Book Review: Deep sea and foreign going. Inside shipping. The invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything by Rose George



Rose George took passage from Felixstowe to Singapore on board MAERSK KENDAL, noting her adventures and surrounding her account of the voyage with the results of research into the industry and seafaring, interview extracts, salty anecdotes and true stories, and her learning from seminars and conferences. Her stated aim was to explore “sea blindness”, a quote she attributes to the First Sea Lord – the ability of most of us not to understand where the majority of our heat, light, materials and food come from, and how it travels.

Written with sympathy, humour, precision, insight, compassion, and a spare, readable and engaging style, unsurprisingly for a first rate investigative journalist, this account concentrates on the human contribution to the industry, although she rejects the “human element” title some use. Perhaps she should investigate more closely the excellent (ALERT) work being done by the Nautical Institute and Lloyds Register and published inside Seaways, and the formality with which the IMO (and other bodies) include the consideration of the “human element” in every piece of their work, and in all submissions for work to be done. She describes the voyage well, and overlays it with sections about piracy, air and noise pollution, although mention of water pollution is strangely scant, seafarer welfare, regulation and enforcement, the perceived impotence of international bodies to act where necessary, the art and science of command, port operations, chaplaincy services, and search and rescue at sea. This has caused some reviewers (I have found over 20 reviews) to remark that she has been diverted from her central purpose into discussions of the environment, sustainability, and biodiversity.

This latter is, perversely, one of the central strengths of the book because it shows how the contemporary seafarer is compelled to concentrate on compliance with multiple collateral aspects of their profession almost certainly to the detriment of what used to be the core skills of seafaring, navigation, safe engineering, emergency response (damage control), husbandry and sound morale. For reviewers in the industry to have missed this point is a surprise.

She captures the loneliness, fatigue, isolation, boredom, motivation and frustration of the seafarers (and chaplains) she meets with considerable skill, and describes the lack of a social framework aboard (her single passage on a) ship and how it is limited by multi-nationality and many other factors.  Many shipping companies are now investing in satellite communications systems more specifically designed.

If there were to be a criticism it is that the anecdotes, historic stories, accident descriptions, and reports of seafarer abuse are themselves a little dated, and if her research and time had permitted there are seminal examples from the modern industry which would have provided better signposts and lessons on many aspects of safety, security and environmental protection. In amongst the manifold statistics she quotes, most of which are accurate if only their assumptions were more apparent, she might have noted one example of how safety culture is influenced in that a deep sea man-overboard drill in a container ship can cost $5,000 in fuel alone. She does, however, quote the unexceptional and very dangerous practice of the office e-mailing the ship to adjust its ETA (due to port berthing costs) without any reference to the master’s obligations to act within the IRPCS. I also noted that she did not have the opportunity to benchmark her experiences (or maybe to record what happened if she did) with a representative of the shipping company concerned – this is probably for the self-evident reason that it might weaken her account?

All credit to Maersk for allowing her on board – what about a maritime TV series à la Eddie Stobart to include shipping, ports, insurance, charterers, VTS, SAR, counter pollution, chaplains, meteorology, hydrography, etc etc?

From the list of acknowledgements we can tell that she has chosen to discount many factual corrections and additions that must have been offered to her, and kept the faith with her raw and quite compelling account of parts of the current industry, and that is much to her credit. When we read her chapters we feel that an inexperienced non-mariner has entered our world and perhaps embellished her account with understandable “reportage”, but that’s part of the force of her narrative as Michael Grey acknowledges in his review in Seaways. However, this is a remarkable, specific, broadly accurate, and arresting journal, readable in 2 days.

There is an excellent short (11 minutes) TED talk by Rose George at

Keith Tatman 

Published by: Portobello books

ISBN 978-1-84627-263-9

RRP: £14.99


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