It is estimated that 97 per cent of all trade – the things we buy in shops – will have been transported in containers by ships at sea. The container vessel, stacked high with uniformly-sized metal boxes, has become a symbol of our globalised world. This is a world of imports and exports, a world where moving things across huge distances keeps the price of daily commodities low as items are manufactured in one place, then packaged in another, before arriving on the shores where they will eventually be sold.
In recent geographical literature, attention has turned to the world at sea – a space traditionally overlooked. Geography means ‘Earth-writing’ and geographers have taken the origins of the term very seriously. They have written primarily about the Earth: the ground, the soil, the land. The sea is something ‘out there’ – seemingly disconnected from our everyday lives. However, an appreciation of the world as made from flows and connections has enabled geography to recognise that the sea is essential to our landed life. This is brought into even greater focus with the advent of sea level rise, something which threatens the landed existence of those living in low-laying settlements around the world.
In the move towards understanding and studying maritime space, the container vessel has loomed large in the discussion. After all, it is the mode of transport that has helped create a globalised world of trade, keeping the world of commerce moving. The modern intermodal-container – a technology developed in the late 1950s – enabled more things to be moved, and moved more quickly. Items to be imported/exported were packaged into standard sized boxes which could be lifted to and from ships (by standard cranes, the same the world over) swiftly and efficiently. This, Craig Martin argues, has created seamless movement – smoothly connecting ships with shores. However, crediting the container ship (and its containers) as being solely responsible for making our global world forgets the very mechanisms by which those vessels (and their cargo) are able to move. Things never just move. They move because movement is enabled. Things stop moving if movement is restricted.
“It is worth thinking not only about the container ship that brought items to our shores – but also the maritime motorways via which the ship has likely travelled”
When we look at the ocean, we often see a blue space, an empty void on the map, a zone which simply connects land masses. But, in fact, oceans are as mapped as the land is. There are routes by which ships travel. Ships do not just sail the seas and hope to reach their destination. Routes are planned. They are followed. Some routes are deeply established. For those that are very well recognised, we might think of them as motorways – maritime motorways – by which ships move as quickly and safely as possible. Consider a journey you might make by car. You want to reach your destination as fast as you possibly can. You probably wouldn’t choose to follow country or B-roads. You would head for the motorway. Here you can travel faster, and typically in a more direct route. Ships are no different. When the container ship was invented it marked an important shift. These ships were bigger and faster than any had been before. They were designed to connect people and goods with efficient ease. It was necessary, therefore, to build maritime highways – alongside these ships – to ensure they could move safely and swiftly.
It might seem odd to speak of ‘building’ a motorway at sea. On land, we can see our motorways. They are concrete, real things. At sea they are invisible infrastructures. We can’t see them with the naked eye, but they are there and are marked on nautical maps. In the 1960s, when container ships were developing, so too was developed a scheme for creating these motorways. These bigger and faster ships were less manoeuvrable. They took longer to slow down. They were also more susceptible to causing catastrophic events if they were involved in a collision – with another ship, or with a sandbank. Realising this, a pan-European Working Group was set up to examine how these ships could travel more safely and securely – connecting start point with destination.
The group was driven into action by a series of collisions in the Dover Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways. They established a routing measure – a maritime motorway – which split vessel traffic into lanes. One lane travelled northeast to Northern Europe, the other southwest, out to the Atlantic. This landmark scheme – of creating a watery highway for ships – has now ‘gone global’. There are currently over 400 maritime motorways (officially called ‘Traffic Separation Schemes’) worldwide.
So when you next think about the clothes you are wearing, the shoes on your feet, the mobile phone in your pocket, the car you drive, the bike you ride or the food on your plate – it is worth thinking not only the container ship that brought these items to our shores – but also the maritime motorways via which the ship has likely travelled. These invisible, intangible ‘roads’ are out there and being used as we speak, guiding ships to shores and keeping our global world moving.