly’). We need not have done so, for the bears were much closer to town. In fact, they were in town. I mean not the night of Halloween, when our children joined the others in town, driven from door to door in a minibus to prevent a bear attack. I mean the bear we met at the front door of our hotel room.

The day after our arrival, I had taken the boys for a walk and a play by the river, where we tossed ice out as far as we could. Up on the rise was a strange cylindrical structure, which I realised only later was a polar bear trap. Afterwards, my oldest son had spent some time playing amongst the riverside boulders, for they were covered in a layer of ice. Harmless fun, really … until I stepped out of the hotel door, about to lead the rest of us into town, which was couple of kilometres away.

I did not get far, for a polar bear came lumbering around the corner. Immediately I stepped back inside and locked the flimsy door – the whole hotel felt as though it was made of plywood and would fall down in a mild breeze. The bear stopped to consider matters more closely. It rose up on the railing outside the panoramic window of our room and surveyed the delectable morsels inside. We were transfixed and could not help returning his gaze. He could easily have knocked down the door or smashed the window. As he pondered such matters, I concocted crazy plans, such as herding everyone into the bathroom and smashing our way through to the next room. I realised in a flash why the bear trap was nearby, and later I was to learn that the bears particularly love the boulders by the river, where they sleep. We had been there, by the trap and amongst the boulders, oblivious to the bears thereabouts – until now.

After the proverbial eternity captured in a minute or two, the bear thought the better of his various plans and lumbered off to amuse himself elsewhere.

Somewhat anxiously, I soon phoned the polar bear alert line. The woman on the line was understanding and helpful, although I detected a slightly suppressed amusement. And the taxi driver of the only taxi in town laughed when he met us.

‘I hear you met a bear’, he said.

‘How do you know?’ I said.

‘My wife’s sister took your call earlier’, he said, smiling. ‘Now the whole town knows’.

I guess when you experience polar bears as part of everyday life, meeting one is of little consequence.


Water Planet

Gripping the handrail, about to climb the outside stairs to the bridge, a movement catches my eye: less than ten metres away, a massive grey-black back, slick with sea-water, breaks the surface and rolls in a leisurely fashion on the surface for a moment before plunging again into the deep. A dolphin? No, too small and not out here. A whale? It must be.

Upstairs on the bridge I ask the mate on duty. It was a whale, he assures me. Until now we had sighted a few spouts in the distance, viewable only through binoculars, but this one had come right by the ship. Did it come to have a look, I wonder, attracted by the thundering noise of its engine and propellers thrashing away in the water? Or was it as surprised as I was, thinking that it had a whole ocean in which to surface, only to find a ship at the tip of its left fin?

But what am I doing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, the Pacific Ocean no less? I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats the worst form of transport ever invented by human beings (flying) I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by the French company, CMA-CGM, supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.

At Sea

Once out at sea, you immediately become aware of how tiny the ship is – even this relatively modern and fast one – and how vast the sea is. Beyond the boundaries of the ship is the ever-present reminder that Earth is a water planet; that land and land-based creatures are in the minority. No wonder ancient mythologies, such as those of Mesopotamia, depict the sea as a chaotic threat to the order of land. But our presence on the sea embodies another paradox: the sea is both danger and support, both threat and succour, potentially threatening to sink us any moment and yet providing the only means of bulk, long-distance transport that we know. Ultimately, the sea holds the power of death and life.

Needless to say, I find it absolutely fascinating, spending long hours on the bridge or on deck, watching and experiencing its constantly changing nature. From the Tasman, through the Pacific, the Gulf of Panama, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and finally to the English Channel, we are crossing half the world by sea.


After the four simple days of crossing the ditch known as the Tasman, our next challenge is the Pacific itself. It is a big fucking ocean. Even with our ship, belting along at 20 knots, it takes us 16 days from New Zealand to Panama. On this crossing we pass from one hemisphere to another (on the tenth day at 400 in the dark of early morning), water in the toilet and plug holes begins rotating in the other direction; the southern cross disappears and the pole star appears – the great navigational device of timid Euro sailors who feared to pass out of their comfort zone. To experience the Pacific in this physical sense, day after day with the horizon only the circle of the sea, brings home the sense of vastness as nothing else can.

And that vastness is ever-changing. With my eyes compensating for the lack of distinction between sea and sky, I watch the ocean change from pitch black to the first glow of dawn and then hiss at the end of the day as the sun set. Over the length of the voyage, the sea’s colour shifts from metallic blue under late cloud, to deep aqua on a sparkling morning as we slip into port, to white capped black beneath the heavy clouds, to translucent light blue in the full glare of a winter sun, to light grey in a moment’s diffused light, to silver when the sun shines through a hole in the clouds directly in our path, to a deep clean glassy blue under a tropical sun, to what is perhaps the most disconcerting of all: the feel of the surf at home. At other times I would experience an astonishing moment that can only happen at sea: the clouds open for a few minutes and a full moon throws a couple of patches of glistening light directly before the bow of the ship.

Once you get into the Pacific, they had said, it will be smooth, especially in the tropics. But the first two days of the crossing have a heavy roll, with the south-westerly swell (from the Southern Ocean), lifting us from the starboard rear and rolling through to port. And then the swell turns to ENE, precisely our direction, gradually gaining strength. A tropical storm hits us: rain belts down, leaks through the portholes; the ship’s gentle up-and-down motion, running directly into the swell, gains a sideways judder and roll. We began to hit the waves hard, creating massive bow waves and the occasional wall of spray that is whipped away by the wind. Some sleep less well than they might, although I sleep in rocking comfort.

Eventually we steam through the wintry southern Pacific and into an early summer. Yet being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has a curious estrangement effect. The seasons arrive in a hurry, skipping along in a way that suggests the earth’s orbit has sped up: hour by hour the light becomes stronger, the day lengthens, temperatures rise and the clothes come off of their own accord. Sap rises, as does lust … Soon summer arrives. The water looks inviting, and given that at home I swim at the beach for nine months of the year – all of summer and most of spring, summer and autumn – the urge to go for a swim comes mightily upon me. But then I know that as a MOB 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.

Sitting on the bridge I think often of sailors in small boats navigating the Pacific: Islander sailors so many centuries ago setting off for distant and most likely unknown shores on rafts and canoes; Magellan and his crew as the first Europeans who were promptly becalmed and spent months on the ocean; Bligh and the open boat that he navigated all the way to Batavia, but above all lone sailors, especially at night in heavy seas, having to rely on the boat-builder’s skill and a good deal of luck, particularly when the stars are obscured, the moon is on strike and the night pitch-black. For the captain, to take on an ocean like this as a solo sailor (we are talking about 16-year Jessica Watson) is pure madness, the risk of accident at night – a log, a whale, whatever – far too high. And it certainly wouldn’t be pleasurable.


Perhaps the greatest surprise is the animals. This time I know what to expect, but I am still astonished at how much animal life can be found out on the ocean. Of course, the kilometres of ocean depth beneath the surface team with life, but I can see only what goes on above the water, far, far from land. In the Tasman and the southern reaches of the Pacific we meet the mollymooks, spending like their larger relatives – the royal albatross – years at sea after they learn to fly, using the wind to bank, turn and fish, snoozing on the rolling swells of the south.

Later, in the tropical zones, we would meet the flying fish. I first spot one skimming the top of a wave, disturbed by the ship’s passing. I think it is a small black bird like a swallow … but then realise: in the middle of the Pacific? And then there are those strange seabirds from the legendary Galapagos Islands (what a thrill to be so close the islands at the heart of evolutionary theory), with their webbed feet, long beaks and big black and white craps. They bring home the effect of land-based birds on a sailor: four appear initially, hovering, with wingtips curled, waiting for the flying fish to appear. As soon as one is spotted, they flip over, pull in their wings and dive bomb into the ocean before flapping up again with their catch. They join our ship for a few days, sleeping on the foremast at night, or even resting there and drying out during the day. But land birds signal hope for sailors; an anticipation for creatures hard-wired to walk on terra-firma.


The grey Atlantic! At last. The Pacific might have myriad moods, colours and facets, but the Atlantic is – primarily – grey. For a brief moment or two, the Atlantic may glitter in the sun as I make my way about the deck. But the captain says that sun on the Atlantic is unusual, even in summer. He speaks of storms, the sea rising up to two metres during a fierce one, of the mere half dozen captains who take ships in winter on the northern Atlantic route, for most cannot sleep on the winter roll, of how I too would find be troubled by such storms even if rough weather doesn’t bother me. As the captain speaks, the fog and rain return … But the Atlantic is a signal that the end of the voyage is in sight – about nine days away.

All too soon am I standing on the bridge and silently watching a final Atlantic dawn over the port bow. I realise two things: this is an experience impossible to express and it is to be one of the last mornings at sea, for the voyage is drawing to a close. Already I feel a resistance to the crowds – of people and tasks – and a longing for the solitary stretches of the oceans. I wonder what it would be like to be on land again in the midst of myriad people in summer frenzy, desperately trying to get home, crowding into trains. I feel a strange disconnect with the world of the land and its ways.

Capitalism on the High Seas

I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats flying any day – for flying is one of the worst forms of transport invented by human beings – I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by CMA-CGM, the French company supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.

Chinese built in 2000, La Tour is a smooth, clean, relatively modern and fast ship. Our cabin is anything but compact, reserved for spare voyagers – the ‘owner’ perhaps, company executives, repair crews for engine overhauls, and passengers. A bedroom, bathroom and living space with a couple of portholes, plus access to the communal lounge, small gym downstairs – and pretty much anywhere else on the ship. On board we have 23 officers and crew: the captain and engineers are from the Balkans, from Montenegro and Croatia, while the crew and the three mates are Filipinos – hard-working and competent sailors who are not confrontational, preferring quite means of addressing problems when they arise. Over the next long month I would get to know many of them very well, sharing stories and drinks, singing karaoke, celebrating an equatorial barbeque, gaining an insight into the sailor’s life, pondering sex on the high seas …

But for now I ponder a weightier question: capitalism on the high seas. The ship may be a waterborne village in motion, surrounded by the dominant element on this water planet, and those on board may enjoy the simple solitude of the oceans while bending their thoughts homeward, but the main reason the ship plies these routes is economic. Beneath the patriotic flag-waving and chest-beating claims to being the third largest shipping company in the world, this company is in the business of making a profit. And they do so by generating surplus value – trying not to pay the workers what they are worth and charging more than they should for the goods shipped. In short, cost-cutting here; over-pricing there. This economic reality influences every moment of one’s day on a container ship.

Everyday Life

So let us begin with the seemingly small moments of everyday life and then work our way to the big picture. Initially, the major 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 – the World Cup, Tour de France, an oil spill … More interesting and important for our daily lives is the new menu at breakfast. The first meal of the day may be largely the same (four different versions of egg on toast; four types of ‘breakfast meat’, should you want them; some more toast), but the rest vary in the hands of a creative cook. So we read the new menu for lunch and dinner with great interest.

Why? Are we starved for news, seizing on the smallest piece of information like hungry lions? Not at all, for precisely with the food does capitalism on the high seas influence our lives. From the deckhand to the captain, all talk 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 what can and cannot be requisitioned. Even more, the company has decided that the second cook is to go in Rotterdam, leaving them with but one cook.

As these complaints roll on, I find a shopping list for 23 sailors and passengers, from the back of a news print-out:

Bonded stores:

Beer                                                               8 Cases

Cigarettes                                   79 CTN        15800 Stick


Johnny Walkers Red, 700 ml,      4 Btl             2.80 Litres

Johnny Walkers Red, 1 Ltr          7 Btl             7.00 Litres


Bacardi Rum, white, 1L               2 Btl             2.00 Litres

Ricard Aperatif, 1L                     7 Btl             7.00 Litres


Sparkling wine Seaviw Brut (75cl) 9 Btl            6.75 Litres

Assorted red/white wine (75cl)   65 Btl           48.75 Litres

Cask wine red/white, $L & 5L each 17 Cask    76.00 Litres


Fuel oil                                                           196 MT

Diesel oil                                                        146.0 MT

Lube oil                                                          51,560.0 Litres

Fresh water                                                    500.0 MT


Detergent & soap                                           40 kgs

Grease                                                            550 kgs

Paint                                                              1,815 Ltrs

Thinner                                                          274 Ltrs

Kerosene and solvent                                     nil


Cereal & pasta                                                35.0 Kgs

Coffee ground & instant                                 5.8 Kgs

Tea (in bag @ 2 gr.)                                        8.0 Box

Sugar                                                              21.0 Kgs

Salt                                                                 8.0 Kgs

Fresh meat                                                     511.0 Kgs

Fresh fish                                                       155.0 Kgs

All canned food                                              310.0 Kgs

Eggs                                                               900.0 Pcs

Fruit, fish                                                        53.0 Kgs

Vegetable, fresh                                              114.0 Kgs

Butter                                                             8.0 Kgs

Margarine                                                       nil

Cheese                                                           33.0 Kgs

Milk                                                               96.0 Ltrs

Bread                                                             30.0 Lvs

Flour                                                              75.0 Kgs

Spices                                                             5.0 Kgs

An extraordinary insight into what makes a ship tick.

Yet, while the dwindling amount of food is the major focus, everywhere one looks, miniscule cost-cutting is in place – all ‘justified’ by the ongoing economic crisis that began in 2008. For example, the first mate feels that 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 earns 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 (from Rijeka) finds it ridiculous that he should be questioned about every request for spare parts and maintenance. ‘We used to have four engineers’, he says, ‘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. The captain talks of the communications equipment, which was replaced recently with a much cheaper version, which also happens to be far less effective. Now he can wait for up to two hours for a satellite connection in order to carry on the necessary business of a container ship.

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?

Sailors (Workers)

The brunt of these perpetual efforts to squeeze out extra surplus falls on the sailors themselves. Seeing them at work, calling the deck of the ship their home for nine months at a time, you soon realise that it is hard, physical labour. Part of the international working class, they toil with heavy machinery, with all its dangers and concerns with safety, much like train drivers and truck drivers, miners and farmers. And it is their labour that keeps capitalism running. Obvious enough, but their work is usually (and conveniently) hidden on passenger vessels; here you simply can’t miss it.

The crew is Filipino, a common enough feature of international freighter shipping. They may be Korean, or Kiribati, or Chinese, but the reason is the same: they are a cheap labour source that keeps costs down. Or rather, they enable a greater profit margin for the companies who employ them and ship all that crap around the world. The perversity of the situation is that at this time and place, the current arrangements suit this Filipino crew. How? Again and again, I ask them – able seamen, bosun, steward, cook, perhaps a third or first mate – why they went to sea. Some say it is tradition, but all say it is money. Even at their reduced wages, it is more than they could earn at home. Better still, as Lindo the steward tells me, they are paid in US dollars – worth even more at home.

Inevitably, they send money home to support families, as do the ‘maids’ and cleaners who work in hotels in Copenhagen, wealthy homes in Hong Kong … wherever Filipino maids are wanted. It is a whole economy that relies on a large slab of its able workforce going overseas to send money home. Although it counts as a rational response in a deeply irrational situation, attempting to extract a morsel or two from a feast that is largely denied them, in the end it suits the owners of capital far more than underpaid Filipino workers.

But are they competent? A captain on an earlier ship, the Hansa Flensburg, once opined: pay peanuts and you get monkeys. And the news reports of shipwrecks (such as the Pasha Bulker in Newcastle in 2007) will always make the point that the crew is Filipino, or Korean or what have you. The implication: incompetence is a national trait. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, since I encounter capable, hard-working seaman, welding, painting, greasing, operating a neat and tidy ship. Ideal if you are a shipping company: they work hard and competently and accept far lower pay packets.

Perhaps crews like this one may have the last laugh. With their quantitative increase in skills, crews and officers may eventually lead to qualitative change: Filipino, Kiribati, or even Montenegrin or Russian, may well bring about a quiet mutiny at the heart of capitalist trade. One can only hope so.

What about the officers whom these mutineers would overthrow? Do they share the perspective of the crew? Or are they a distinct on-board ruling class? The answer is yes to both questions. On board the ship itself, they do seem to function like a ruling class. Often the shipping companies attempt to reinforce the difference by clearly demarcating the in-board ruling class from the crew by ensuring the officers are from a different linguistic, ethnic and national background. But once we move beyond the confines of the ship, the officers too are subject to the real owners of capital. For example, like the crew, the officers fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest); everyone knows it happens, the authorities keep checking paperwork to pretend it doesn’t. On the Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama), Korea (Pusan), China (Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Hong Kong etc) run, it is perhaps two hours between ports, so in a week you may get one or two hours sleep a night. Then accidents happen.


Ultimately, both crew and officers serve the ship and its contents. Or rather, while they serve the company and generate its profits, the way they do so is to focus all their energies on the ship and its ‘vital’ contents. The ship itself is a product of the Chinese shipyards, about ten years old. A cheap Chinese ship? In some quarters it is fashionable to think so. But as the chief engineer points out, the Chinese know perfectly well how to build prohibitively expensive state-of-the-art ships; it all depends on how much the client is willing to spend and in most cases those buyers want cheaper ships. Why? Firstly, for the buyer an expensive ship that will last thirty 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 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.

After all, as a buyer you need to reserve funds to run the thing and buy fuel. Halfway between diesel and oil, that fuel is so thick it needs to be warmed in colder climes before it can be used. And given the volumes, they speak not of litres but of tonnes. At about the 80 revs a minute needed to sustain a speedier vessel like this one at 20 knots, the engine burns about 100 tonnes a day. A quick calculation: with roughly three days’ stoppage for six ports in a 37 day voyage, that means we burn 3400 tonnes for our voyage – all of which does not include diesel for the four generators and fuel oil heater. It takes little imagination to see that with Peak Oil, the shipping industry is severely fucked unless it finds an alternative mode of propulsion. The only viable option left is sail.

Nonetheless, the ship’s purpose is to carry cargo. So while we are engaged in calculations, let me offer a few more. The maximum load for this ship is 28,000 tonnes, made up of no more than 1100 containers, some full, some empty. According to Marisec, as of October 2010, the world has about 44,000 ships that carry freight (and 6600 passenger ships). Given that this is a medium-sized ship, we can multiply the amount this ship carries with the number of ships and come up with a reasonable idea of the amount of material goods shipped around the world with each voyage: 1,232,000,000 tonnes. Mind you, that is not per year, but per voyage.

If we want to find a rough calculation of how much freight is moved per year, we may take the number of containers in the world (which ship 90% of all cargo), take their average capacity at 27,500 kg (not including the 4000 kg of the container itself) and multiply by the number of trips made each year for each container. These figures come from 2005.

Number of containers:      18,000,000

Average capacity:              27,500 kg

Subtotal:                           495, 000,000 tonnes

Number of trips per year: 200,000,000

Total:                               99,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year

Increase to 100% (from 90%):  110,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year.

As the engineer says: people shift a lot of crap.

All of these thoughts – whiling away the time on a long voyage – lead me to another point that first struck me in the middle of the Pacific: what of the much-vaunted volatilisation of the market? This is supposedly the generation of wealth out of speculation on finances and the money markets, the removal of any material base in the old sense for the generation of surplus value (which winds up being profit most of the time). One has only to travel on a medium-sized freighter like this one, or perhaps a tanker, in order to see the hard, physical reality of the stuff unloaded and loaded at each port, the sheer volume that this one ship can hold. Multiply by hundreds and thousands of ships like this, as well as the oil tankers and gas tankers and coal bunkers and, plying the world’s trade routes … they are as concrete as ever and those who work on them and for them are as exploited as ever.

Ship’s Log: Day Thirty Seven (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Thirty-seventh day of the voyage; seventh day of the Atlantic crossing.

The captain is not one to forget things, for yesterday he mentioned ‘the passageway’, asking whether I would still like to be initiated. I had mentioned it once, on our first day, a long month ago. The next morning (today) the chief officer turned up early – boilersuit, helmet, boots, gloves and torch. I was impressed and grabbed my helmet. The English might call it the ‘Burma Road’, but for the normal people in the world it is simply the ‘passageway’. What is it?

Having cleared the alarms on the bridge, the chief undid the massive latches on an air-tight and water-tight door – ‘for fire’, he said – and plunged down a stairway. More like a ladder, really, slippery with oil on the steel steps. ‘It’s easier to go down backwards’, he said, skipping down the stairs as if they were a garden path. The bottom was the bottom, the bowels of the ship, beneath almost 30,000 tonnes of containers, let alone the ship itself. Between me and the sea floor – about 5 km below – was nothing but a sheet of 10mm steel.

‘This way’, he said, ducking under the first of scores of scalping devices. Actually, they were part of the infrastructure of the ship, its bones, and we were climbing through them. An oval cut into the steel allowed us to pass along, ducking, slipping, echoing, with the sound of water and creaking containers all about us. We were on our way to the bow, which soon announces its imminent presence by the curve of the hull. Tighter and tighter became the spaces, and I soon became well aware that tall people of vague European extraction are not even on the drawing board when it came to this type of construction.

I may as well be caving, I thought to myself. But at last we reached our goal: the bow and its thruster – a small engine used to get the bow over in tight spots in port. The thruster itself was down a surprisingly cavernous space, a couple of ladders slick with the obligatory oil. I felt as though I had happened upon a treasure cave, deep within the earth – except of course that we were deep in the ship and the ocean, the lowest point, in fact, that we could go. But the treasure was the not the thruster – no matter what any male might think – but the thrill of standing behind that massive knob at the bow of a ship, the one below the water-line, a little like a battering ram to part the water and protect the ship should it run into the odd whale, log, or debris of another ship. And the crashing noise was the water itself, like a perpetual surf created by the ship itself.

Sadly, we couldn’t stay there forever, since the chief was busy with the duties of four ports (Tilbury, Dunkirque, Le Havre and Rotterdam). So I set off the way we had come. ‘No, this way’, said the chief, ‘there’s more’. We had come up the port side; on the starboard side the passageway wound its way back to the start. Torch on, ducking, stretching, small steps to avoid slipping in the oil and then, like a horse sniffing the stable, I was off for the escape hatch. ‘Not so fast’, said the chief. He pulled me over, placed a hand on my shoulder and whispered: ‘do you want to see the cargo hold?’ I was awed, for now the deepest secret of the ship was about the ship was about to be revealed.

He banged open the levers – alarmed as well – and hauled back the airtight door, beckoning me inside. I was a little worried that he didn’t follow me in, imagining him banging the door shut with a wicked chuckle, holding me there for ransom or perhaps as a sex slave for the crew. It was not to be … but the space looked like it could well be used for exactly such purposes: in between the deepest container, with reefer outlets and dirt scattered about, a talented artist had painted a woman wearing nothing but a wicked grin, her legs spread wide in invitation. ‘Do not enter here’, someone had scribbled, as if to state the obvious on a ship full of men.

We stood there in reverend silence for a few moments. ‘Time to go’, said the chief. After climbing the ladder from the depths and stumbling out of the hatch, daylight felt strangely different.

Ship’s Log: Day Thirty Six (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Thirty-sixth day of the voyage; sixth day of the Atlantic crossing.

To stand on a bridge and silently watch an Atlantic dawn over the port bow is an experience impossible to express.

The first European birds join us, to spend a night or two on the ship as we head landward. The last part of a journey always has the curious pleasure of what comes to an end and beings, the knowledge that what you have is passing and the anticipation of what is to come. Much slower on a ship; on a train, for instance, it is the last few hours of a long haul, but on a ship it gradually builds over the last few days. The assistant cook, however, was hopping about the dining room today. Bounding out and beaming, he flourished his airline ticket home to the Philippines, talked of nine months and ten days at sea, his family – he couldn’t keep still.

A simple comment from the second mate has stayed with me. We were talking about pirates and their extent – from Port Said and the Suez to Indonesia and the South China Sea, from Madagascar to the West African coast. And then he said: 83 Filipino sailors are being held on ships right now by the Somali pirates, some for months. When it was a French or American captain and crew (on a Maersk ship), they rescued them immediately.