An Ocean Sailing
Across the Pacific on a Container Vessel
May 22 – June 11
I have elected to take a voyage across the ocean. Not the romantic type of voyage you might see on TV in an old black and white movie, or even a modern-day voyage on a luxury cruise ship. I have decided to sail across the Pacific Ocean on a working container ship. This will be a voyage to actually travel on a ship carrying cargo from all over Asia to the United States.
The voyage will begin in Yantian, a port just outside of Shenzhen and about 20 miles from Hong Kong. We will make calls in Xiamen, Ningbo, Shanghai, Pusan and then arrive in Seattle. The entire voyage is 21 days.
Many people who knew of this trip asked “why”? A legitimate question for sure but one with a few answers. Adventure, Achievement, Discovery, Answers.
I spent my working career in the bicycle business over the course of 37 years. In the beginning, we actually made bikes in California and we used domestic parts for most of the content. There were American suppliers back then, some of them good, some of them not so good. The upside was we sourced domestic, controlled our deliveries and were able to work at home. The not so good part was that most of the suppliers were then supplying to the domestic market for Huffy, Murray and Schwinn. This in itself was not a bad thing but as new products began to explode during the BMX boom these suppliers could not meet the demands of new designs and all the development that needed to go into them. We used Elrae pressed metal for chainguard parts, Ashtabula Forge for cranks and stems as well as forks in the early days, Messinger for saddles and a host of local shops in the San Fernando Valley for tube sets, seat posts and handlebars.
We imported from Japan for rims and rotating parts. Araya rims, Suzue Hubs, Tange headsets and bottom brackets, Shimano, Suntour, SR and others. The Japanese suppliers were quality focused and this BMX boom captivated their interest, in part because they were still struggling to move up in the road bike market and in part because the BMX industry was very progressive. Chromoly frames, stainless steel handlebars, tubular forks, quick change chainrings, caged pedals and a countless list of new ideas were being created by really bright and talented people. The Japanese suppliers embraced that creativity.
We also bought some tubing from TI out of England and brought it to California so our experience with importing was growing and importing meant shipping containers.
I was interested early on about shipping containers. The fact the containerized shipping changed the face of commerce, economies and generally opened the world to global trade is an amazing study. The ideas that became the containerized freight industry are mind bending. A complete infrastructure needed to be conceived, developed, produced and then duplicated on a global scale. I won’t go deeper on this subject but without containerized freight the world would be much smaller place.
In the early day’s containers brought things to us. As the BMX boom turned into a legitimate market segment and demands rose, the migration to Taiwan began. Many of the Japanese started operations in Taiwan when the Yen crashed from 220 to 130 in a market shaking plunge in the mid 1980’s. The Taiwan bicycle industry was in place but it was small and localized to the domestic and Asian market. There were exports to the courageous and entrepreneurial who enjoyed low costs and an eager manufacturing base. We started with Cheng Shin tires, Viscount saddles, Victor pedals, Tien Hsin bottom brackets and headsets, then expanded as the industry exploded in Taiwan.
Everyone knows my passion for Taiwan, an amazing place where the people work hard, smart and continually. I have been going to Taiwan since 1982 and have been constantly amazed by how far we have come in such a short time. I could write for weeks about Taiwan but this is about containers and my voyage on a container ship.
The background about why I would sail on a ship has a great deal to do with my career and the transition from manufacturer to importer. That is another story to be told as well but the rapid decline of manufacturing in America was just the reverse in Taiwan. It was amazing to be a part of.
Today, some 90% or more of the bicycles sold in America are imported. They all go in a shipping container.
Fast forward to today. The bicycle industry is full of designers, marketers, sales people, administrative staff, accountants and product managers. Not so many builders of things. I am an old guy now, we built things. Maybe that is why I ended up working with manufacturers in my career. I liked building things, not just buying them or convincing others to buy them or cost accounting for them. Most of all I liked to know how to build things and what happened to them after we built them.
Most everyone in the bicycle industry has seen a shipping container full of bikes, some have even been inside one. For the most part, the vast majority of people in the bicycle industry see a container at the loading dock and pass right by without any thought. I find this especially true with product managers, who are the lucky ones that get to actually try and put things together, I won’t call them builders. The product manager of today is a computer junky who works on spreadsheets and cost worksheets. They deal in big numbers and talk about containers by how many “units” can go inside. They casually look at the loading dock at the factory but most have no concept of how it works.
A shipping container comes in various sizes, the 20-footer, the 40-footer, the 45-footer and the new trend; the 45 and 50 foot “high cube”. They all have their capacities but for general calculation about 300 bicycles fit into a container. I wanted to see the journey, the process, the actual movement of a bicycle in a box from Asia to North America.
So, part of my response about why go on a container ship is that I needed to find out how it works. How did all those containers of bikes I had a hand in get to where they were supposed to go. I needed to have that knowledge to complete my career I guess. How could I not?