Rose George has had the good idea of spending five weeks on the Maersk-owned Kendal on its voyage from Felixstowe to Singapore via Suez and the Horn of Africa. The Kendal is one of the 6,000 container ships that ply international waters. Together with super tankers, these are the giants of the world’s 100,000-strong merchant fleet that transports 90 per cent of global trade; only light, perishable items, such as flowers from Colombia or greenbeans from Kenya, go by air. Bulk carriers still transport coal and iron ore; container ships transport ‘break-bulk’ items that, before the 1950s, had to be meticulously packaged, loaded and offloaded by a scurrying army of dockers and lightermen.
Container ships such as the Kendal can carry up to 6,188 ‘boxes’, which, if deposited on articulated lorries, would form a traffic jam sixty miles in length. Apart from those bearing hazardous chemicals, what is in these sealed containers remains a mystery to the crews. You can monitor the huge