Let us go down to the sea—in containers.
Along about 1937, writes Nation contributing editor Pollak (The Creation of Dr. B, 1997), a North Carolina freight entrepreneur named Malcolm McLean conceived the happy idea that a truck hauled up onto a ship could be transported around the world and drive off with its cargo into distant lands. By the 1950s, McLean Trucking dispensed with the trucks themselves, instead loading ships with stackable containers: and thus were born container ships. Packing volumes of Melville and Conrad as his shipboard reading, Pollak embarks on one such ship, the Colombo Bay, for a world-striding cruise from Hong Kong to New York via Suez. “There is not much romance left in the technologized, just-in-time world of twenty-first-century merchant shipping,” he observes, though there’s plenty of danger from killer waves and undercooked food. More usual, on this massive ship (“she is some 105 feet wide and more than 900 feet long. . . . She weights 60,000 deadweight tons”), are long days of checking GPS coordinates, monitoring ocean traffic, feeding stowaway crows, and keeping an eye out for pirates—a very real threat in the South China Sea. Pollak does a good job of explaining why so many ships fly flags of convenience, why so many merchant sailors these days are from the Philippines, and why container shipping remains an important vehicle for the world economy, especially for goods of Asian provenance. Still, the narrative is a little, beg pardon, dry; the British comic and traveler Michael Palin covered much the same ground, with plenty of circumstantial detail and much more entertainingly, in a single chapter of Around the World in Eighty Days (1991).
An unfair comparison, perhaps, for Pollak writes with an eminently serious purpose. He tells a story worth hearing, especially for readers interested in the grittier details of globalization and in true tales of the high seas.