Magazine | February 9, 2009, Issue

Slow Boat to China

A writer’s retreat becomes a view of global recession

‘I’m sure they told you about the change in the schedule?” the chipper, bearded master of the Hanjin Miami asked me as the 90,000-ton container ship eased effortlessly away from its berth in the port of Seattle.

“Change in schedule?” I asked, watching as the gap between ship and land grew from three feet to six feet to too far to jump with luggage. We were supposed to cross the Pacific and arrive in Shanghai in 16 days. And then I was supposed to fly back to California, back to work, to meetings. I had stuff to do.

The ship started to pick up speed. “Is it a big change?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” he said quickly in his soft German accent — he was busy steering the ship through the thick Seattle fog. “About a week. Maybe more. Hard to say. The global economic slowdown, you know. The front office tells us to slow down and save fuel. So we’ll go to Korea and anchor there.” He turned back to his work.

I looked out into the mist. On the computer desktop in my mind, I clicked on the “Travel Info” folder. Out popped my complicated plans — the hotel in Shanghai, the non-refundable flight back to the United States. I’d have to cancel or change all of these. The lights of Seattle drifted farther away, which meant only one thing to me: I was about to lose my cell coverage.

Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, didn’t say this when he introduced the iPhone two years ago, but I’m here to tell you: It’s perfect for those moments when, after the captain of a large container ship tells you that your passage to Shanghai is going to be delayed, you have to frantically log on to Travelocity, send six e-mails notifying people that you’re going to be out of touch for three weeks rather than two, redo your outgoing message, and send four text messages to four different people with the same basic information (“Will B a LOT L8R. Heading out to C.”).

I stood on the flybridge as the lights of the city faded. My phone registered four bars, then three, then two. I kept tapping away, squeezing the last drops of connectivity from the skies.

The master leaned over my shoulder as I was sending a final Twitter message. “One more thing. Terrible weather ahead.”

“Terrible weather?” I asked.

He nodded. “Three major storms ahead. Lots of this — ” He swayed vigorously forward and back. “And this — ” He swayed vigorously from side to side. “We’ll head north to avoid most of it. I have the computer figuring it out.”

The phone registered “No Service.” The night was dark and wet and cold. I stood out on the flybridge for a while as the coast slipped into blackness. The vastness of the North Pacific stretched out ahead: the fury of three winter storms, the indifferent violence of nature herself. I pulled up the collar on my peacoat and went down to the officer’s mess for meatballs.

Because, you know, you’ve got to eat, right?

Besides, the whole point of my container-ship adventure was to get away from things like cell phones and the Internet. I booked a cabin on the Hanjin Miami because I’m a writer; what I’m supposed to do is write. But what I really do is e-mail and have lunch and go to meetings and scribble notes and talk about writing. In other words, I’m not really a writer; I’m portraying a writer in a movie called “The Writer Who Goes Broke.” Or something worse, although I’d rather not think about it. I’d rather come up with a different title.

So when I heard that you can book passage on a container ship, I booked it right away. Two weeks of isolation was just what I needed. Toss in another week? Probably a wise idea.

Although there are usually six or seven empty cabins on a container ship of that size, and despite the fact that it’s a pretty economical way to travel, the Hanjin Miami hadn’t carried too many passengers. “Why is you on dis boot?” asked the Polish first officer, with a snaggle-toothed, suspicious smile. He was one of those deceptively large men who seem tall at first but then, as you get closer, you realize they’re fat, too. He and I were squeezed into the tiny elevator that connected the nine decks of the Hanjin Miami. There wasn’t much oxygen in there for a long answer, so I smiled and said, “I’m a writer.” Enough for him. We rode silently down to the B deck.

#page# There was a lot of silence on the Hanjin Miami. It wasn’t a language problem — the working language aboard most merchant vessels is English. But merchant seamen are an odd group. They spend months at sea, away from their families, tending to what is essentially a giant diesel-powered truck, hauling rows and rows of steel containers back and forth across the ocean, and a job like that somehow doesn’t attract your Chatty Cathies. Mutterers and quiet drinkers, most of them — cordial, but with rich interior lives that I’m sure would have alarmed me if I’d known too much about them. At meals (I ate with the officers), the group had a focused energy and kept the talk to a minimum. The food wasn’t good enough to arrest your attention — it was the kind of fare you’d expect in the dining hall of a third-tier boarding school — so there wasn’t a lot of lingering at the table, spinning tales of the sea. Later, in the lounge, there was purposeful drinking. And then sleep, if you could without rolling out of bed with every pitch and yaw of the ship.

I had expected a certain glamour to the crew — a kind of a Foreign Legion vibe, men on the run from the law or themselves, Bogart types — but that really isn’t what efficient international trade requires. What’s needed to power and guide vessels like the Hanjin Miami are mechanics to keep the engine running, oilers to keep it oiled, and a master to download the appropriate GPS and weather information from the satellite.

And they can probably do it with a lot fewer than that. I spent a couple of days hanging out in the wheelhouse — yes, yes: I did some writing, too — and the big surprise about the wheelhouse is that there’s no wheel in it. The big round prop of my imagination has been updated; it’s a joystick now, like you’d use to play a video game. After an afternoon watching the master tap a few keys on the computer, check the GPS plotting, and set the joystick to “auto,” I ginned up the courage to ask him about all of that technology. “Couldn’t this all be done . . .” I asked, and trailed off discreetly.

“Remotely?” he said. “Have someone back in Hamburg guide the whole vessel using the satellite?” He shrugged. “Yes, yes. That will happen in a few years.”

He pushed a few more buttons, then looked up. “Of course,” he added, “there’s no way they could do it without the Filipinos.”

And there he had a point. Most of the officers of the Hanjin Miami were German — NSB, the company that operates the vessels used by the Korean shipping conglomerate, Hanjin, is German — but the crew is entirely Filipino. And it’s the crew that climbs out onto the freezing, slippery deck twice a day to check the lashings on the container stacks. It’s the crew that shimmies into the molten interior of the gigantic diesel engine to oil it and check it and keep it rumbling away with a reassuring roar.

A week or so into the crossing, it was time for the safety drills. I tagged along — yes, yes: I did some writing, too — and watched as the officers and crew trudged their way through the fire drill, the abandon-ship drill, and finally the chemical-fire drill. Ships like the Hanjin Miami carry a huge array of cargo, and sometimes what’s in those steel containers is nasty and prone to explode.

The chemical-fire drill was a simple affair. We all gathered in the crew’s mess while the first officer unrolled the giant chemical-firefighting suit. It looked like one of those spacesuits from old science-fiction movies: a neoprene sheath with a plastic-visored helmet.

The first officer held the suit up. “You see here the problem wit the fighting-chemical sweet?” he asked in his Polish accent. “Is too small for a European. Is too short. So, to fight the chemical it will be a Filipino.”

The thing was, the suit looked to be about six feet long. In fact, as the officer held it up alongside his own body, it was impossible not to notice that the suit would probably fit him like a glove. Some of the crew noticed this, too. Why is it always the Filipinos, I could hear them thinking, who have to fight the chemical fires?

#page# The officer caught the mood. “Is nowhere that it must be a Filipino. But is a small sweet. So what can it do? It must have a Filipino inside it.”

And so he appointed a volunteer — a cheerful Filipino oiler of about five feet — to wade into the suit, which puddled around his legs and middle, making him look like a deflated Malay weather balloon. The crewman gamely walked a few paces before tripping over the folds of the suit, but that was enough to satisfy the international maritime safety requirements for a full drill. Everyone went back to work.

A ship the size of the Hanjin Miami can haul more than 7,000 containers — each one what they call a TEU, or Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit — but these days they mostly haul half as many 40- or even 45-foot steel containers, giant shoeboxes that can go pretty effortlessly from ship to railroad to truck trailer. Modern freight transport is the product of a flash of insight by an American trucking magnate named Malcom [sic] McLean, who devised a system for loading, unloading, and hauling standardized shipping containers in the 1950s. Until he came along, cargo had to be loaded and unloaded piece by piece. McLean streamlined the process, managed to cut almost 95 percent of the cost of overseas shipping, decimated the stevedores union — you didn’t need hundreds of guys anymore; you just needed one in a tall crane — and ushered in the biggest, widest economic boom in history.

If the world is flat, it’s not because of the Internet. It’s because of shipping companies like Hanjin, which can haul containers filled with tens of thousands of flat-screen TVs from the ports of China to the port of Long Beach, Calif., load the containers onto trucks or trains, and have the flat screens on the shelves of your local Wal-Mart in a few days.

And that’s pretty much where the global supply chain peters out. The containers that were stacked so high and deep on the Hanjin Miami as we made our stormy way from Seattle to Shanghai were empty. That’s what we send back to China: empty containers. They send us extruded plastic doodads and TVs and blue jeans, and we send them empty boxes to refill and resend. They make stuff to wear and use, and we make credit-default swaps.

When the weather got nice, I walked along the outside deck — yes, yes: I did some writing, too; stop nagging me — and looked at the rows and rows of empties. Some weren’t empty, of course: The “reefers,” or refrigerated units, carried frozen fish and lobster, and one or two of the containers were marked “contains American hay,” which is not something I ever thought might be a major export.

But what started as a writer’s retreat, a way to trick myself into finishing a troublesome script, became instead a front-row seat to the world’s economic slump. America doesn’t make; it buys. And when America stops buying, the whole system shuts down. Outside of Shanghai harbor, anchored in a miles-long watery parking lot, were hundreds of container ships waiting for orders, killing time until there was a reason to head into port. If Wal-Mart doesn’t expect much demand, the message goes out to the masters of every container ship plying the water between China and the United States: Don’t hurry back. So they don’t. They sit at anchor and wait for better times.

Three weeks after we left Seattle, I stood on the flybridge of the Hanjin Miami on a bright morning as she steamed into Shanghai harbor. My iPhone buzzed and beeped and deposited dozens of e-mails and text messages and voice-mail notices. The script was finished. I had even begun a new one.

“Maybe I’ll see you again, on another crossing,” I said to the master, as we shook hands near the gangway.

“If there is another crossing,” he replied. The cranes began to lift the containers from the ship and set them aside, for later.

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