So in Cleveland spring came slowly, as spring does downwind of that chilly lake, and while the rest of the city paid attention to whether or not the Republican Convention for 2016 would come to Cleveland (it will) and whether or not Johnny Football would self destruct or not (he hasn’t yet) and whether Lebron might return home (he did), down at the port the little ship Fortunagracht departed after the second trip half empty, carrying, among other things, a yellow school bus. On the first two trips the ship carried little cargo, both eastbound and westbound, and there seemed to be no trend emerging that could in any way be called positive.
Meanwhile in Europe and in Cleveland the Spleithoff and Port of Cleveland staff kept burning up the wires and phone lines (except these days “phone lines” is meaningless, isn’t it?) seeking bookings, delivering quotes, hustling, always hustling.
Then as the weather warmed and May slid into June a big shipper from the area decided to use the new service to haul a lot of heavy cargo to Europe. Then we heard from Europe that some folks there had decided to send some heavy stuff west to Cleveland. And then a decision was made to send the parts of a disassembled auto plant to China using the new service through Antwerp. Down on the docks, stuff began to appear, big boxes, stamped Kazhakstan and other strange distant places, standing in silent rows on the scruffy pavement, waiting for the ship.
People had thought, when this started, we’d see containers supporting the business, but what was happening, was, the special pieces and the big pieces, looking for a direct route from the heartland to the world, came to Cleveland.
By the time the ship left Antwerp for the third voyage she was nearly filled with cargo, three quarters of a million dollars’ worth, and when she arrived in Cleveland she was unloaded and then loaded with almost as much eastbound cargo back. The value of the bookings went from less than a half million dollars for the round trip to one million, three hundred thousand dollars – more than all operating expenses. This meant that by the third trip, with a brand new and untested service, flying in the face of traditional hub-port logic, the ship was making money. Not much, but making money. And it wasn’t containers. It was the special big pieces of strange and one-off gear – transformers, turbines, machinery, heavy gears. Stuff big and heavy, hard to sling and lift, hard to secure in the hold.
I have sailed on container ships, which are the epitome of simple and routine cargo handling. Lift a box on, lift it off, use special cranes, move fast, cycle fast, hour after hour. On Fortunagracht, the cargo was all different, heavy, awkward, and each piece needed to be strapped up, lifted by ship’s gear, placed and sometimes welded into the hold. She is a small ship, and how she is loaded is critical, so it’s a balancing act (literally) to load and place the many different pieces such that the ship can carry s much as possible and not become top heavy and unstable.
She loaded piece after piece from a disassembled auto plant. In a way it was tragic, seeing the manufacturing core of this region being sent to China for re-use, but at least the material was departing Cleveland not an East Coast port. These pieces are so big and heavy they need special 18 or 20 axle trucks to drive over the road. They weigh 100, 120, 170 tons apiece. The trucks need a special permit to drive over the road and there is a steering station at the rear of the trailer for maneuvering on city streets.
Here’s the truck they used. The length of this thing from nose to stern is almost 300 feet. It’s four or five trailers connected together.
For containers, it’s damn slow. This is because container cranes don’t exist in Cleveland. You need to hang a container spreader – the thing that grabs the container – from the ship’s crane or a shore crane and guide it with straps and manpower over the container to be picked up, set the four corner cones, and then lift. This is slow. It’s even slower when the people guiding the container are standing on other containers in the air. The big ships and big ports, they’ll place four or five cranes against a ship at once, each one lifting 25-50 containers an hour. On a general cargo ship using their own gear, they’re doing great to lift 15 containers an hour.
I couldn’t resist this -here’s the mobile office the long shore men use…..
Anyway in June the ship was full, both ways, and made a bit of money. In July the ship was full again. This time there were a few changes, though. Because the service was passing down the St. Lawrence River, the port of Valley Field down by Montreal was used to offload some wind generating equipment from Europe, which helped. Some other cargo was sent from Cleveland down the river to Valley Field as well, which was allowed because Valley Field is in Canada, not the US. If it had been an American port then a US built ship needed to be used, and Fortunagracht is a Dutch ship. In addition, there was some other cargo in Duluth in Minnesota, also wind energy equipment, that needed to be dropped off, so the ship went there first before coming to Cleveland. These stops extended the length of the voyage but the ship was filled.
The July voyage also earned one million three hundred thousand.
Now it’s well into August. The signs for the August voyage are positive.
Could this be a trend? Maybe. Or a summer blip? Maybe that, too. Point is, after two weak months to start, cargo volumes have risen. There is no question that a market exists for such a service, and it seems that there are a lot of companies now interested in using the service. This suggests to me that the fundamental uncertainty – is there sufficient cargo – has been answered. Now the next question is, can the service endure, make money, be self supporting? This is a function of operating costs, stevedoring costs, and marketing costs, and these questions won’t be answered until the end of this season at the earliest.
Little of this story is visible anywhere, and maybe properly so, especially when compared to Johnny Football and LeBron and the RNC and the algal blooms off Toledo – this being another interesting tale from the heartland I will get into soon – but this gamble, taken by the Port of Cleveland and Spleithoff, and supported by the local community, may be the most important story of all.