“There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea”. So said renowned Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad in his controversial 1900 novel, Lord Jim.
Sailors from decades past said that without shipping half the world would freeze to death, the other half would starve to death.
It is a grand, dramatic statement, I agree, but it is not too far from the truth: according to the International Chamber of Shipping, an astonishing 90% of world trade is carried by the global shipping industry.
Carrying goods by sea has provided employment opportunities – and, not to mention, danger, adventure and escape – to countless restless souls since Prehistory. The romantic in me loves the fact that I report on an industry with an unbroken tradition of millennia.
At sea you could earn a living, but also run away from your problems. You could change your name and start your life anew and become – as Nikos Kavvadias, a wonderful Greek poet and writer, who also happened to be a telegraphist on board commercial ships, put it – “the perfect, unworthy lover of the endless voyage and azure ocean.”
You could also lose your life at sea. Divers will often come across cargo that got lost in a shipwreck: from ancient Greek amphorae in the depths of the Mediterranean, to golden Spanish coins in the Caribbean and French champagne bottles at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
They are relics of trade from times gone by, testament to the tastes and needs – and to say nothing of the greed – of people long departed.
And let’s not forget there were dark times, not too long ago, when even human beings were considered cargo and shipped from one shore to another to be sold like any other commodity.
Today much of the cargo modern commercial vessels carry does not sound very glamorous – urea and petroleum coke don’t really have the same ring as spices, tea and mastic – but shipping remains an exciting and vibrant business to be involved in.
I talk to people who work in the maritime industry on a daily basis, from charterers to shipbrokers to owners and operators.
Yes, arranging for your cargo to be taken from the US Gulf to the Far East, or mediating between an owner and charterer who are at loggerheads, or trying to find a stem for your vessel in a loading area that has five other ships competing for it, can be as stressful as any other job.
Much of this work is done staring at a screen in an office like any other, with an uninspiring commute to negotiate.
However, any person involved in all this, from Piraeus to Copenhagen, from New York to Singapore, will tell you that there is something wondrous about a business that deals with transporting grain, or oil, or – yes, urea – between two ports that sometimes lie at opposite sides of the world.
The people I talk to in the dry bulk industry are often ex-seafarers – yes, they do swear like seafarers – or are the sons and daughters of brokers and sea captains, or got involved in shipping because it sounded like an interesting industry, only to catch the shipping “bug” and, years later, can no longer imagine working in any other sector.
The vast majority of them are passionate about shipping, which explains why the dry bulk sector’s recent bearishness has left them heavy-hearted. I can tell this from the tone of their voice over the phone.
Granted, dry bulk owners and shipping companies got carried away in recent years, partly because of China’s vast appetite for a variety of commodities this past decade, and ordered too many ships.
Cargoes have been falling well short of supply, which lies at the core of what has been a lackluster performance by the dry bulk freight sector for over a year.
Yes, dry bulk has a long way to go before it returns to some semblance of health.
But while it may take years for a rebalance to be reached, something tells me that those hard-working men and women who work in this thrilling industry will remain faithful to that little bit of romance they harbor in their hearts and that first drew them in. After all, they still have to ensure that half the world gets fed and half the world is kept warm.