Dispatch #2 from Charmaine’s ethnography of a container ship comes to us from the port of Tacoma, where the ship is currently experiencing severe delays. Continue to follow the Ever Cthulhu with the tag ‘Slow Boat to China’.
It is 3am on a Wednesday when we pick up the Port Angeles pilot who will take the ship through the Puget Sound. All day, we have been sailing through a fog that has hung so thickly around the ship that it has seemed we are drifting through clouds. The fog has delayed our pilot by four hours: sailing through the Puget Sound’s narrow channel is already a formidable task, made Herculean by the fact that no one can see past the ship’s nose. Take that, multiply it by the fact that the port of Tacoma is situated in a tight bottleneck of an inlet, that an unusual volume of vessels are docked in anchorages clogging passage to the port, and that the captain is being hounded by the charterer to get us to berth on time, and you get the shipper’s molotov cocktail. Short of risking navigating by radar, avoiding ships via yellow blips on a screen, waiting the fog out is the best option. At dinner, the captain sighs. “Fog, congestion, work slowdowns: at this rate, we will never get to China.”
There is a massive traffic jam on the ocean, and the Ever Cthulhu is stuck in the thick of it. Already, we have been delayed for almost two weeks: the ship stayed for five days longer than the forecasted two in both Oakland and Los Angeles, and is expected to be in Tacoma for ten. Regularity, it turns out, can no longer be expected in the logistics industry, and my 26-day trip on the Ever Cthulhu is turning into a 40-day one. All along the West Coast, ports and berths have been choked with vessels in every terminal, and waiting ships have crowded into anchorages for days in far higher numbers than the captain has ever seen. Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2.5 to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.
The reasons for this coast-wide congestion are unclear. In July, when the current International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract ran out, more than 70 multinational maritime companies and ocean carriers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) began to negotiate a new contract with the ILWU for the 29 U.S. West Coast ports in its jurisdiction. The process soon turned ugly. The PMA blamed the increasing port congestion on an organised work slowdown by the union, alleging that the ILWU was deliberately not dispatching enough gangs to the waterfront. The union vehemently denied this, and countered that the PMA was deliberately mounting a smear campaign against them by cutting the number of workers at terminals and cancelling critical night shifts that would speed the cargo operations. The media, of course, lapped this all up, blaming rotten agricultural productions, anchored ships, and delayed shipment arrivals on the ILWU, one outlet going so far as to ask whether longshoremen were “spoiling Christmas”.