Skip

The Container Ship
February 22, 2011 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Container ships are the backbone of today's globalized world. Many people seem to be unaware of the invisible but pivotal role that they and their Merchant Navy staff play in our daily lives. One reporter spends five weeks at sea, and the resulting piece is an enlightening surprise.
posted by beisny (42 comments total) 93 users marked this as a favorite

 
My father was in the US Merchant Marine, and witnessed the end of an era. There used to be an actual US merchant fleet, but that no longer really exists - the ships are all flagged in Liberia now. This is my chance to plug John McPhee's Looking for a Ship, which I thought was a very good book on the subject.
posted by me & my monkey at 2:50 PM on February 22, 2011 [10 favorites]


"The Box" is a surprisingly engaging book about the history of the shipping container.
posted by GuyZero at 3:01 PM on February 22, 2011


Ooh, lovely post. Am fascinated by this stuff.
posted by everichon at 3:08 PM on February 22, 2011


Fun fact: Unions fought against containerized freight.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:10 PM on February 22, 2011


Pause a moment to remember the containers and their drivers.
posted by koeselitz at 3:14 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even though the ships aren't US flagged, you frequently have to maintain a US crew if you're docking at US ports (not just US, lots of countries have this requirement).
posted by electroboy at 3:18 PM on February 22, 2011


I've been a passenger on a container ship from Cape town to Felixstow it was a rather awesome way to travel. Oh and the story's my granddad tells about the days he was in the merchant navy, traveling form Liverpool all over the world and back.
posted by Virtblue at 3:23 PM on February 22, 2011


me & my monkey is right -- "Looking for a Ship" should be an entry in those perennial AskMe "I'm looking for compelling nonfiction" questions. It's good reading. I just checked the year of publication, which turns out to be 1991. It seems that the Merchant Marine was in decline even then.

me & my monkey, I hope you'll put together a post about the U.S. Merchant Marine and your dad's experiences in it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:27 PM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


If I ever make the jump to move back home, I've always hoped I might be able to do it on a container ship between Japan and California. In my fantasy, having a large stateroom as described in so many articles about them, I'd have a much easier time of getting my stuff home. I'd be able to decompress and get used to not being in Japan, then, when the time came, I would be more ready to be in America. Then, from the port, I'd get a rental truck and drive back to Chicago.

Of course, things are a lot more strict now, fewer shipping lines allow passengers. It's still a nice dream.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:27 PM on February 22, 2011


Fun fact: Unions fought against containerized freight.

So, in "The Box" they touch on two reasons for this:

One, containerized freight is much, much less labour-intensive in the ports.

Two, a lot of older ports couldn't handle containerized freight. All those old piers in New York City? They once handled a LOT of ocean freight. And were capable of handling approx. zero large containers. So entire ports were closed in the transition.

Containerized freight was essentially the end for stevedores/longshoremen as an entire category of work. While I generally think unions have positive benefits, they also have an unfortunate tendency to try to maintain jobs in defunct industries which is pretty much an unwinable battle.
posted by GuyZero at 3:28 PM on February 22, 2011 [8 favorites]


I once knew a guy named Steve Dores.
posted by tumid dahlia at 3:32 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wired did a big writeup on shipping containers awhile back. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting this. My great-grandfather was also in the Merchant Marine, and I'm sorry I never got a chance to ask him more about that time in his life. Or the tats that resulted from it.
posted by jquinby at 3:36 PM on February 22, 2011


fascinating subject, thanks fo posting! If you would like to learn more about containers, this wired article is relevant to your interests as well: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.10/ports.html
posted by 3mendo at 3:39 PM on February 22, 2011


If I ever make the jump to move back home, I've always hoped I might be able to do it on a container ship between Japan and California.

I really, really hate trans-oceanic flying. I can just about stand going across the US, but being crammed in a seat for 12+ hours kills me (not to mention the resulting flu that always lays me up for a week afterwards). I've sworn that the next long trip I take, I'm going by boat. Plus I get to avoid the TSA that way, so, bonus.
posted by curious nu at 3:45 PM on February 22, 2011


The one thing I'm always amazed by when you look at things like container ships and the facilities that offload them is the scale. These things are huge.

Some of those ships are getting up to around 400 meters long. (To put this in perspective, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier is 332.8 meters.)

These are really, really big vehicles. And the docks that deal with them are equally insane.
posted by quin at 3:47 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Your shipment of FAIL has arrived. <morning the img tag>
posted by jeffburdges at 3:48 PM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I am enthralled with the first age. i eat this stuff up.

Oh and: GSV Maersk, you can call me Derek
posted by Splunge at 3:53 PM on February 22, 2011


Page, cap I ::damn::
posted by Splunge at 3:53 PM on February 22, 2011


The shipment of morning will arrive tomorrow mourning.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 3:58 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


You might want to check out the short film by the director of Sleep Dealer, Alex Rivera, called Container City. He brings the containers to light really well.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 3:58 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]




I considered the merchant navy once. I decided against it when I found out it wasn't the continuous vodka drinking I'd thought it'd be.
posted by run"monty at 4:19 PM on February 22, 2011


While it's about the public's view of armed forces, this was brought to mind by "Merchant navy, scum of the earth."

Tommy by Kipling

I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
posted by Splunge at 4:20 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fun fact: Unions fought against containerized freight.

So, in "The Box" they touch on two reasons for this


Third reason - things "fell off" of ships in a way they did not from containers. One of the early adopters of the new technology was liquer merchants who found that spillage and breakage and shrinkage plummeted once they started putting scotch inside shipping containers.

The unions still got a nice package for their members, so no tears for them. Albeit bottles of scotch were not part of the deal

Oh, and plus, the new lords of the Panama canal, are widening the passage to accommodate even bigger ships with yet more containers.

I just checked the year of publication, which turns out to be 1991. It seems that the Merchant Marine was in decline even then.

Depends what you mean by decline. US shippers, sure. Priced out of the market. Seventies depression didn't help either. Other places, well, some've done quite nicely thanks very much
posted by IndigoJones at 4:28 PM on February 22, 2011


Related post
posted by hortense at 4:41 PM on February 22, 2011


Plus they discard shipping containers which I, living in a rural area, know many people who have bought and repurposed.

A guy out by my aunt's place has welded two together side-by-side into a goat barn. And the other day at the feed store I fell into a conversation with someone who turned his into a luxury-sized chicken coop.
posted by ErikaB at 5:38 PM on February 22, 2011


Third reason - things "fell off" of ships in a way they did not from containers.

Yep, heard just that from old guys I occasionally hang with on the waterfront.

A fourth reason is geographical, there just is no room in many ports. Just no space even if they could've torn down entire neighborhoods, thus many ports/unions knew they would be largely out of the business.
posted by sammyo at 5:42 PM on February 22, 2011


Brick version ...
posted by carter at 6:01 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cute little yellow, blue and green things falling off container ships contribute to our scientific understanding of the oceans.

p.s. In the late '80s, during a business trip to Germany, I had the chance to go onboard a large Hapag-Lloyd container ship while it was docked in Hamburg. It had a freakin' bar on board for the crew - complete with a beer tap and cut glass steins. Somewhere in my files I have a photo of a much younger me hoisting a frosty cold one and a couple of crew members. That was a good day.
posted by webhund at 6:31 PM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


At the very end of the essay, on pirates:
There are usually 30 or so frigates patrolling at any one time, but the distances involved are dizzying. A NATO commander recently compared his job to "patrolling Western Europe with a couple of police cars."
If there were still unions for the workers involved, I'd bet they'd strike all to hell unless those ships were turned into fortresses, which seems to me to be a logical solution to the problem. Take care of your workers. Every shipper would jump up and down about costs but fact is you'd pay another five bucks for your laptop or whatever, $1.22 instead of $0.99 for some trinket in your local walmart, no one would miss the few extra bucks and the workers would be safe and the pirates would cut it out, get back to sending emails trying to scam fools or whatever it was they were doing beforehand.

There have been trials in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States, but those were show trials, and expensive ones at that. ... When, last year, it was revealed that the Russian navy had set 10 pirates adrift with no navigation aids in the middle of the Indian Ocean, there was little surprise in the shipping world. It's one way of dealing with them.

Russians are just so red-neck. Primatives. Jesus. I admire them, but I would not want to play hockey with them, or soccer, or anything else. Probably the only reason they didn't kill the pirates is because they didn't want to waste the bullets.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:33 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nah, couldn't be that. Pirates come with bullets.
posted by ryanrs at 6:39 PM on February 22, 2011


Shipping containers also allow intermodal freight transport, which basically enables the "land bridge application" (same wiki page) and relies less on the major canal crossings. Note the newer double stack on special train cars which has dramatically increased US rail revenue lately.
posted by Brian B. at 6:49 PM on February 22, 2011


You guys saw Season 2 of The Wire, right?
posted by emd3737 at 7:59 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


You guys saw Season 2 of The Wire, right?

Yes, it is actually my favorite season. Thanks for making the connection, it is a good one.

One thing I remember well is the Frank Sobotka's horror at seeing the presentiation on the modernized port in Rotterdam, one that is even more automated and that therefore requires even fewer dockworkers.

Is this another example of unions resisting progress as they did with the container?

One thing I can say, if you have ever been involved in a business that depends on container shipments for its inventory, and especially if there is a seasonality to the shipment or a limited shelf life, there is nothing quite as frustrating as a home port that sees many strikes. The delays caused by even a two-week strike will reverberate for months.
posted by beisny at 10:00 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


If there were still unions for the workers involved, I'd bet they'd strike all to hell unless those ships were turned into fortresses

I was hanging out with some Filipino sailors and I got them talking about pirates. A few of them had had freighters captured by pirates more than once.
The first surprise was that pirates didn't touch the crews personal belongings at all, didn't even steal their watches or wallets.
The second was that the freighter company kept paying them their regular salary while they were waiting to be ransomed.

So basically the crews have no reason at all to fight back.
posted by Iax at 10:12 PM on February 22, 2011


Whenever I hear about shipping, I think of this AskMeFi thread, in particular this comment.
posted by knile at 10:58 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


If there were still unions for the workers involved, I'd bet they'd strike all to hell unless those ships were turned into fortresses, which seems to me to be a logical solution to the problem. Take care of your workers. Every shipper would jump up and down about costs but fact is you'd pay another five bucks for your laptop or whatever, $1.22 instead of $0.99 for some trinket in your local walmart, no one would miss the few extra bucks and the workers would be safe and the pirates would cut it out, get back to sending emails trying to scam fools or whatever it was they were doing beforehand.

- There are some unions involved. Whether or not they do much is possibly a subject for debate.

- Turning a ship into a fortress is probably quite a tricky thing to do. Yeah, easy to say, but how? It's normal practice to lock down as much as possible in areas with a risk of piracy (doors that can only be opened from the inside and so on), but you still need to see out of the windows to see where you're going, so that's a wraparound point of weakness right there. Shipping companies are increasingly hiring armed security guards for the high-risk sections of their routes. Technologies exist such as electric fences that can be attached around ships I can't get that page to open right now but ymmv. Some people are using sonic weapons. Articles often make reference to using fire hoses against pirates, but most people think normal fire hoses would be a bit ... ineffective (you'd just end up with damp, annoyed pirates). Fire monitors, aka deluge guns according to wikipedia anyway, can however put out a ton or so of water per second, and can be quite handy if your ship has them (most likely on tankers/gas carriers/oil industry support vessels).

- Some companies have been paying danger money for a few years now. CMA CGM (the third largest container shipping company in the world) added a surcharge two years ago to cover increased costs of security in the Gulf of Aden (the rate quoted is USD 23 per small container, presumably 46 per large one).

Here, have a list of piracy events (all mixed in with other ad things that can happen to ships: Daily Vessel Casualty, Piracy & News Report 2011. From the linked page, The increasing range and violence of Somali pirates has resulted in many tankers and LNG carriers making significant rerouting around the Indian Ocean, making west of longitude 73 degrees. An extra 6 days are being added to voyages to the U.S. The trend is highlighted by AIS satellite imgaery showing tonnage hugging the coast of Pakistan and then India. High speed container vessels trading through the Suez Canal between Europe and Asia are one of the few vessel types that can take on the journey through the middle of the Indian Ocean. Experts warn that even such extreme rerouting may does not eliminate risk of Somalian pirates; the Arabian Sea is still proving a danger area. [13-2-11]

And now I'm going to RTFA. I've never been to places where piracy is an issue, but I know people who have. All ships regardless of type or trading area are required to have 'piracy and security drills' a few times a year; the last one I took part in described our strategy as 'in case of pirate attack, put the kettle on, make a cake, and offer them Ian's iphone'. Ian was the only person who saw anything wrong with this idea....
posted by Lebannen at 2:52 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]




My Dad was in the UK Merchant Navy for most of his working life but was forced back on land into menial shore jobs when the whole industry seized up in the 80s (thanks mainly to M. Thatcher, if I recall). I travelled with him a little as a kid in the early 70s on a 7,000 or so tonner called the Katsina Palm. The life the article describes doesn't seem that much different to how it was back then. Oil and Water didn't mix much then either, though we did have a fully functional (and much patronised) bar on board which made for a more sociable atmosphere. And instead of DVDs, we had a 16mm projector and three films including 633 Squadron and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Thanks so much for posting this. I have nothing but respect for these guys, even now....
posted by peterkins at 5:32 AM on February 23, 2011


Really interesting; here is an article about arming merchant seamen that you might find worthwhile.

Although I don't know a lot of the details in how global shipping works, I am pretty familiar with those containers. The road I live on is one of the routes between the ports in GA (Savannah and Brunswick) and upstate South Carolina. Those containers are trucked past me all day long; when the economy tanked a couple of years ago I knew it was serious when the container trucks all but disappeared from highway 28. As things have improved they have begun to return, slowly at first, but in larger numbers as time goes by.
posted by TedW at 7:59 AM on February 23, 2011


'Its failure to stop was described by the Maritime Investigation Bureau as "illegal, immoral and against all the actions of the sea." '

Should read 'Its failure to stop was described by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch as "illegal, immoral and against all the traditions of the sea." ' (The report).
posted by James Scott-Brown at 9:43 AM on February 23, 2011


While I was working at Whole Foods as a cheesemonger in the 90s, a container of Havarti fell off a container ship during a storm in the middle of the ocean. This meant the entire U.S. supply of Havarti went dry for several weeks. When people asked, I told them Neptune wanted a snack.
posted by jocelmeow at 1:23 PM on February 27, 2011


« Older Static at Rest: RIP Dwayne McDuffie   |   It's kind of like Minecraft... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post