May 31st

Arrival in Pusan at 0600.

As today is the last port before we arrive in Seattle I thought I should describe a little about the container loading and unloading process. I have learned a great deal and the Chief Officer has shared his computer programs with me to better understand how it all works.

There is some rather sophisticated programming going on and all the information is very detailed. The containers are loaded based on a 3D modeling program. Each space that can be occupied by a container is assigned an alpha numeric indicator on the model. Since there is space for about 10,000 containers, this is an exact modeling program that accommodates for the placement of each container. There are several parameters to be sorted; refrigerated cargo, dangerous cargo, heavy cargo and then the size of the cargo container. This is all entered into the system and the assignment of location begins. The next step is the discharge location, this is to ensure that a container only needs to loaded and unloaded once. The system takes all the parameters and assigns location along with container identifier numbers, these are the callouts labeled on each container.

The actual loading and unloading is handed off to the individual port, not the carrier. The carrier is not responsible for the loading, unloading or accuracy, they are simply the carrier. This is a liability issue for sure and each port is transferred the load plan electronically prior to arrival so the calculations of berth, time and logistics can be prepared well in advance of actual arrival. Once the ship arrives, all documents are gathered by the port agent and reviewed for compliance, accuracy and customs approval. Then, once this is done, the container loading process begins at a rapid pace. This is usually within 2 hours of docking, depending on the individual port and the amount of traffic.

I have been discussing the process at each port with the Chief Officer and some of the Engineers. They say that as a basis of comparison, each port movement is on the average of 1000 containers. Sometimes that would be 200 off and 800 on, sometimes the other way around. There are times when it is most off or most on but they say that the company is very detailed in how much cargo moves. They have many ships and they usually discharge containers to be picked up by another vessel on another route. The container yards at each port are a distribution step for the carrier. This is very much like flying, you are destined to make a stopover and change planes somewhere along the way. This is the optimization of movement, bringing passengers from many locations together for the final destination. The cargo industry is much the same and it is logistically an amazing revelation. I mean when you load a container in Taichung harbor you immediately imagine it is headed straight to Los Angeles. Not the case in most instances. Your freight could have been loaded and unloaded several times along the way.

The direct routes from Asia to the USA are certainly more frequent and more common but if you are shipping to say Australia from Asia the stops would be more frequent. The average transit time from Asia to the USA is 17 days. The average transit time from Asia to the EU is 28 days. You can imagine the movement and logistics involved.

Each port is unique and on this voyage, I had the chance to see Chinese and Korean operations. The Chinese ports are all modeled the same, if you went to a Chinese port without knowing what city you were in you would have no way to discern the difference. They are all laid out the exact same way.

This makes sense if you understand China. The last 30 years has seen explosive growth in China and they have built countless roads, bridges, infrastructure and entire cities. Many of these new cities are termed “new town” and they are all laid out the same. Same grid structure for roads and the same grid for commercial, residential and mixed use. They are all copies of one another and this makes sense when you are building on a large scale in that you can standardize the process and commercialize the materials, labor and costs for each new project. Of course, the Chinese are the architects of commercialization in modern history and this shows in just how much has been accomplished in such a small amount of time. The flaw I see in this commercialization is that errors are duplicated many times before they are discovered so each “new town” is an evolving and changing environment. This same system applies to bridges and roads, I see the same bridge design in every Chinese coastal town. The first time you see this new design, a wire suspension that is very handsome, you think wow. Then you see 2, 3 ,4 more and suddenly it hits you that this is the “design” that has been commercialized and put in place. I can imagine the assemblies being built and simply sent to the location of each new project. This is brilliant in that it is done very efficient and quick but it fails to deliver on esthetic appeal. All these new projects and towns begin to look, feel and operate in the same way. Imagine if you drove from Los Angeles to Portland and each town you came across along the way was the same layout just with different businesses and different names. Of course, the expansion of our country and in particular the West was over 150 years ago, most of what I am talking about in China has been in just the last 30 years.

The Chinese are a bit more “get it done” in mentality and process. The ports are not clean and tidy and organized, there is a bit of organized chaos in each one. Machinery is dirty and the yards are cluttered, the equipment appears to be functioning but in various states of disrepair. They clearly work non-stop and don’t want to be bothered with “continual improvement”. The trucks used in the yard to move containers create their own traffic jam even when they are the only ones in the yard. There are constant delays which lead to constant bickering and lots of yelling, this is also a Chinese thing and I have come to enjoy it and the predictability of it.

Upon arriving in Korea it is clear that they are on another level. I can only judge from this single port of Pusan but I think the systems and the controls here will be similar in other Korean ports. The layout is much more efficient than in China, the yard is oriented in a much different way so the cargo can move direct to the loading area and not be driven around by trucks. The equipment is highly specialized and they are all electric powered as opposed to trucks pulling trailers around the yard and dock. There is an efficiency that is clearly far above the Chinese system and the whole port seems to operate on a much smoother and quieter level. Even all the cranes and handling equipment are painted, labeled and identified in a consistent presentation whereas in China you have cranes of different colors and logos and identification is not so simple. Korea just appears to me to be much more dialed in and more along the way things should be done. Organized, efficient and process controlled.

When the loading process begins, the crew essentially hands the deck over to the longshoremen of each port. They board and oversee the loading and securing of cargo. In China, the longshoreman talk on their phones and sneak cigarettes in an out of sight location when they get the chance. In Korea they are all business, clipboards, walkie talkies, uniforms. The difference is really evident even at first impression.

 

 

Now with all this being said, the crew tells me emphatically that the best in the world at this whole thing are the Japanese. Well that should come as no surprise as no one informs more than the Japanese. No one. They are the masters of making rules and then following them. I would love to see them do this work someday just for comparison. The Japanese are so good at providing information and this allows anyone to understand the process and how they operate in that process. When I go to Japan I never even have to talk to anyone, the information is “made available” to me. If I take a subway from one location to another there are detailed instructions online or in the station that tell me what train, what time, what exit, where to wait, where to find everything. It really is amazing and this information is available for almost every single thing you may want to do in Japan. The information is so precise and complete it is astounding and this is how they train employees and workers to follow the information. I am convinced this is why Japan is so orderly and educated and systematic, they simply inform people rather than expect people to figure it out. I bet the longshoremen in Japan wear white coveralls and white shoes with little booties like lab workers.

This ship is considered a “medium class” sized container vessel, at 1100 feet it is the workhorse of their fleet. This ship was built in Korea, by Hyundai Heavy Machinery in 2006. There are many newer ships entering the industry and most of these are considered “mega” and are 1400 feet. I have seen a couple of these on our stops and they are much more massive than this ship which I thought was a monster. When we do load and unload there are usually 4 cranes that are working, once we had 5. The amount of movement and activity is interesting to watch as the containers and moving of them is staged and prepared, once it gets started it is rapid and non-stop for hours. Today in Pusan we arrived at the dock at 0600 and we will depart tomorrow morning at 0200. The amount of time to do the loading and unloading today is in the area of 15 hours. The other time is paperwork, loading supplies for the ship and preparing to be pushed back.

Today 6 crew members are going home. There are 5 Ukrainians and 1 Frenchman going home. They will be replaced with new crew members. The Ukrainians have a 6-month contract and stay on the vessel for 6 months before they go home. The French have a 2-month contract. They go home for up to three months and then are deployed under contract again, that is if they are offered another contract. The life of the seaman is not for the homesick. I was curious about the Ukrainian thing here, since most of the seaman over in this part of the world are Filipino. Now the Filipinos are widely considered to be the best seafarers in the world due to the fact that they live in an island country where you must learn to navigate the ocean and it has been handed from generation to generation. The change to Eastern European crews seems to be entirely financially motivated, at least from what the French officers tell me. This has been a recent change and the jury is out but they are paid less than the Filipino crews were paid. I don’t know the exact number but the pay is crazy low. I was told that most crewmen make about $400 a month. All accommodation and meals are included so they don’t have to pay for that but the wage is unbelievable. I was told by some of the Ukrainian guys that of course they don’t like it being so low but in their country, they have few choices. The fighting and the political challenges have given them little choice in finding steady work and so they are happy to have this job. I just cannot imagine sailing for 6 months and taking home $2500. I am sure that would be a monthly wage if this was a USA based operation, which may be precisely why the vast majority of cargo carriers are foreign entities. I am sure they calculate the cabin and meals as income to make it work out to a “minimum wage” compliance if needed.

 

I understand a little better why I see the guys making Nutella sandwiches to take back to their cabins and taking a few yogurts and fruit with them. Paying for anything with such a low wage would be difficult. I paid $12 for 24 cokes, that would be a huge amount of money if I was making $100 a week. I am being as frugal as possible with my internet use but even so, 5 days has cost me $40 so far. We need to be offered credit from the Captain and then he collects at the end of the voyage. There is a credit sheet outside his office and some of the guys have $500 tabs so far. I feel for them, they have families back home and to be away for so long is difficult. I can’t imagine spending an entire month’s salary just to talk to my wife and kids once in a while. All in all, this is hard life for them but they are all happy to be working and making money.

I am certain the French officers have it significantly better. They are all very bright, educated and talented men. They laugh a lot and like to have conversation. They seemed to have no problem buying things on our night in Shanghai so I believe that they are rather well compensated. I guess the heritage of colonialism is still alive in this arrangement? Or simply a corporate policy that forces them to pay the lowest wage possible for a qualified crew. I think most people in America would have nothing to do with this job or career path, hell the Navy pays better.

I am going to spend some time on the bridge today learning a bit about the electronics and the navigation system. I am curious about our heading to Seattle; do we vector straight across or do we head up toward the Aleutians? This is of great interest to me as a trip along the outlying Alaska islands would be an amazing treat for the eyes.

The weather is cold and grey, noticeably cooler than China. I am looking forward to seeing and feeling the change as we head north of Japan and head to open seas in the North. I am sure we will have some weather and a real boat ride once we get away from the protection of the coastline. I am also eager to see the north of Japan from the sea.

As we were docked, we were required to undergo a safety inspection. I think this is part of the crossing. As we will be departing Pusan and headed across the Pacific Ocean the safety systems need to be inspected and tested. They deployed the emergency lifeboats and inspected all our neoprene survival suits. Life rafts were inspected but left in their canisters. This is comforting that if needed, everything is functioning and in an emergency, we have a chance. I was instructed how to get into the survival suit and how to prepare for being in the water if the need arises, god forbid. I have a survival suit in my cabin and would need to put it on at the instruction of abandon ship. There are Korean inspectors running around the ship with mirrors and clipboards, not sure what that is all about. Perhaps I can ask some questions at lunch and see if I can learn something, this is not the time to be asking stupid questions to the crew, they are rather occupied.

With this being our last stop for 12 days, the Chef and galley assistant are out preparing provisions on the dock, this limited our lunch to a mixed salad with sardine and olive. Together with the baguette it was a nice light change to a heavy mid-day meal.

I will head up the bridge and learn some things today. Last port of call.

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