I had prepared for isolation and boredom at sea. Packed books I’d long been meaning to read (Ghetto at the Center of the World, The Handmaid’s Tale). Brought some thematically-appropriate films to watch (All Is Lost, Leviathan, Captain Phillips).
Passing through immigration on the way to boarding the ship I made use of the last pocket of wifi to send a few farewell messages and check in to the port’s Foursquare venue. I was looking forward to ignoring email for a bit.
Aboard the ship there are amenities to help pass the time. A gym, a (tiny) swimming pool, and a basketball hoop down on the poop deck. There’s a library, the size of a broom cupboard, stocked with DVDs, paperbacks, and a few old VHS cassettes. A broad mix of films. And the Gossip Girl: The Complete Series boxset; it was helpful to have watched a few episodes on the Aeroflot flight before joining the ship.
In the past, the ships were sent a film on reels, a new movie shown communally every two weeks. Then it changed. The ship was given a budget to buy its own VHS and DVDs when calling in port. Nowadays folks fill up hard drives with content when ashore to watch on their laptops.
With people on different contract lengths and starting on different dates, it makes chatting about TV shows over the dinner table tricky. We passengers have to avoid spoiling plots, working out how far behind each individual is on Game of Thrones.
There are a few communal computers in the meeting room. Before boarding I’d heard the internet connections aboard container ships were strictly for work email and remotely monitoring the ship. So I was surprised to find that the wifi aboard the Seletar was open for the whole crew to use.
“They join the company for the internet,” Captain Argent informs us. When you’re spending months away from friends and family it’s a very welcome amenity, and a helpful selling point when persuading crew to work on Maersk.
There’s a cap on how much bandwidth the ship can use per week. Watching a few brief YouTube videos would be enough to use the entire allocation. To prevent hitting the cap the wireless is only switched on for some hours of the day. Roughly around meal times at 0600″”0900, 1200″”1300, and 1800″”2100.
The internet connection is slow. Very slow. Dial-up slow. After dinner is the worst, with many of the crew off duty and trying to connect. Email and basic web pages work OK. Facebook is fine. Anything that uses web fonts is a no go. I watch fellow passenger Liam Young, one of the trip’s organizers, spend a frustrating three hours trying to fill in an online form, only to be stumped by a Captcha image that failed to load.
We trade tips on the best spots and techniques for good wifi. Perched outside the E deck meeting room. Sitting in the stairwell on C deck. Tilt your phone. Stand under the access points. The usual superstitions that come with a temperamental connection. The connection between the ship and the satellite backhaul seems fast enough; rather the problem seems to be down to wifi signals struggling with the ship’s metal structure.
As the week goes on the Internet connection improves. The ship has switched to a faster, newly-installed satellite link. One that presumably doesn’t go through the vintage Inmarsat terminal in the radio room, which has a green CRT screen and a floppy disk drive. The Wi-Fi is now left on 24 hours a day, reducing the congestion from everyone trying to use it at the same time.
The ship’s satellite broadband isn’t the only way of getting online. As we visit China’s Eastern coastal ports new wifi networks appear on the ship from 3G routers. Traveling along the coast between ports the ship stays a safe distance from the shore, but sometimes mobile phone signals stretch out far enough as we pass islands.
When alongside at Yangshan, the world’s busiest container port, two enterprising chaps visit the ship with goods to sell the crew. They spread out their selection on the upper deck. SIM cards, 3G routers, Android tablets, and not-quite-Beats-branded bluetooth speakers. Ways of keeping in touch and staying entertained. SIM cards are activated on the spot and trimmed down to micro- or nano-SIM sizes to fit your existing phone.
What there isn’t onboard is a bar. No alcohol is allowed and crew can’t be under the influence when returning from shore leave.
The lament about the lack of alcohol is that now crews don’t get to know each other. Instead they retire to their cabins to use the internet. From whisky to wifi.
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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Postcards From A Supply Chain follows Dan Williams as he traces consumer goods back through the global shipping system to their source. It was organized by the Unknown Fields Division, a group of architects, academics, and designers at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London.