Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

27 September 2013

If a smiling pollster approached you in your living room asking how much of the stuff around you arrived via ship, would you venture a guess? And if so, what would be your answer?

When the Maritime Foundation did a survey in the British port city of Southampton, the residents had no idea. The responses ranged from "I don't know" and "Not a lot" to "35 per cent?" One dapper and wise man went as high as 62 per cent but alas, even that is too low.

As Rose George points out in her new book Deep Sea and Foreign Going, the answer is actually almost 95 per cent – pretty much everything you own, see, and touch on a daily basis. Shipping, by far, is simultaneously the most important and least understood industry in the world. It provides you with your shoes, phones, sunglasses and cars but what happens between point A and B? Few have any idea.

All next week, Monocle 24 is looking at the big issues facing this industry, from gun-toting pirates and widening canals to eco-friendly clippers and behemoths that would cast a shadow on the Titanic. Producing this series, I've soaked up far more facts than I’ve ever wanted to know. I've gone a bit shipping mad. After meeting dozens of insiders, poring over future designs and doing a humble bit of jet-setting to busy ports, here's the condensed version of I've learned:

  1. Families still matter – but tycoons are no longer the international playboys of days past. And with a Norwegian-Cypriot exception, they’re still very Greek.

  2. Profits are pegged to the global economy. In 2011, when Danish giant Maersk spent $3.7bn on 20 Triple-Es, the world’s biggest ship, economic growth was expected. It’s a different situation now.

  3. Those ships are very, very big. I boarded a Triple-E in Copenhagen – imagine a floating skyscraper painted blue. It’s a miracle of human engineering that they float, let alone glide through the oceans and waterways between Europe and Asia.

  4. Ships pollute the oceans – a lot. But they’re getting better. Do some research on bunker fuel. If you thought SUV emissions were bad, the container ship is a nightmare. But new ships, such as those of Maersk, burn less of it. Some of them, such as B9’s Rolls-Royce-powered clipper ship, are going for 100 per cent renewable.

  5. And pirates aren’t the ragtag group you think they are. They’re actually quite savvy businessmen.

And with that, I’ll cast away. For more shipping puns and also some great radio, tune in next week, all week, on The Globalist.

Daniel Giacopelli is a producer on Monocle 24.

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