The secret world of cargo ships

On a modern shipping vessel, said Rose George, what’s in the hold is unknown—even to the people moving it.

THE BRIDGE OF a modern ship is a shock on first encounter. Although this place is still known as the wheelhouse, the wheel at the helm is not wooden and impressive, but mundane plastic, the kind that would suit a video arcade game. Nearly all else is automated. A bank of screens contains radar, ECDIS—an electronic chart system—and AIS, an automatic identification system that transmits the ship’s name, speed and heading, and other details to other ships, port authorities, and well-equipped pirates. There is radio, a gyrocompass and magnetic compass, a tachometer and echo sounder.

Capt. Glenn Wostenholme is often to be found on the bridge. He is here for port approaches and departures but also whenever he can escape paperwork, which is not as often as he would like, now that the role of ship’s purser has ceased to exist and all the administration falls on the captain and senior officers. He can be on his computer for four to eight hours a day now. Glenn is the most senior captain in Maersk’s container fleet. In older times, he would have been known as commodore and saluted by the raising of flags on courteous passing ships. His talk turns often to earlier times, because he has done enough years to have plenty and because in his four decades on ships, life at sea has changed dramatically. His first ship was a tramp steamer, a freelance vessel that picks up trade where it can, not a liner with a scheduled route like Kendal, his current ship. A taxi, not a bus. It was iron, had derrick cranes on deck to heft cargo about, and was held together by rivets. Rivets! Not like this Korean-made welded ship, only 4 years old.

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