“Yes, I am a pirate, 200 years too late. The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder, I’m an over-40 victim of fate. Arriving too late. Arriving too late.”
These lines are from “A Pirate Looks at 40,” which is one of my favorite Jimmy Buffet songs. Buffet was romanticizing the golden age of pirates, which was supposed to have ended centuries ago. However, he was a little premature in his assessment.
In April, two ships traveling in the Singapore Strait were attacked and robbed by pirates, and one crew member was hurt. Last year, 30 such incidents were recorded in that area.
Last month, pirates attacked a Ghanaian vessel in the Gulf of Guinea and kidnapped five crew members. This month, officials warned that pirates were expanding their footprint in that area, and asked shipping companies to be extra careful. So far this year, 61 crew members have been kidnapped in piracy incidents there.
Meanwhile, Nigerian pirates have been venturing farther and farther from the coastline.
Piracy is growing as maritime shipments themselves increase and become a more important part of global trade, especially as the world attempts to return to normal after enduring a brutal pandemic.
In May, the Port of Long Beach broke its cargo record by handling more than 907,000 TEU – the highest volume in the port’s 110-year history. TEU, or twenty-foot equivalent unit, is the measure of cargo capacity used in ports and maritime shipments. It is based on the volume of an intermodal container that is 20 feet long.
Compared to May 2020, cargo volume at the Port of Long Beach rose 44%.
Trade has grown so much that Home Depot recently chartered its own container ship in an attempt to keep its inventory levels up in North America.
The Port of Los Angeles has set records for handling cargo for 10 consecutive months. Compared to 2020, cargo shipments are up an incredible 74% this year.
Last month, the port handled more than 1 million TEU, a record not only for the 114-year-old port but for the Western Hemisphere. The port reports that vessel productivity has risen by 50% over the past several years.
What is increasing vessel productivity? One element is the sheer size of the ships. Years ago on a trip to Tokyo, I decided to explore the city on my own, using the extensive subway system. I promptly got lost and ended up at a dockyard where ships were being loaded. I had never seen vessels so enormous up close. They took my breath away.
The ships I saw that day were puny compared to what is hauling cargo today. In mid-May, the 1,300-foot container ship CMA CGM Marco Polo arrived in New York Harbor. It is the largest ship to ever land on the East Coast of the U.S.
To put its enormity into perspective, it is larger than the Empire State Building. When it first sailed in 2013, it was the largest container ship the world had ever seen. Today, it is not even in the top 50 largest container ships.
Right now, the world’s largest ship is the HMM Algeciras. It is 1,312 feet long and 200 feet wide – the size of 3.64 football fields.
It will not hold the title long. Mediterranean Shipping Company, an Italian-Swiss venture, has a ship on order to be delivered in 2023 capable of handling 24,232 TEU. These vessels resemble moving cities more than they do ships.
The explosion in ocean shipments has resulted in ports being backed up with cargo ships waiting to be loaded and unloaded. It also has resulted in a shortage of cargo containers to move products. One owner of a container logistics company told me that she has run out of 20-foot containers and has been waiting weeks for an order she placed.
So, the next time you put on your clothes, play on your smartphone, hand your child a toy, kick a soccer ball or ride in your Toyota, know that these items probably crossed the ocean in a monster container ship to eventually get to you