As Idle as a Painted Ship

Over at ’The Disorder of Things’, guest blogger Charmaine Chua presented a fascinating piece of ethnographic research, detailing her travels as a passenger on a container ship. The researcher’s journey was from Los Angeles, USA to Taipei, Taiwan. At €100 per night, given that it takes around a month to make a one-way trip, this is never going to challenge business class air transport… but I have to admit that I’m envious. Just imagine how much writing you could get done in all those days of sea and sky! Above all, though, it’s a window on the fascinating and seldom-seen world of the merchant marine. Few jobs have changed as much as this one, where sailors once talked of shore leave in exotic destinations and now grind their way endlessly around the globe, on bigger ships with smaller crews…

Chua anonymised the vessel that transported her, and its crew, which is a good thing for a researcher to do when describing how the people she studied earn their livelihood. For the ship, she chose the fictional name ‘Ever Cthulhu’, which I have to admit grew on me as I read my way through the five-part series. There should be more ships named after Lovecraftian monsters.

The life of a modern-day seaman, as described, doesn’t appear to be an attractive choice. As Samuel Johnson once said, “Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” It seems the largely Filipino crew concur as they liken a typical cycle of six months at sea to being incarcerated. I already knew that a shipboard life could be grim (I spent some time studying the lot of workers in the cruise industry last year…) but I think that life on a cargo vessel is possibly worse, because there’s less of a requirement to keep up appearances.

Of greatest interest to me was the description of the “traffic jams” and delays experienced at the west coast ports of Tacoma, Oakland and Los Angeles, with many ships waiting days to dock and then suffering through a lengthy process of unloading and loading. It appears that while bigger and bigger ships make sense from a purely economic viewpoint, what works on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. Even with a gargantuan effort to modernise ports in order to accommodate the new generation of megaships (because no port wants to find itself sidelined) the efforts to dredge channels deeper and raise cranes higher doesn’t guarantee success. The whole logistic system needs to keep pace, including the road and rail services… and something isn’t working.

Cargo ships at anchor

Cargo ships at anchor near Los Angeles [photo: Los Angeles Times]

“Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean.”

This little bit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (as you might expect, it’s from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner) gave me the title for today’s blog post. Anyway, back to Chua and her observations:

“Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2½ to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.”

As a person who likes to use simulation to investigate logistics problems, this is fascinating. I’m itching to construct some models, and investigate the bottlenecks in a system that is worsening as a result of ever-larger ships introducing increasingly lumpy arrival patterns. It’s a problem that might get still worse with the completion of a third set of locks on the Panama canal; present-day vessels taking that route are constrained to specifications that have remained unchanged since the canal opened a century ago, but the new construction will permit an increase from the present Panamax constraint of around 5,000 TEU to a new limit of perhaps 13,000 TEU. There is also work underway to construct another canal, cutting through Nicaragua… and there are plans afoot to expand the Suez canal as well.

Panamax ship


In Tacoma, when no dockworkers arrive to unload the Ever Cthulhu, Chua opines that “a quiet port is logistics’ nightmare”. More accurately perhaps, it’s the simultaneous arrival of 8,100 twenty-foot equivalent units at a single berth that is the nightmare. If everything was to be loaded onto trucks, you’d have a queue almost sixty-five kilometres long… but that isn’t to say that trucks are always the bottleneck. If anybody that’s reading wants to offer some data (or assistance, or funding!) for a piece of research by simulation, consider me interested.

Chua claims that a failure to shift cargo at the rate that port employers would like to achieve is down to problems of infrastructure, and that dockworkers are scapegoated. This is borne out by observers such as Bloomberg Business, who report:

“While most of the attention around the port crisis has focused on labor, the cargo bottlenecks predate the labor stalemate and will outlast a settlement … Backups began in August, about two months before the Pacific Maritime Association accused unionized dockworkers of deliberately slowing down cargo movement.”

It seems that nobody is terribly happy in the 21st century box-shifting industry, and that’s important. Along with a failure to handle all the goods now arriving, and the facts and figures detailing environmental concerns such as the toxicity of heavy fuel oil, the toxic nature of “sludge” and the disposal of grey water and food waste by offshore dumping, there’s a human cost being paid by those who perform lonely, often menial and sometimes dangerous jobs, with little or no job security. In the industry we depend upon for the transportation of 90% of the world’s freight, that’s something that needs to be understood.


2 thoughts on “As Idle as a Painted Ship

  1. Thanks for stopping by Charmaine! I really was intrigued by your voyage… and if I ever manage to achieve my dream of building my own boat, I’m probably going to have to give it a monstrous name. (Nyarlathotep…?)

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