As the recent navigational debacle involving the Ever Given has shown, there’s nothing like a global shipping disaster to capture public attention. Think the Titanic. Or Waterworld. Each one invoking Plato’s original #ShipOfFools as sublime parables of #Logistics in governing (or rather, in wrecking) “the good life.”
Now that the Ever Given has been dislodged from the Suez Canal and by extension, from our ephemeral digital hivemind, we invite you to take a brief detour into the dark archive of other #ShipOfFools for those who can’t get enough maritime disasters and what they reveal about logistical worlds. #CovidLogistics. #SoLogistical.
1. The Slave Ship, or The #Logistics of Maritime Commerce: Disasters involving slave ships on the high seas have long cast into relief the work of the actuarial sciences and the insurance industry in underwriting the logistics of maritime commercial transport, including the invention of the market in life insurance. This was perhaps most infamously captured by the 1781 disaster aboard the slave ship Zong and the protracted lawsuits and public debates over the value of the 131 slaves thrown overboard on that ship’s wind-tossed journey from the West African coast to Jamaica, for which the shipowners attempted to claim insurance money for the “lost” slaves. Cargo or human life? The birth of life insurance hedges those bets on the high seas and proclaims both as part of the business of maritime commerce. This #ShipOfFools tells us that life is calculable as both “commodity” and “risk” when people are in the logistical process of being transported.
2. The MS St. Louis, or The #Logistics of Border Control: The MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 was turned away from Cuba, the U.S. and Canada before returning to Europe. Over a quarter of the passengers eventually perished under the anti-Semitic regime of Hitler in what has retroactively been described as a shameful “humanitarian” disaster. Also known as “Voyage of the Damned,” the plight of the MS St. Louis took place before the international legal-bureaucratic regime around “the refugee” formed after World War II. A parable of the logistics of border control, this #ShipOfFools asks us to consider what it means to be stateless in an international political order governed by territorial nation-states.
3. Exxon Valdez, or The Logistics of Extractive Industries: The Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989 is considered the worst of its kind worldwide in terms of damage to the environment. This disaster brought into public view the complicated logistical business involved in relaying oil supplies from offshore worlds to our gas-guzzling markets of automobility. To this day, oil clings to shorelines along the Alaskan coast.
4. MV Doña Paz, or When Logistical Systems Collide: On December 20, 1987, the MV Doña Paz, a Japanese built and Philippine-registered passenger ferry, sank after colliding with the oil tanker Vector. The infamous “Asia’s Titanic” resulted in an estimated death toll of 4,386 people and only 25 survivors and remains the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in history. The Vector, reportedly carrying 8,800 US barrels of gasoline, ignited upon impact, giving way to a logistics and transportation disaster of deathly and horrendous proportions.
5. The Norovirus “Poop Cruise,” or The Logistics of Contagion: Cruise ships are basically the antithesis to “bubble spaces”—they are mobile “superspreaders” par excellence. Like jails and subway cars, they are incubators of contagion. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the most notorious cases of the outbreak to make international headlines involved the Diamond Princess cruise ship owned and operated by Princess Cruises. Passengers on the 16-day journey were eventually stranded for 39 days (employees stayed on even longer). 712 people out of 3,711 became infected and 14 people died. Even before the current pandemic, the logistical problem of contagion (and it’s contaminant) was exemplified by a disastrous series of “poop cruises” including, most notoriously, on board the Carnival Triumph in 2013. Over 4,000 passengers and crew members were stranded when a fire knocked out the power. The ship drifted for four days, the whole time without air conditioning, and largely without lights, water, food and working toilets. Sewage water soaked the carpets and people had to use plastic bags instead of toilets, leading the media to refer to the ship as the “poop cruise.”
These examples from cruises highlight the breakdown of systems of waste and contagion management in tight spaces like a ship. Bathrooms overflows highlight the logistics for managing waste (and its failures) in this form of contemporary travel, while the latter cases concerned with washing hands, protocols of hygiene, etc. and contagiousness further amplify this problem of germs and contagion.
6. The Terror (2018): AMC’s miniseries The Terror is a recent Hollywood production to go all-in on giant bear-like monsters. Based on the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons, The Terror depicts an expedition through Arctic waters where just about everything goes very wrong, very quickly. (Quartz)
7. Sea Fever (2019): A sci-fi thriller, Sea Fever, follows what happens to an Irish fishing trawler and its small crew when a mysterious infection hits them while out at sea. It captures the all-too-familiar pandemic related horrors of self-quarantine and negotiating interpersonal relationships in a tight space (a boat in this case). With a deadly pathogen on the loose, how will the humans fare?
8. Ship (2011): From oar-powered quinqueremes, to steam-powered freighters, to luxury ocean liners such as the Titanic, to aircraft carriers like the Abraham Lincoln, ships have played an integral role in trade, transportation, and war throughout history. Today, ships remain the largest and most expensive moving objects on the planet; engineers and designers constantly push the limits of design, creating vessels that continue to rival newer technologies such as airplanes and cars. But unlike other more common modes of transportation, the great ships of the world travel in the deep oceans, out of sight and out of mind—until, that is, something goes wrong. In Ship, Gregory Votolato explores the fiction and the reality of modern ships, the technology that creates them, and the events that can lead to disasters such as the Exxon Valdez or Amoco Cadiz. (Read more.)
9. The Wellerman (Sea Shanty) - From TikTok to Epic Remix
Inventoried by: Julie Chu, Harini Kumar, and Philana Woo