Ship To It Ninety Percent of Everything shows us freights unseen, and then some

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes On Your Back, Gas In Your Car, and Food On Your Plate

Rose George (Metropolitan Books, 2013) 247 pages including endnotes, index and photos

Writer Rose George gives her book about freight shipping a sub-title of considerable promise.

Who, after all, would not want to know at least a little about an industry that plays a vital role in the world economy, playing out its ceaseless drama behind the scenes? In this one-of-a-kind book, George offers a long and winding journey through the world’s tumultuous seas and sleepy ports of call. She fulfills her subtitle’s “inside” promise, even when it risks smothering the reader in minutia, steers us toward doldrums of diversion, or both.

Where comprehensive treatment of the subject is the end-goal, that is no great crime. Just consider yourself warned. Only readers packing sufficient provisions and necessary interest in this rarified topic stand to benefit from this book’s mottled, hodge-podge collection of intermittent charms and beguilements.

Ninety Percent of Everything is George’s personal look into an industry few writers have cared to consider, but it is rarely personal in tone. “There are no ordinary citizens to witness the workings of an industry that is one of the most fundamental to their daily existence,” she tells us.

No ordinary citizens except her, and that is enough to command our attention—if the pay-off mixes the intrigue of investigative journalism with the spectacle of an ocean cruise.

George marshals the requisite numbers and statistics of her subject in hopes of dazzling readers with little-known facts. On this score, she often delivers.

“Shipping is so cheap,” she writes, “that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters. A Scottish newspaper called this practice ‘madness,’ but actually it’s just shipping.”

Complicating the efficiency of the industry is that, according to her, regulating these “floating nation-states” at sea only puts more barnacles on the hull, so to speak. Trans-oceanic freight shipping, like so many other businesses, is caught between Scylla and Charybdis of efficient operations and just regulations and requirements.

With the economic realities of the industry well in hand, we are off to the seas.

Once the sight of land has receded from view, the darker anarchy of the seas takes over. Law loses its specificity and power. Nature assumes an omnipotence land-locked life allows us to forget. The fates and furies of seafaring, alternately tedious and terrifying, work their wiles.

The working conditions and lives of ship workers, the menace of Somali pirates as witnessed by a former hostage, a rather tedious chapter on seafarers’ centers of rest between freight jobs, and even a harrowing account of passengers stranded in a 1942 lifeboat are all on display.

All eleven chapters, from “Embarkation” to “Disembark” are competently delivered, some even bracingly composed in terms of narrative. By at least the ninth chapter, “Animals Beneath,” concerning how these massive freight ships influence ocean ecology, however, it’s hard not to feel shortchanged. A comprehensive treatment of your subject is not the same as an interesting one, and George struggles at times for balance.

Some of the book’s most tantalizing narrative possibilities are glanced over. Early in the book, George tells of “the great Norwegian-American seafarer unionist Andrew Furuseth—known as Lincoln of the Sea for his cheekbones and achievements.”

But if Furuseth’s legacy was in fact so great, surely he’s worth more than one mention? Alas, one is all he warrants. Such wasted narrative potential is hardly satisfied when, more than 100 pages and several other tangential anecdotes later, George tells us of Dr. Andrew DeVogelaere who, with a team of researchers “shot eight thousand hours of video and saw scallops they had rarely seen, all over the container, and snails that lay six-inch egg stacks.”

Snails’ eggs atop freight containers may interest some. Scallops never before seen might interest others even more. But can either be interesting enough to crowd out a figure as renowned as the “Lincoln of the Sea”? George affords us no chance to discover for ourselves. Like poor, short-changed Furuseth, these seemingly fascinating creatures are never heard from again.

Too often, George’s approach is akin to a sports journalist who pens a biography of a legendary basketball star, or even basketball itself, only to regale us in unwarranted detail about the type of leather used in the manufacture of basketballs. Just tell us what’s really and truly interesting about the subject at hand, and we won’t need to go anywhere else.

Thankfully, Ninety Percent of Everything isn’t always propelled by the cold wind of detail blowing through an assemblage of facts. George often tightens the net, reminding us of the ocean’s protean power and mystery. Once the sight of land has receded from view, the darker anarchy of the seas takes over. Law loses its specificity and power. Nature assumes an omnipotence land-locked life lets us forget. The fates and furies of seafaring, alternately tedious and terrifying, work their wiles.

“To go peaceably to sea, you need a pretense. You are buoyant on assumptions and water, even though the water is miles deep, downward, but you can’t see the distance like you can from a plane, so it is not there,” she writes.

For every chilling line of expert prose, however, George fails to kill the duds, such as this second-hand description of an ill-fated livestock carrier en route from Lebanon to Tripoli. “Pounding waves, darkness, people screaming, howling and thrashing beasts everywhere: it sounds like a section of hell that Dante forgot to include.”

Freight shipping as an industry runs the gamut, from corporate-run international lines such as the Denmark-based Maersk line George hops a ride on, to seat-of-the-pants, fly-by-night solo vessels delivering at the cheapest price.

Workers sometimes liken their job to “being in prison with a salary.” After a string of days or entire weeks at sea, human interaction can turn dangerous and perverse. Aboard dodgier vessels under rudderless leadership and management women have been raped and thrown overboard, without any recourse to find and punish those responsible.

To her credit, George never stresses her own gender. Not once does she judge her male subjects’ covert needs for alcohol—banned anyway aboard the Danish fleet of shipping vessels she travels—or the occasional prostitute. She’s no stranger to danger, either. Her personal web page notes a past stint as a war correspondent in Kosovo for Condé Nast Traveler, with two appearances at birthday celebrations for Saddam Hussein rounding out her resume as an international journalist. An Englishwoman living in Yorkshire, her prior books include a chronicle on the struggles of refugees, A Life Removed (2004), and an examination of the lesser-known facts of human waste, The Big Necessity (2008). Her only working condition worth mentioning is a penchant for vegetarian meals.

Ninety Percent of Everything makes it clear that the murky boundaries of international maritime law are insufficient for investigating crimes when events on freight vessels take a turn for the worse. The legal provenance of some freelance ships can be so complex—in terms of ownership, national origin of employees, maritime flag, and location of travel—few know who to call or hold responsible when ships sink and crewmembers perish.

“There’s something like two thousand people a year getting killed at sea, but it’s not grabbing anyone’s attention,” laments one Martin Atkinson, a Scotsman who tries in vain to find the person or company responsible for his brother’s 2009 death at sea on a rickety ship flying Panama’s flag. “Once you’re outside the twelve-mile limit, you [the ship captain and crew] do your own thing.”

So sprawling and uncontrollable is the sea-freight business, in fact, that not even United States’ national security teams have the power to control their massive volume of cargo. With more than 100,000 ships at sea at any one time, there is too much traffic to monitor.

The same goes for incorporating shipping requirements and regulations under one umbrella organization sufficient to satisfy scores of international markets. Far too often, workers are exploited or even left unpaid. Maritime courts exist, as George points out. But too often the complex interplay between vessel ownership, the flag under which it ships, and international law results in courts and authorities constantly shifting burdens and deferring matters to one another or outside entities. Vital matters, such as legally resolving shipwrecks that lose all cargo and crew members, can be tragically deferred. As with most services, customers are better off reading the fine print and checking a company’s performance record before signing the purchase order for goods to be shipped.

Such is the pull and size of the industry, though, that little is done to render justice. Ships set their course. Trade gets done. As long as everything arrives in one piece to everyone’s satisfaction, the process repeats itself.

Until, of course, it does not. Recounting a national news story from 2003 that’s had little press since, George reminds us of an ABC News report of how depleted uranium was shipped from Jakarta to a Los Angeles’ port completely unbeknownst to security officials. No technology has yet been developed that would scan ship cargo to 100 percent accuracy. Even if with that technology in hand, the process would prove too time-consuming.

“Trade is movement. Trade is sacred. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security quietly pushed the 100-percent deadline to 2014 and counting.”

George is adequate in documenting the various people who’ve fallen through the myriad cracks of the shipping industry. In describing the tense exchanges between Somali pirates and a professional negotiators hired by a ship’s insurance company, she nails the nervy atmosphere and high stakes, right down to the moment a ransom is delivered by helicopter and the pirates make a clean getaway.

If more of the book’s scenes were delivered with such assured tone and details, a thorough read would be more thoroughly rewarded. Too often, the book’s heartbeat flat-lines.

When one Maersk employee warns George that life aboard a freight ship stacked with steel containers is “boring,” she rushes to assure us otherwise.

“Shipping can be poetic despite itself,” she writes.

Repeat reassurances cannot save the book from becoming a rotating menu of seafaring tales, even with borrowed prose snippets of Joseph Conrad.

Except for passages in which we learn about the practice of exploding beached whale carcasses, narrative rigor mortis threatens chapters in which George recounts freight-liners impact on sea life and ports of relaxation. Boxes, George tells us, “go overboard all the time” and “athletic shoes generally float with the tongues facing upward (unless they contain feet, which is not unheard of).”

The book’s overarching purpose seems the portrayal of a business so vast, silent and unseen in its operations, and so far from the reach or concern of everyday life yet vital to world commerce that it glides eerily—even maliciously—over everything it touches. From crewmembers to aquatic life, and everything above and below, no one is immune to its impact but at the same time everyone is blind to its realities.

The paradox of dependence without awareness or consciousness is an intriguing one. Perhaps for some readers George makes these connections apparent, but there seems little question she could have done more to make such connections more compelling and forceful. Instead, her book scatters its elements too widely rather than concentrating them.

The book’s most compelling chapters—“High-Risk Area” and “Rescue”—chronicle the plague of Somali pirates, followed by an astounding account of becoming stranded at sea in a lifeboat with fellow passengers.

George paints an apt, if brief, portrait of Chirag Bahri, an Indian who in 2010 survived four months of captivity after being captured 120 miles off the Port of Salalah, Bahri by Somali pirates. He and 21 fellow crewmembers were tied to their ship deck naked for hours at a time, genitals bound by plastic cable, in heat exceeding 100 degrees. John Chase, the “expert ransom negotiator” hired to secure their release, is described in chirpy terms as a pragmatist who “expects hostages to lose body parts sometimes.”

The sea’s endless capacity for suffering gets wider when George introduces us to freight-ship captains who’ve braved the rescue of those stranded at sea after a vessel sinks. Holding on for dear life, survivors suffer unimaginable bruises and injuries from wreckage—if they’re rescued at all.

“What still bothers me to this day is the thought that when we picked up those two small heads in the water, what if there were four more heads further off who could see us because we had our lights on. They could see our ship and they would see us leave,” one freight captain says.

The book’s high point is the true story of Diana Jarman, a young Englishwoman and one of several survivors of the ship “City of Cairo” after it is sunk by German torpedo in 1942.

Huddled in a hardscrabble lifeboat, Jarman and crew battle sunstroke, throats swollen and mouths foaming from lack of water, and weakness so crippling it takes whole days to muster the strength to throw dead bodies overboard. Buttons are sucked to induce the flow of saliva necessary to eat bits of rock-hard biscuit. If the sun doesn’t first burn your whole body to a pounding ulcer, the delirium of dehydration compels you to throw yourself overboard and into the sea.

“Curiously, the people who did not help others died first,” George writes. “Then it was death by domino.”

Halfway through the book George admits to a personal transformation. Life on land, she finds, intrudes on her “ship brain,” as she puts it.

“It must have, because it regularly and routinely spits out dreams of such violence and vividness that I wake in my cabin in a daze, shaking the dreams off like sand. It is rare that I wake up without having dreamed of murder.”

Her fellow crewmembers concur. The rhythms of the sea, the relentless vibrations of the ship, the unimagined dangers of journeys mount gradually to play tricks on the mind.

If George doesn’t quite capture this milieu in full, she does so in part. A trip across the oceans with giant steel boxes in tow would tax even the ablest of non-fiction narrative writers. After such a long, drawn-out journey, it is hard to fault George for strolling off this seldom-walked plank a little seasick.