Most people go about their daily lives never thinking about how the goods they use every day end up in their home. World trade is bigger today than ever before in history, and 98 percent of everything that comes to the United States and most other countries arrive by sea. Only passengers and some very small packages arrive by airplane. Giant tankers weighing as much as 330,000 tons carry crude oil for refineries. Smaller product tankers take gasoline jet fuel, and heating oil from refineries, to our nearby ports for distribution. Bulk carriers as large as 440,000 tons transport iron ore, coal, alumina, corn and wheat, and other “dry” commodities. Car carriers- big floating 13 deck parking garages- carry as many as 8000 automobiles. Containerships- today the worlds biggest ships – can carry as many as 20,000 containers, each the size of an 18 wheel truck. Millions of these containers packed full of manufactured goods arrive each year.
But shipping is a “hidden” industry unless you happen to live on the shoreline in a major seaport. Ships spend over 90 percent of their lives at sea over the horizon, only seen by other ships or curious dolphins. In the days before high seas radio was invented by Marconi, when a ship left port one of two things happened: she arrived safely at her destination, or she was never heard from again. Over the centuries thousands of ships and hundreds of thousands of sailors have disappeared. About 110 years ago, radio and the use of Morse code changed all that. The famous tragedy of the Titanic in 1912 was not the first use of radio for rescue, but it was the most famous “SOS” in history. The ocean liner Carpathia heard the SOS and arrived a few hours later to rescue about 700 survivors of the original 2000.
Merchant (non-military) ships generally have a crew of 20-25 trained mariners of many nationalities. These professional sailors live pretty isolated lives when they are on board, connected to the world through satellite communications only. Typically a sailor serves on board for about six months then rotates home. Most mariners are men, although women are now getting more involved in seagoing careers. There can be a lot of stress on families given the separation, so the increasing availability of satellite communications is a good thing. It is through satellite that Rich Wilson will be communicating with all of us during the Vendée Globe. But he will still be pretty alone and lonely in some very remote parts of the Earth, where the nearest rescue will be his fellow competitors.