More than any other single innovation, the shipping container—there are millions out there, all just like the ones stacked on the Hong Kong Express but for a coat of paint and a serial number—epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system. Invisible to most people, they’re fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works. ... Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant. ... The exact placement of each box is a critical part of the equation: Ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early. Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle. ... The container’s efficiency has proven to be an irresistible economic force. Last year the world’s container ports moved 560 million 20-foot containers—nearly 1.5 billion tons of cargo altogether. Though commodities like petroleum, steel ore, and coal still move in specially designed bulk cargo ships, more than 90 percent of the rest—everything from clothes to cars to computers—now travels inside shipping containers. “Reefer” containers, insulated and equipped with cooling units, carry refrigerated cargo and are plugged into power sources on ships or at dockside. Because the containers are all identical, any ship can move them. ... The Port of Los Angeles, America’s busiest container port, handled 476,000 TEUs in 1981. Thirty years later, 7.9 million 20-foot containers—almost all of them containing goods on their way from factories in Asia—moved through the port, a 16-fold increase. Hamburg’s four container terminals loaded and unloaded 8.9 million TEUs in 2012. On the long list of global container ports, Hamburg and Los Angeles are middleweights: Shanghai, the world’s largest container port, moves 31 million TEUs each year.
Now the canal is being reconfigured by a $5.5 billion expansion project scheduled for completion early next year. Approved by national referendum in 2006, the expansion effectively doubles the canal’s capacity by adding a new set of locks to accommodate larger container ships. Chambers with walls 50 feet thick are being grafted directly onto bedrock, like extensions of the isthmus itself. But the construction — monumental as it is — is only a small part of the story. More important is how the Panama Canal expansion is altering logistical relationships and generating new infrastructures throughout the American Hemisphere. ... Almost as soon as the referendum passed, port authorities from Miami to Lima began racing to complete their own expansion programs: dredging deeper shipping channels, installing larger gantry cranes, and building new container yards, in speculative efforts to compete for the ultra-large container ships that will transit the widened canal. An intense wave of anticipation ripples outward throughout the multi-continental network of waterways, ports, inspection stations, railroads, switching yards, highways, warehouses, and distribution centers that enable the global flow and movement of shipped materials. ... The expansion will reconfigure trans-American shipping in three primary ways. 4 First, a higher volume of goods will move faster between the two oceans, decreasing transport costs and altering the delicate financial calculus that determines global shipping routes. Second, as canal traffic increases, there will be a corresponding rise in transshipment, where goods are transferred to smaller ships that service cities with shallower harbors. The canal’s three ports — Balboa, Colón, and Manzanillo — will link distribution centers like Shanghai with smaller hubs like Barranquilla, Colombia, thus increasing Panama’s importance to regional shipping networks. Third, the expansion will provide an attractive alternative for shipping agricultural products from the interior United States to East Asian markets, elevating the Mississippi River corridor relative to the currently dominant overland routes to Pacific ports.
Mr. Hardberger is among a handful of maritime “repo men” who handle the toughest of grab-and-dash jobs in foreign harbors, usually on behalf of banks, insurers or shipowners. A last-resort solution to a common predicament, he is called when a vessel has been stolen, its operators have defaulted on their mortgage or a ship has been fraudulently detained by local officials. ... Tens of thousands of boats or ships are stolen around the world each year, and many become part of a global “phantom fleet” involved in a broad range of crimes. Phantom vessels are frequently used in Southeast Asia for human trafficking, piracy and illegal fishing, in the Caribbean for smuggling guns and drugs, and in the Middle East and North Africa to transport fighters or circumvent arms or oil embargoes ... Usually the vessels are not recovered because they are difficult to find on the vast oceans, the search is too expensive and the ships often end up in ports with uncooperative or corrupt officials. ... sometimes, when the boat or ship is more valuable, firms like Mr. Hardberger’s Vessel Extractions in New Orleans are hired to find it. His company occasionally handles jobs involving megayachts, but more often the targets are small-to-medium cargo ships that carry goods between developing countries with poor or unstable governments.
CargoMetrics, a start-up investment firm, is not your typical money manager or hedge fund. It was originally set up to supply information on cargo shipping to commodities traders, among others. Now it links satellite signals, historical shipping data and proprietary analytics for its own trading in commodities, currencies and equity index futures. ... There was an air of excitement in the office that day because the signals were continuing to show a slowdown in shipping that had earlier triggered the firm's automated trading system to short West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil futures. Two days later the U.S. Department of Energy's official report came out, confirming the firm's hunch, and the oil futures market reacted accordingly. ... in this era of globalization 50,000 ships carry 90 percent of the $18.5 trillion in annual world trade. ... "My vision is to map historically and in real time what's really going on in economic supply and demand across the planet" ... building a "learning machine" that will be able to automatically profit from spotting and publicly traded security that is mispriced, using what he refers to as systematic fundamental macro strategies. ... CargoMetrics was one of the first maritime data analytics companies to seize the potential of the global Automatic Identification System. Ships transmit AIS signals via very high frequency (VHF) radio to receiver devices on other ships or land.
Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane. Why isn’t Texas ready? ... Such a storm would devastate the Houston Ship Channel, shuttering one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Flanked by 10 major refineries — including the nation’s largest — and dozens of chemical manufacturing plants, the Ship Channel is a crucial transportation route for crude oil and other key products, such as plastics and pesticides. A shutdown could lead to a spike in gasoline prices and many consumer goods — everything from car tires to cell phone parts to prescription pills. ... After decades of inaction, they hoped that a plan to build a storm surge protection system could finally move forward. ... Several proposals have been discussed. One, dubbed the “Ike Dike,” calls for massive floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay to block storm surge from entering the region. That has since evolved into a more expansive concept called the “coastal spine.” Another proposal, called the “mid-bay” gate, would place a floodgate closer to Houston’s industrial complex. ... The 10 refineries that line the Ship Channel produce about 27 percent of the nation’s gasoline and about 60 percent of its aviation fuel ... Flooding is the most disruptive type of damage an industrial plant can experience from a hurricane. Salty ocean water swiftly corrodes critical metal and electrical components and contaminates nearby freshwater sources used for operations.
Thomas Kelly, the American ambassador here, likes to say that Djibouti today feels like what Casablanca must have felt like in 1940. “All the different nationalities elbowing into each other,” he says. “All the intrigue.” ... About 4,000 soldiers and contractors live here, and they include commandos from Joint Special Operations Command, the team that undertakes the military’s most sensitive counterterrorism operations. After the 2012 attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, a 150-member rapid response team was established at Camp Lemonnier, assigned to handle future threats to diplomatic personnel abroad. Djibouti is also the U.S. military’s regional hub for drones, and it sends thousands of Predators and Reapers across the region each year.
This is Tiksi, a decaying town in the Russian Arctic. Here, more than 4,000 kilometres from Moscow on the coast of the Laptev Sea, 4,550 people inhabit a wasteland whipped by blizzards and wrapped in polar night for half of the year. Surrounded by thousands of kilometres of permafrost, the town has no outside land connection. Its main lifeline is an airport manned by a military unit, a relic of Soviet times, when the country’s Arctic territory was dotted with military bases. ... Global warming, which is causing Arctic sea ice to melt at an unprecedented pace, is watched with alarm in other parts of the world. But in Russia, the rising temperatures are fuelling expectations that the waters along its northern coast, long a frozen frontier, could once again become a vibrant shipping line, rivalling some of the world’s most important trading routes. ... In theory, the NSR could compete with routes that have dominated global maritime transport for decades. Calculated between the ports of Yokohama and Hamburg, the 7,200 nautical miles shipping distance between Asia and Europe using the NSR is 37 per cent shorter than the southern route via the Suez Canal. ... Total cargo transport volumes plummeted from a peak of 6.58 million tonnes in 1987 to just 1.46 million tonnes in 1998. ... total cargo volumes recovered to 5.15 million tonnes last year, almost back to the level of 1990. ... The idea of mastering nature is very much part of Russian identity, as is the myth of conquering the Arctic, despite the decline of Moscow’s footprint in the far north over the past 25 years. ... Since there is still a lot of ice on the northern oceans, this makes passages risky and drives up insurance premiums. Only ships with reinforced hulls can use the NSR with relatively few restrictions and even for them passage times remain unpredictable. The waters off Russia’s coast are also far shallower than those on the southern route, meaning that the world’s largest, most cost-efficient container ships can’t be used.
Investments into a vast network of harbours across the globe have made Chinese port operators the world leaders. Its shipping companies carry more cargo than those of any other nation — five of the top 10 container ports in the world are in mainland China with another in Hong Kong. Its coastguard has the globe’s largest maritime law enforcement fleet, its navy is the world’s fastest growing among major powers and its fishing armada numbers some 200,000 seagoing vessels. ... The emergence of China as a maritime superpower is set to challenge a US command of the seas that has underwritten a crucial element of Pax Americana, the relative period of peace enjoyed in the west since the second world war. ... China understands maritime influence in the same way as Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th century American strategist. “Control of the sea,” Mr Mahan wrote, “by maritime commerce and naval supremacy, means predominant influence in the world; because, however great the wealth of the land, nothing facilitates the necessary exchanges as does the sea.” ... The five big Chinese carriers together controlled 18 per cent of all container shipping handled by the world’s top 20 companies in 2015 ... The total size of these investments is difficult to calculate because of sketchy disclosure. But since 2010, Chinese and Hong Kong companies have completed or announced deals involving at least 40 port projects worth a total of about $45.6bn
Although robotic ships of this sort are some ways off in the future, it’s not a question of if they will happen but when. My colleagues and I at Rolls-Royce anticipate that the first commercial vessel to navigate entirely by itself could be a harbor tug or a ferry designed to carry cars the short distance across the mouth of a river or a fjord and that it or similar ships will be in commercial operation within the next few years. And we expect fully autonomous oceangoing cargo ships to be routinely plying the world’s seas in 10 or 15 years’ time. ... Remotely controlled ships, piloted by people on shore, and autonomous ships, which can take actions for themselves, are the latest beneficiaries of increasing digital connectivity and intelligence. These developments in electronic sensors, telecommunications, and computing have sparked interest in a range of autonomous vehicles including cars, planes, helicopters, trains, and now ships. ... That people should be seriously interested in robotic ships is easy enough to explain: Such ships are expected to be safer, more efficient, and cheaper to run. According to a report published by the Munich-based insurance company Allianz in 2012, between 75 and 96 percent of marine accidents are a result of human error, often a result of fatigue.
Pick any other major city or metropolitan area in the U.S., and the situation’s probably the same: a massive surge in deliveries to residential dwellings, one that’s outstripping deliveries to commercial establishments and creating a traffic nightmare. ... It’s estimated that, on average, every person in the U.S. generates demand for roughly 60 tons of freight each year, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. In 2010, the United States Post Office—which has overtaken both FedEx and UPS as the largest parcel-delivery service in the country—delivered 3.1 billion packages nationwide; last year, the USPS delivered more than 5.1 billion packages. The growth in e-commerce is fueling a commensurate rise in the number of delivery vehicles—box trucks, smaller vans, and cars alike—on city streets. ... While truck traffic currently represents about 7 percent of urban traffic in American cities, it bears a disproportionate congestion cost of $28 billion, or about 17 percent of the total U.S. congestion costs, in wasted hours and gas.
Barely seven hours had passed since the gunmen had taken the ship. But already an international cast was activating: salvors from the region’s cutthroat ports, to scavenge millions from the wreckage; U.S. military investigators, to determine if Somali pirates had adopted brutal new tactics; and most urgently of all, an operative from the stony world of London insurance, to discover what really happened aboard his clients’ $100 million liability. Because if the hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso wasn’t a case of fumbled piracy, it would be the most spectacular fraud in shipping history. ... The events of July 6, 2011, set in motion a tangle of lawsuits and criminal investigations that are still nowhere near conclusion. Six years after it was abandoned, the Brillante Virtuoso is an epithet among shipping veterans, one that reveals their industry’s capacity for lawlessness, financial complexity, and violence. This account is based on court evidence, private and government records, and more than 60 interviews with people involved, almost all of whom asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivities of nine-figure litigation and, in some cases, concern for their own safety. Everyone at sea that night survived. But the danger was just getting started.