For cargo ship crew, a lonely and risky life

Story highlights

  • 33 people aboard the ship El Faro, presumed lost near the Bahamas, are missing and might be dead
  • Rose George: We should value the 1.5 million seafarers who risk their lives to bring us the goods

Rose George is the author of "Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate." She lives in Yorkshire, England. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Every day, they come and go, unheralded, required, ignored: 100,000 or so working ships traveling the seas, carrying 90% of world trade. Our goods, necessities, fripperies: all still come by ship, although most people think of the sea as something to be flown over, and though the average consumer pays seafarers no mind, until they arrive in our newspaper or TV headlines as casualties, such as the 33 people of El Faro, presumed lost near the Bahamas when Hurricane Joaquin swept by.

Shipping has changed dramatically over the last century: from a chaotic industry where ships carried thousands of discrete items that took weeks to unload, and sailors had time to delight in sailor towns, to one where freight is cheap, margins are tight and seafaring life is difficult.
When I traveled on Maersk Kendal in 2010, from Felixstowe to Singapore, I found a dedicated and professional crew, but one in which not a single seafarer was there for the love of the job.
    Rose George
    Their job was "dollars for homesickness," one of the Filipino ratings (nonofficers) told me. They also called it "prison with a salary." They are only slightly joking. Life on a modern container ship for most of the world is almost certainly lonely and usually punishing. Many seafarers carefully calculate how many years they must spend at sea to earn enough to escape. Ken Hawkins, a veteran chaplain with the Mission to Seafarers, a charity for merchant sailors, told me that "every day, I meet a seafarer who has a child he has never met."
    Seafaring, on a good ship, can be a well-remunerated job. On Maersk Kendal, the nonofficers earned about $1,000 a month, more than what a government employee would make back in the Philippines. But exploitation is far more common than it should be. The International Transport Workers Federation has to regularly fight for wages unpaid to seafarers. In 2014, it got back $59,372,806 in back pay owed.
    Yet shipping has also become dramatically safer. Last year, there were only 75 total losses of large ships, the lowest in 10 years. This is still one every few days, but it's 50% fewer ships lost than in 2005. Though some are fond of referring to the "outlaw" or "lawless" sea, the modern ocean drips with laws and legislation.
    The walls of most ship offices or wheelhouses are papered with safety certificates. A captain once joked to me that the most dangerous thing that could happen to him was if he dropped the latest copy of SOLAS -- the International Convention for the Safety of Lives at Sea -- on his foot. He was joking, because he knew what anyone who works at sea knows: Humans may try their best to make the ocean safer, but it is still the wildest place on the planet. Around 2,000 seafarers still die every year.
    I mourn the loss of El Faro's crew, but also the nine fishermen lost after a Taiwanese fishing vessel sank on September 18; or another nine who died when the cement carrier Asia Cement2 collided with the fishing vessel Shih Hui 31, or the three crew members of the China-flagged Jin Wang You 9, anchored at Schenzen Mawan Port Road. One crew member was sent to check for gas in the forecastle -- the front part of a merchant ship -- and didn't return. Two followed him and didn't return either: Two of the three died of asphyxiation. (I'm indebted to the excellent Oceanus Live maritime security intelligence service for those facts and figures.)
    Also, some of the danger at sea comes from humans themselves. The trouble at sea is not that it is lawless, but that once on the high seas, enforcing law, and chasing the unscrupulous, is extremely difficult.
    If I wanted to commit a crime, I'd go to sea to do it. When I wrote about the sinking of the livestock carrier Danny FII in 2009, with the loss of 17,932 cattle, 10,274 sheep and 44 men, the ship's flag state, Panama, which runs the largest shipping fleet in the world, refused to issue an accident report for four years, and there was no means to compel it to do so.
    Panama eventually lodged a report with the International Maritime Organization but refused to make it available for download, although relatives such as Kathleen Baker, whose father Gary Bennett drowned, or Martin Atkinson, whose brother David died, had been begging Panama for answers.
    Contrast this to airline accident reports, which are required by the International Civil Aviation Organization to be made "publicly available as soon as possible and if possible within twelve months."
    Nearly 70% of ships today fly a flag that has nothing to do with their crew, owner or route. These open registries, or flags of convenience, can be good, but they can also allow unscrupulous flag states and owners to easily slip away from responsibility. El Faro flew a U.S. flag, so a report, let us hope, will be swift and comprehensive.
    But this was a 40-year-old ship. However experienced her captain and crew, however unlucky they were to coincide with the eye of a hurricane, there is always one inescapable truth of humans' relationship with the sea: In a contest -- such as the ship having mechanical failure, as El Faro reportedly did -- the sea usually wins.
    That's why we should mourn the missing of El Faro and its crew. But we should also learn to value and salute the 1.5 million seafarers who risk their lives to bring us 90% of everything, day in, day out, in all weather, for little thanks, and at great and constant risk. Much that is wrong with shipping could be improved if more of us learned to better see the sea.