When I worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in the 1980s, I don’t recall them being entirely political or filled with political appointees, like in the papers these days, but that may be because I was way too low in the food chain to know any better. I didn’t know what I was doing there anyway, coming off the back deck of a red crab boat, in a suit, working on the 64th floor of Tower Number One. I was trying to help them rebuild an old steamship terminal in Brooklyn, Erie Basin, into a fishing center. They had their own cars in the basement, a special lot. That basement was huge. The first time I took a car to go over to Brooklyn, to check out the site, when I returned I could not find the Port Authority lot. I had no idea where I was. None. I was lost in a garage, talking to electronic plates attached to swing arms. I went to work there in 1984 which was just about when the first stack trains started carrying containers from the west coast to New York, avoiding the Panama Canal. Now of course there are over 100 trains a day bringing Asian cargo across the United States. In 1988 APL built the first container ship too big for the Panama Canal, the first Post Panamax ship, at the time the biggest such ship in the world. I remember being in a meeting back then in my suit when someone said that eventually such ships will take cargo from southern Asia, Singapore, to New York by going the other way, west, through the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez, Mediterranean and Atlantic. Everyone else scoffed and laughed, declaring such a concept absurd and ridiculous.
In 2012 I flew to New York and joined the APL President Truman at Port Newark as an Ordinary Seaman, and the next morning, early, we left with the tide, cast off, carried through the channels leaving Port Newark, past Staten island, passing under the Verrezano Bridge, bound for Singapore. As we left I thought of those people laughing all those years ago and here I was taking that very run, a route that had now been traveled for years. Shortly after that I learned from the other sailors that the Truman was the first Post Panamax container ship that ever carried cargo, that it was this very ship that had been the subject of such laughter a quarter century before. Then the ship had been state of the art, the largest in the world, carrying 4300 TEUs. Now, a quarter century later, she was tired, rusty, on her last legs, and passing newer ships holding 6,000, 8,000, 12,000 TEUs. It was a gray morning, that morning. The Staten Island ferry crossed our stern and beyond, at the tip of Manhattan, the twin towers where I had worked all those years ago were gone. I knew, even then, that the Truman was probably on her last legs, and in 2013 I was aboard when she took her last trip to the breakers. Just before we arrived in Singapore and handed her over to the new crew to take her to the beach we passed an 18,300 TEU double engine, double stack 1300 foot long Maersk ship on her maiden voyage. I know what we all thought, looking across at her. It sure felt like the passing of an era.