Opinion: Finding Meaning

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Worlds Beyond Our Sight

Have you noticed the container ships loitering off the coast this past week? I counted six the other night. They’re like floating cities, each carrying thousands of 40-foot containers, the most common size. It’s cool to see them out there and it made me curious. What was the meaning of this?

It’s most unusual, but 34 container ships were waiting last week to be unloaded at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, by far the largest U.S. ports. Why the wait? Americans are spending less on services and more on goods during the pandemic, increasing traffic from Asian ports. There’s also a shipping surge to get ahead of the upcoming Chinese New Year (it’s the year of the ox, starting Feb. 12 and lasting 16 days). Finally, the pandemic has reduced port efficiency.

We fly over it, but we’ve lost sight of the sea. Most of the goods we buy arrive by ship but we know little of this massive transport system. My curiosity grew. I learned there’s over 5,000 ships moving 17 million containers around the world, mostly between the 50 major ports. Smaller container ships serve smaller ports. The China-U.S. route is the most common, with 18-day transit times and unloading-loading done in about a day. Because of the trade imbalance, most returning containers are empty.

The newest, and largest, ships carry over 11,000 40-foot containers (not counting the ones that fall into the ocean). It’s hard to imagine these ships, but there they are, floating out there between us and Catalina Island. Because of their size, container ship disasters, though uncommon, are doozies.

In 2002 the Hanjin Pennsylvania exploded from fireworks concealed in a mislabeled container. It turns out that ships rotate ballast water to avoid carrying foreign life-forms from ocean to ocean. A hold was accidentally flooded in the process, resulting in a chemical reaction that detonated the fireworks. The ship was a total loss.

Command decisions can be problematic. In 2011 the MV Rena, took a short-cut to keep on schedule and hit a charted reef near New Zealand. It was an environmental disaster for New Zealand and 1,368 containers were lost. Bad karma for the guy who made that call.

Storms are another problem. In the single worst disaster, the MOL Comfort developed a hull crack in a 2013 storm, broke up, and later sank with 4293 containers. Last December, the ONE Apus was caught in a storm and lost 1,816 containers in a “stack collapse” near Hawaii on the way to Long Beach. Several weeks ago, the Maersk Essen lost 750 containers to a stack collapse in heavy seas.

It’s a world beyond my modest expertise, but wouldn’t it be good to consider the weather forecast before stacking containers? On the other hand, I wonder, how many other such worlds are lost to my sight? There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip.  He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email:  [email protected]

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