A gazillion years ago when I fished from Chatham we had to cross the bar from Pleasant Bay into the Atlantic. It was (and still is) hairy, especially if it was foggy – and it was always foggy – and a sea was running. The channel shifted daily, sand, tons, being moved, and the course would wind among the breakers, left, then right. The boats fishing from Chatham are small, 40-50 feet, yet those seas could be large. When I was fishing we’d cross the bar. Just beyond was the broken and sunken half of the ship Pendlelton, which in the early 50s had come ashore and broken in half. There was a movie made about it, Finest Hours, recently, which I thought was pretty accurate except the absolute hairiest part of that saga, crossing the bar back into Pleasant Bay with all those men aboard and the storm raging, was sort of skipped. But those of us who fished from Chatham, we understood how hairy that had been. There are lots of other bars and hairy entrances around the world fishermen must pass, and even ships (the Columbia Bar off Oregon and Washington for example). This grainy You Tube video here shows the Grindavik, Iceland, harbor entrance in January 1991 in a nasty sea and is in my opinion the most dramatic bar crossing on video ever made. My guess is the boat in the video is 110-130 feet long. Just imagine….
These are the roro ships Gilliland and Gordon berthed in Baltimore. Skeleton staffed and in a 96 hour ready to sail status. These are part of the US Navy military sealift command fleet. The crew keeps the machinery running and performs maintenance and other projects. This is home for the next few months. I will try to keep this blog updated using my phone links as we don’t have WiFi here. Unlike the earlier trips to Singapore which left no time for scribbling stories, here there may be time to start with this tale I’ve been pondering ever since finishing Adrift last summer.
We’re tied to a Berth and a warehouse with holes in the roof behind a fence and security gate somewhere in industrial waterfront Baltimore. It’s a ten minute hike to a few stores for supplies and sundries. Baltimore is way up at the north end of Chesapeake Bay but there are a dozen ships I can see, mostly small break bulk and auto carriers.
Last time I was in Baltimore was 1993 with some people from APL looking at the on dock rail system at Baltimore’s container terminal before we built one in Seattle. Since then container trade up here has dropped because its a long way up here and Norfolk out at the mouth of the bay has become one of the biggest east coast ports anywhere and snaked away cargo from Baltimore.
There’s a lot of highly negative press right now about how useless government is, and how broken everything is, so it’s refreshing and nice to see how one city and small port decided to take their future into their own hands. Just this week, after a difficult yet encouraging season trying a brand new direct shipping service between Cleveland and Antwerp, the Port and its Dutch partner decided to add a second ship for next year. Not only that, it seems this highly risky and daring venture has the full support of the local community. We could all learn something, here, I think. Check out this editorial from the Cleveland Plain Dealer September 24 2014:
Port of Cleveland, Dutch partner expand port’s smart trans-Atlantic gamble: editorial
“Dead in the water” seemed an appropriate descriptor for the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority when Adam Wasserman was at its helm between 2007 and 2009.
The taxpayer-floated agency was adrift in a Sargasso Sea of pie-in-the-sky strategies – the most infamous of which was Wasserman’s $500 million plan to relocate the port from its current site to a yet-to-be-created landfill north of East 55th Street.
What a difference five years and new leadership make.
Today, among other initiatives, the port is full steam ahead on a welcome and innovative venture aimed at making Cleveland a global cargo hub.
The Cleveland-Europe Express, the only direct shipping service between the Great Lakes and Europe, weighed anchor last spring.
The port inked a two-year deal with the Spliethoff Group, the largest shipowner in the Netherlands, to charter a vessel for monthly cargo runs across the pond. It’s already helped diversify cargo through the Cleveland port and helped increase cargo runs through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
“The status quo was not acceptable to me or the board,” said port President Will Friedman, who came on board in 2010. “We want to become a real Midwestern hub for companies trading internationally.”
The venture remains a gamble — the Cleveland-Europe Express has lost nearly $3 million since its launch in April, more than five times what had been projected.
But instead of shelving the idea before it can be fully tested, the port’s Dutch partner decided to put some of its own skin into the game and add a second ship to the trans-Atlantic service.
“We like it. More important, our customers like it,” Torin Swartout, a Spliethoff vice president, told Plain Dealer business reporter Robert L. Smith.
The greater frequency of voyages makes the port initiative competitive with East Coast ports, Swartout said. “We’re doubling the frequency, but we expect to more than double the cargo we ship.”
Proponents note the service offers a quick, cost-effective – and greener – alternative for businesses to transport goods through the Saint Lawrence Seaway to Europe rather than moving them by rail to East Coast ports and then across the Atlantic Ocean.
Startup hasn’t been cheap. The port ponied up $550,000 a month, plus fuel costs, to charter the Fortunagracht.
Friedman and his crew are taking the port into uncharted waters.
And that may be exactly where the future is.
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.
This is the Port of Cleveland, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River on Lake Erie. That little ship on the left in the picture is the Fortunagracht, a Dutch general cargo vessel, 12,000 tons. The Port has access to the world’s seas through the St. Lawrence Seaway, which is open eight or nine months of the year and frozen solid the rest. The port handles about 13 million tons of cargo a year, mostly materials for cement plants on the river and a big 800 acre steel complex at the head of the river, 6 miles upstream through three 180 degree turns. 600 to 700 ships a year go up that narrow winding river every year and come back down, some ships 700 feet long. More about the river system later. The port piers in the picture here are right next to Brown’s Stadium, right downtown, 80 acres, four or five berths, 300,000 square feet of warehouse space, mostly for imported steel products. About 50 inetrnational ships visit this faciity every year. (By that I mean, not US or Canadian ships plying the Great lakes system with iron ore, taconite, and liestone. Of the 260 remaining US flag deep sea cargo ships still sailing, 60 work on the Great Lakes. Last year at this time I was on the 261st US flag ship, the President Truman, heading for the breakers in India.)
Cleveland has had some hard times, like much of the industrial heartland around the Great Lakes. Once a city of nearly a million people, less than half that many live there now. Like Detroit and other midwest cities, the inner core is filled with abandoned homes and a diminishing tax base. Nearly 50 years ago, now, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, for the 13th time in the last century and a half, and it was this fire that caused the Clean Water Act and a number of other environmental laws. The story beyond northeast Ohio has been Cleveland has been sinking, failing, and losing ground. But don’t tell that to the people who live there. Especially now, what with the city getting the 2016 Republican Convention, Johny Football Manzell for the Browns, and LeBron James deciding to return to his home state and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland’s had a good run since this last spring and I was lucky enough to be there, for the first time in my life, except for driving through in 1967 and 1968 on I-90.
Last fall the Port of Cleveland-Cuyahoga County, a terrific small operation staffed by 18 people and governed by commissioners appointed by the Mayor of Cleveland and the Administrator of Cuyahoga County, made a choice to take their future into their own hands. The Port had been led down one road by a previous Port Director who wanted to spend millions competing head to head with big US East Coast container ports, a totally flawed concept which soon became clear. For years ship visits to Cleveland had been diminishing and some were suggesting the port as an entity was doomed. The current Port Director, though, Will Friedman, his excellent staff, and his Board of Directors, lacking nothing in courage, strength of conviction, and titanium balls, decided there might be a market for a new liner service between Cleveland and Europe, direct sailings, through the Seaway. Their argument was that all the international cargo now shipped from the midwest must now be trucked or shipped on rail to an East or Gulf Coast port, hundreds of miles, and then usually sit in the yard somewhere for days before being placed on a ship. Why not, instead, ship a much shorter distance to Cleveland, load on a ship there, and send it directly to Antwerp and a hub for the rest of the world? Direct, fuel efficient, and faster.
They – the Port staff – did some market research, some studies, went to Europe, talked to shippers and manufacturers, and heard some interest. Of course they also heard all the reasons the many people in the Never section listed:
The Seaway is closed a third of the year what do you do then?
If you ship to an East Coast port and miss a ship there’s another the next day or two, always to the same place. In Cleveland if you start with one ship it comes once a month. If you miss that sailing that’s a long wait. Too long.
Nobody will dare take a risk and commit to a new untried service that is shaky at best and unknown.
You don’t have proper container cranes or handling gear and will never be able to handle them fast enough to be competitive.
Any ship coming through the Seaway is at the biggest 35,000 tons and most much smaller, and this flies right in the face of the trend to larger and larger ships. I mean, they’re widening the Panama Canal for such ships.
Oh, the list was long. Long.
But you have to understand, here, that this is Cleveland, one could say a nothing to lose city, a place that had seen the bottom of the pit and knew what it felt like. Backs to the wall. If the port did nothing, nothing would happen. The ship visits would continue to decline, the facility would continue to get old and tired, and whatever had been here in the way of maritime jobs and commerce would leave as so many other sectors had left. For sure, no vessel owner would ever consider starting an untried and new service to a small port on an inland sea. Ships are expensive. The cost to charter a ship of 12,000 tons, which is about as small a ship as you can imagine for such a service, is at least $ 500,000 a month for the ship, crew, stores, and operation. Now add to that the fuel. One round trip back and forth from Antwerp to Cleveland will require $ 350,000-$400,000 in fuel and thousands more in pilotage charges through the seaway. Call it, a million a month before even considering stevedoring costs to handle the cargo.
The only way such a service could be started would be if the Port itself chartered a ship, paid for the fuel, and in partnership with a vessel owner booked and handled cargo. The Port found a partner in a Dutch Company, Spleithoff, located Amsterdamn, a 100-vessel feet owner, specializing in mixed project cargo ships – ships built to carry both containers and special cargoes, or project cargoes, heavy lift items, odd shaped pieces, big pieces of machinery and equipment. The Port chartered a ship. Filled it with fuel.
In November of 2913 the Port Directors voted to do this. The Port was in good shape financially, but this is a small port, with operating revenues of about $ 3,000,000 a year. Imagine – you charter ship that will cost you, each month, one third of your annual operating income. For a start-up, an unknown and untested trade route, competing with east coast ports, and understanding that with any start up you don’t make money right out of the gate. You do this because you want and believe there are cargoes and goods within your region that need such a service, that will see the value of direct shipment to the world, avoiding the trucking and fuel costs of east coast truck or rail delivery. You do this because you believe in your port and your city and region and because unless you try it nobody will.
You think you will capture a lot of containers and some portion of project cargo. You spend the months from November 2013 until April 214 chasing bookings in both the United States and Europe. Spleitfoff places a couple of people in the Port offices in Cleveland for sales, and others in Europe for the trade there. Spleithoff selects a sweet little ship for the service, a 600 foot, 12,000 ton multi purpose mixed cargo vessel, built in 2011, nearly new, crew of 18, fuel efficient, with three deck mounted cranes and holds that can handle everything from bulk to project cargo to containers and mixtures in between.
This is the ship that departs Antwerp about the first of April, 2014, carryring some empty containers for use back in Cleveland and virtually nothing else, the first westbound voyage. The ship leaves Antwerp just about as I get on the plane to fly to Cleveland to provide some help to their staff there, because I worked with Will years ago at the Port of Seattle and we’d spent some time in the Olympics together on steep snowfields and survived, and he’d contacted me, said he needed some help, so I headed east, found an Amish farm to live on outside the city, and with the rest of them waited for the ship’s arrival.
This is the ship:
The first morning I rose before heading to the port, here’s what I saw:
A long long LONG time ago when we fished for lobster we worked Lydonia Canyon east of Nantucket, maybe 150 miles from land, on the edge of the continental shelf. In December 1972 we lost most of our gear to the Russian fleet, and in 1973 lost other gear to Polish and East German vessels. It wiped us out. We switched to sword fishing. Back then the fishery was illegal so it was a black operation, smuggling the fish we landed past weigh stations. We fished in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, fast forward 40 years to January 2013. I was aboard a container ship returning from Singapore via the Suez Canal and as we approached New York I realized we were transiting exactly over Lydonia Canyon. There was even lobster gear – buoys – in the water exactly where we had fished years ago. When we reached New York some of the crew shifted and our bosun Norm was replaced by Ziggy, from Poland, former fisherman with the Polish Fleet. I’m an Able Body Seaman and nearly ancient and Ziggy was getting up there and he tells me on the way in to Charleston his first time in the Atlantic was fishing Georges Bank as a kid in 1973. He said they’d torn their nets with lobster gear. I said, were the traps wire and red coated? He said they were. Turns out his boat was the boat we watched tear through our gear that summer. We probably saw each other, him cursing this little wooden boat messing up their nets and us cursing this big rusty Communist ship ignoring our marker buoys. Back then I was running the boat, relief skipper, and Ziggy was the green man. Now years later he’s the bosun and I’m working for him. We went together twice New York to Singapore and back. He gave me a hard time. Finally I told him I had forgiven him. It may be a big ocean but it’s a small small world.
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.
When I was in high school we read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I think I was 15 years old, the tenth grade. It was a big, very thick book, and the print was small. Everyone had to read this book, and I expect this was true in hundreds if not thousands of high schools across the country. I remember even today the pain and suffering, searching for the MEANING, trying to understand the complex sentences, week after week as we all labored through it. This wasn’t the Gregory Peck and Hollywood version, which had recently come out. Fortunately (as I thought then) the teacher, who by the way had a wooden leg and when he became frustrated would jab his pencil into his wooden thigh through his pants until the tip snapped off, elected to skip all the sections in the book describing gear, technique, rigging. These seemed to be long sections and were to us fifteen year olds impenetrable. I hated reading Moby Dick. I hated it.
Now flash forward a few years and I am fishing, we’re out on the edge of the shelf tending our lobster gear, the weather’s bad, we cannot work, so we’re drifting, waiting. Probably like all fishing boats, the reading material aboard was limited to skin magazines, fishing trade journals, and a few scattered paperbacks. We had to drift a lot out there, it was late in the fall, the wind blew, and one day I found, under the mattress of a bunk, a dog eared copy of Moby Dick. Desperate for something different, yet recalling the nightmare of the tenth grade, I opened the book.
“Call me Ishmael,” and I began. When I next looked up we were going back to work and I had finished the book, all, what, six hundred pages of it, and it was as if an hour had passed. The technical sections our wooden-legged teacher had skipped had all the good stuff, the rigging, the ropes, the blocks, the try work operations, all the stuff about running a ship and working at sea that I now somewhat understood. Plus, I had run across a few Ahabs already even then in my young career at sea, not to mention a host of other Melville-like characters which were a major reason I enjoyed the industry anyway. And what had been to an inland land bound kid a drudgery and trial had become a revelation and delight to a wind-bound bored deckhand.
Moby Dick is a great book. Sadly, most people who read it probably had the experience I had, high school and having no clue about half the descriptions in the pages, and thus missing the very essence of what made it, for me at least, a wonderful tale and a rollicking good yarn. I was just lucky, to come upon it again in circumstances where I could at last understand what had previously been unclear. I’m not going to recommend that every tenth grader be assigned to drift for four days offshore with nothing else to do until they pick the book up, but maybe that’s what’s necessary to really enjoy it.