In Ocean Scale

To this day ships’ captains, whether of great vessels or the smallest cargo boats, mark their locations in pencil on paper maps. These charts show shore features, anchorages and water depths, and while most ships have satellite systems, officers still use the paper versions to keep track of their journeys. When one thinks of shipping it is difficult to avoid a feeling of anachronism, if not nostalgia, and visions of seadogs measuring beam and draft. Seafaring comes with its own arcana: rhumb lines and azimuths, derricks and davits. There is something appealingly premodern about the very idea of it, in contrast to the indignities of modern air travel. But the tankers, container ships and bulk carriers of today’s merchant shipping are very far from being throwbacks. The largest of them are 400 meters long: that is, bigger than most skyscrapers. Freight “mega-ships” can carry over 10,000 20-foot-equivalent (TEU) standard containers (the units are defined by their lengths). They are too big to dock in many North American ports. They exist in ocean scale, a size beyond the grasp of landlubbers.

June 18