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Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Brings You 90% of Everything, by Rose George, Portobello, RRP14.99, 320 pages (Published in the US by Metropolitan Books as ‘Ninety Percent of Everything’)

The aged ship Danny F II was ferrying live cattle and sheep from Uruguay to Syria when it sank off the coast of Lebanon in December 2009, with the loss of just over half the 83 people on board. For relatives of the missing, answers proved elusive: the vessel, operated by a company based in Cairo but flying a flag of convenience, had been in international waters when it went down. As the journalist Rose George explains in Deep Sea and Foreign Going, legally it was “a small part of Panama, floating in no-man’s sea”.

Such stories are all too common, writes George, and yet we rarely hear them. Her subtitle, “Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Brings You 90% of Everything”, makes the point succinctly that we should.

Deep Sea and Foreign Going is structured around George’s experience on the Kendal, a cargo ship that she boards in the English port of Felixstowe for the five-week trip to Singapore. She is there as a guest of Danish shipping giant AP Møller-Maersk, which has an interest in lobbying against “sea blindness” – the under-appreciation of an industry that, just in the UK, employs half a million people and makes up 2 per cent of the economy.

It’s not only the public who can be sea blind. A Scottish cadet she meets on the Kendal is sceptical of her choice of topic: “But it’s boring,” he tells her. George, whose last book was about the politics and economics of human waste disposal, is up for the challenge of proving him wrong.

In inviting George on board, Maersk also shows that it is blue-chip enough to be confident in the face of a journalist’s scrutiny. That openness, George writes, makes it stand out. Elsewhere in the industry, ships fly the flags of landlocked or war-torn states to avoid regulations, carry crews of Filipino and Chinese sailors hired by third-party staffing agencies who blacklist them if they complain, and are often owned by “family companies who maintain a level of privacy that make a Swiss banker seem verbose”.

Opacity creates opportunities for abuse, and not just with respect to the seafarers. In 2003, depleted uranium was shipped from Jakarta to Los Angeles without being detected – thankfully, by journalists writing an exposé of gaps in the industry’s security. Still, as George writes, only 5 per cent of the 17m containers landing in the US each year are inspected.

Journeying aboard the Kendal gives George a vivid view of how economic pressures have changed the rhythms of sea life. The affable English captain may wax lyrical about sextants and stevedores, but he works on a ship full of stackable containers designed to be shifted so quickly that hardly any time is spent in port. That means limited shore leave for crew who are cooped up inside for weeks.

After the financial crisis, an industry already suffering from thin margins was hit hard by collapsing global trade. Shipping costs fell so much that Maersk was no longer providing napkins for the Kendal’s mess.

George could have explored the economics of the industry further, training the same careful eye she brings to the Kendal on the decision makers themselves. But this is just a quibble and, as her ship arrives in Singapore, we realise she has reached her destination in more ways than one. Few readers will be left in any doubt as to the importance of this opaque industry on which we all depend.

Sarah Mishkin is the FT’s Taipei correspondent

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