on the Marin Headlands and look down on the Golden Gate, preferably in the
late afternoon when the sun is arcing toward the Farallones, and San
Francisco Bay and its encompassing cities are cast in a honey-colored light.
Gulls and pelicans are wheeling, and container ships and tankers are moving
in and out of the estuary. At such a moment, only an obsessive landlubber
will not feel the pull of the ocean and of the ships that traverse it. The
romance of the sea remains--though more for the recreational sailor or
dreamer, perhaps, than for the professional seaman. For those who actually
work at sea, life is onerous and the difficulties very real: pirates,
typhoons, and the ennui of a life defined by blue water, gritty ports, and
little else. Most ships entering U.S. ports fly foreign flags. The crews are
often overworked and underpaid, and even the minimal pleasures once afforded
by port calls are typically denied them. When a ship docks at Los Angeles or
Long Beach, the crew seldom if ever gets to visit Malibu or Hollywood;
instead they stay on board for the hours or days it takes to unload their
Roughly 90,000 commercial ships now ply the world’s
oceans, accounting for 90 percent of the goods imported and exported in
international trade. Fully 95 percent of the products imported to the United
States come by ship, and about 80 percent of those goods arrive through West
Coast ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, collectively the busiest
port in the United States and the fifth largest in the world. The three
major West Coast ports--Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, and Seattle--handle
close to $500 billion in trade goods annually.
Big ships are needed to transport this kind of tonnage,
and big equipment is needed to unload them. Indeed, everything about
shipping has become Brobdingnagian. As of this writing, one of the largest
container ships afloat is the Danish vessel Emma Maersk. It is 398
meters long, has a beam of 56.5 meters, and its carrying capacity is 15,200
TEU--that is, it can haul up to 15,200 20-foot-long containers of cargo,
depending on their weight. The cranes required to unload these leviathans
now push 400 feet in height, can reach outward almost 250 feet, and draw
between two and seven megawatts of power at maximum load, enough electricity
to supply 1,600 to 5,600 homes for one year.
Meanwhile, the manpower needs of the shipping industry
have declined drastically. Technology and economy of scale have aided the
business of shipping, but not the workers. The massive Emma Maersk is operated by a crew of 13.
"The ships got bigger, but they needed fewer and fewer
men to run them," said Carl Nolte, who has covered maritime issues for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1961. "One guy on a crane can now do
what it took 100 longshoremen to do 50 years ago. Ships used to take days to
unload; now they do it in hours."
The culture of shipping may be moribund, even dead, but
the business of shipping has boomed with the explosion of global trade. It
has to be that way; there is no alternative way to move large quantities of
goods across the oceans in a cost-effective manner. Air transport, the only
other option, is exponentially more expensive, and the world’s airplane
fleet can handle only a fraction of trade demand.
Although the volume of goods shipped is down in the
current recession, most finished goods consumed in North America still come
by ship. Just as during the Age of Discovery, ships remain the most
economical means available for moving goods in quantity for long distances.