Box Movers

When it isn’t too cloudy (weather-wise or work-wise), my office has a great view of Elliott Bay in Seattle, where I see the ships come and go (airplanes too):

hat tip SteveC

My new indispensable companion is which uses a network of crowdsourced receivers to pull data off the transponders most ships have and plot them on a map.  Here is a live view of what is floating around:

You can follow specific vessels like the Shanghai Express pictured above on their travels (and you won’t see anything if it is out of range of transceivers in the middle of the ocean).

As yet, no enterprising and cutting edge Somali pirate has joined the network and set up shop to track shipping traffic in that area:


More broadly, the rise of container shipping is fascinating and a dramatic tale of disruption.  There is a great book, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, that tells the humble shipping container’s story. 

The story begins not so long ago in 1958 with a trucking entrepreneur who gets into shipping.  Shipping before containers is unbelievably inefficient, with freight being packed and repacked repeatedly over the course of a trip, getting damaged or stolen, taking forever to get its destination and the whole industry was intensely regulated.  Thinking end-to-end and “intermodal” was a profound breakthrough but it still takes a couple decades to play out as the transportation business, their customers and governments needed time to wrap their heads around and embrace the shift.

The geographic consequences are fascinating.  Ports win by offering lower costs through volume and the ability to load and unload quickly.  The winners see increasing returns and the losers disappear.  Some cities like New York, San Francisco and London were the biggest ports in the world, but they bungled the transition to containers and their ports disappeared.  Some of them like New York spent hugely to defend the old approach and wasted tons of money.  Other cities won with their early commitment to containers.  Some winners like Los Angeles and Long Beach are not particularly surprising but other, unlikelier ports like Seattle and Felixstowe in England have prospered because of their early bet on containers overcame the disadvantages of their small local markets.  The drive towards bigger ships and bigger ports continues today, with individual ships carrying  thousands of containers.  Most of the world’s biggest ports are now in Asia.

It is also a good tale of labor strategy in the face of technological change.  The longshoremen initially fought the coming of the container (and thereby preserve perks like the right to steal loose cargo), but ultimately the longshoremen on both the east and west coast did deals that protected existing jobs at the expense of new employees.  But the fact there are no longer longshoremen in New York City, once the US’s biggest port, shows perils of flouting change.

It really took until the 1980s for shipping containers to start to significantly drive down shipping prices, as deregulation was required in addition to both shippers and shipping companies fully understanding the economics of containers and embracing them on an end-to-end basis.  But costs have plummeted and in many ways shipping costs are invariant with distance today as a result.  Our just-in-time, globalized economy wouldn’t exist without containers and the ability to cheaply move goods, including intermediate goods, around the world cheaply and reliably.


The Explorer went down Friday off the South Shetland Islands.   The ship had a double bottom but not a double hull and evidently the side was punctured by ice.  A “fist-sized hole” resulted in it slowly taking on water and losing power which disabled the pumps.  They abandoned ship after several hours and the passengers and crew were picked up by two other ships in the area after four hours on the water.

We took this ship to Antarctica six years ago (then owned by a different operator).  It was a spectacular trip and one I highly recommend.  Here are some photos of the Explorer in more buoyant times:




The passengers and crew were very lucky this happened in such calm seas. 

They were between the Drake Passage, which is the stormiest water in the world, and the Antarctic Peninsula, which is much more sheltered.  The seas could have been much rougher.  We went through two Force 10 gales getting to and from Antarctica, which means 30 foot seas and 60 mile-per-hour winds.  These photos don’t really do it justice but they were taken from the square windows above the red stripe on the hull and the waves are at or above the same level:




They were also lucky that there were other ships in the area.  It is obviously incredibly isolated and ungoverned so there is no coast guard to call.  Any human activity – a plane, ship or base – is transfixing for its rarity.  Yet there is a very strong community amongst the tourists, adventurers, students and scientists running around down there.  People would bum rides between different ships and bases and anyone would readily open their doors/hatches to visitors.  There are a surprising number of smaller vessels down there and we detoured at one point to rescue some kayakers (and no one even questioned their sanity for being there).  The Explorer was always good for providing a hot shower and a warm meal.  In nearly forty years of Antarctic cruising, I am sure the Explorer banked some goodwill.

Ironically, the ship was on a cruise retracing some of Shackleton’s incredible voyage.  His ship was crushed by the ice and he and his crew made it to the same South Shetlands, crossing ice and water in three small boats.  Shackleton and five others then sailed 800 miles to South Georgia Island in an open boat, which is a spectacular feat of navigation, and doubly spectacular in stormy seas.  If they’d missed South Georgia, the next stop was Africa.  They landed on the uninhabited side of South Georgia so had to traverse a glacier-covered mountain range to get to the whaling station on the other side and then go back and rescue the rest of the crew.  Everyone survived (although none probably ever wanted to eat penguin again).  There is a great account of this epic journey with spell-binding pictures from the expedition’s photographer.