January 28, 2007

The shipping container

It was February 1997, and the seas around Britain were fierce as the Tokio Express, a majestic but ageing cargo liner, passed within 20 miles of Land's End. Like most such vessels, it was stacked high with hundreds of anonymous 20 and 40ft shipping containers. The details of what was inside would have been barely known to the crew, or to the port workers who had hoisted them aboard. It was only because a sudden wave struck the Tokio, rocking it to one side and pitching 62 containers into the sea, that the contents of one of the boxes became briefly famous. It held almost 5m pieces of Lego, including, appropriately enough, 42,000 miniature plastic octopuses and 26,000 tiny yellow lifejackets. "They still haven't turned up in North America, though we do expect they will," says Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle-based oceanographer who monitors the journeys taken by spilt cargo, to track ocean currents. "Sometimes the sea just swallows things up and holds on to them for a long time."


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