Boxes on the Bay

Late on a bright, blue-sky fall afternoon, I’m 230 feet above the ground on one those towering cranes you see rising along the Oakland waterfront when driving on the freeway. To get here, I rode three cramped elevators and climbed four skinny flights of wobbly metal stairs. Am I scared? You bet—but I pestered the Port of Oakland to do it and now the port’s spokeswoman is standing next to me, so I fake bravado.

Besides, the view is exhilarating. Far to the west, the Golden Gate Bridge links Marin and San Francisco. Directly across the water, the city skyline juts up from the bay. On either side, the East Bay suburbs extend to the horizon. The expanse is unnerving, so I focus on what’s close—the 1,210 sprawling acres of intermodal efficiency beneath me: rail yards with countless strands of rust-colored track; a trucking area, frenetic with activity; stacks three or four high of colorful metal containers; and, of course, the massive oceangoing warehouses known as container ships.

The Box That Shrank the World

“What is it about the container that is so important?” asks economist Marc Levinson in his book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. “Surely not the thing itself. A soulless aluminum or steel box held together with welds and rivets, with a wooden floor and two enormous doors at one end: the standard container has all the romance of a tin can.”

Soulless it may be, but the shipping container, as New York University economist William Baumol says, “may be a close second to the Internet in the way it has changed our lives.” Before the first container ship—a refitted tanker—left Newark in 1956 with 58 containers aboard, shipping was expensive and inefficient. Today, because of standardization and technological advances such as the giant gantry cranes in Oakland, shipping is cheap and we take for granted consumer goods whose raw materials read like a U.N. roll call.

‘’It was not routine for shoppers to find Brazilian shoes and Mexican vacuum cleaners in stores in the middle of Kansas,” Levinson writes. “Japanese families did not eat beef from cattle in Wyoming, and French clothing designers did not have their exclusive apparel cut and sewn in Turkey and Vietnam.’’

All this merchandise and material travels in a steel box with a standard size—20 feet long, 8 feet wide and, typically, 8.5 feet high. Although longer 40-foot boxes are now commonplace, container ships are still measured in 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs.

Floating Buildings

From a distance, say the shores of Marin or the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge, a container ship’s size can be deceptive, especially when seen against the vastness of the bay. Also, says Lawrence Dunnigan, the Port of Oakland’s manager of international marketing. What’s visible are containers stacked eight high on a ship’s deck; what’s not are the containers stored down below. “It’s like a 10- or 12-story building heading out across the Pacific Ocean,” he says.

John Cronin of Novato, a retired seaman who sailed for 30 years on container ships—the last 10 as a skipper—echoes that sentiment. “When people see them from the beach, they don’t realize how really big container ships are,” he says. “Trust me, they’re huge.”

Indeed, they are. Cargo ships crossing San Francisco Bay regularly run as long as three football fields in length and as wide as a 10-story building. And, they’re getting bigger. One reason the Port of Oakland has deepened its channel from 42 to 50 feet is to accommodate new mega-ships like the NYK Vesta, the largest ever to dock at Oakland. The Vesta, built in 2007 for a Japanese shipping company, can hold 8,600 TEUs and stretches 1,100 feet from bow to stern, almost a quarter mile.

Cronin’s ports of call included Yokohama, Japan; Busan, South Korea; Hong Kong and Shanghai; and Taipei. The journey from the Golden Gate to the Far East averages about 6,000 miles and can take 10 to 12 days at 22 knots (25 mph). Crossing all this open ocean can be harrowing. The sea can be “rebellious and unforgiving,” says Cronin, and although ships and crews are usually safe, cargo can be lost. “Once in the North Atlantic, a ship dropped 40 containers in a hellacious storm,” he says.

Not surprisingly, 40-foot containers of TV sets, tennis shoes, or, worse, toxic materials regularly break free from ships and spill into the ocean. An estimated 10,000 containers go overboard annually, with some sinking to the bottom, some remaining afloat to form shipping hazards and some finding their way onto distant shores (thousands of bags of Doritos tortilla ships from a container washed onto beaches in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 2006).

Still, as the port spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur point outs, the percentage of lost containers is small. “Considering that in 2008, more than 153 million 20-foot containers moved across the high seas,” she says, “it’s a very safe way to move massive amounts of cargo.”

The Port of Oakland

Ports that responded early to containerization prospered; those that did not failed. It might be hard to imagine, looking at San Francisco’s waterfront of decrepit and disappearing piers, but the city was once a major West Coast cargo port. When containerization took hold in the 1960s, though, San Francisco did not expand to handle the newer, larger ships. Oakland did, and over the years has invested $1.4 billion in high-tech cranes, deeper berths and integrated rail, truck and shipping facilities. As a result, Oakland is the nation’s fifth-busiest container port. It handled more than about $23.2 billion in imports and $9.7 billion in exports last year, all of that contained in 2.2 million TEUs that came and went on more than 1,900 ships. In all, the port moved more than 99 percent of the containerized goods that passed through Northern California, meaning it touches the lives of nearly everyone in the Bay Area.

Common exports include raw materials, recyclable items, and medical and construction equipment, says Sandifur. “There’s a ‘full circle’ of economic activity when you consider that the raw materials and recyclables we export come back to us as finished products we purchase at Costco, Wal-Mart or J.C. Penney.” The port’s biggest imports, she says, are “everything you’d find at a large department store: clothes, shoes, housewares, toys, furniture and small electronic devices such as cameras, cell phones and MP3 players.”

The port’s economic footprint is huge. “According to a study done a few years ago,” says maritime director James Kwon,” we support over 28,000 jobs in our region and more than 420,000 jobs nationwide related to the cargo that moves across the Port of Oakland docks.”

Many of the world’s largest shipping companies have terminals at the port, including Maersk (Denmark), Evergreen (Taiwan), APL (formerly American President Lines, Singapore), Hapag-Lloyd (Germany) and Hanjin (South Korea). Most ships that call at Oakland carry 4,000 to 6,000 TEUs, says Sandifur, enough to fill 2,000 trucks or 20 trains, each pulling 100 flatcars loaded with a 40-foot container. The gantry cranes can unload containers at the rate of 30 an hour, fast enough to get the typical ship back to sea in 18 hours or less.

The port has 37 of those cranes, costing up to $7 million each. Nineteen were built in Shanghai and shipped here in batches since 2000. Squeezing a boatload of 1,500-ton, 230-foot-high cranes under the Golden Gate and Bay bridges is an intricate operation. “Going under the bridges required maximum low tide,” says Sandifur. “Even then, Terry Smalley, the head of our crane department, reached up and slapped the underside of the Bay Bridge.”

One oft-repeated but apocryphal story holds that the cranes, which are painted white to make it easier to spot rust, were the inspiration for the Imperial Walkers in George Lucas’s second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Not so, Lucas told a Chronicle reporter last year. “That’s a myth,” he said. “That is definitely a myth.”

Navigating the Bay

The Port of Oakland is built on one of the world’s greatest natural harbors, but to reach it safely container ships must cross San Francisco Bay, not an easy task. The bay has strong tides and currents, an uneven depth that confines ships to narrow channels and, of course, fog.

Container ships are guided through this maze by experienced navigators called bar pilots (the term deriving from a treacherous bar of rock, sand and gravel west of the bay). They meet inbound ships 11 miles outside the Golden Gate and guide the craft from there to berth. The process is reversed for outbound ships.

Given the amount of shipping traffic on the bay, serious accidents are rare, but when they do occur the consequences can be tragic. Such was the case on November 7, 2007, when the container ship Cosco Busan left the Alameda Estuary in heavy fog, and while under the command of a bar pilot, hit one of the Bay Bridge’s towers, ripping a gash in the ship and spilling 53,000 gallons of oil into the bay. More than 2,500 seabirds were killed and Bay Area beaches were quarantined for weeks.

Bar pilots can also prevent tragedy. Last January, on a clear afternoon, an inbound oil tanker, the 741-foot Overseas Cleliamar, lost power just outside the Golden Gate and was within minutes of crashing into a Marin Headlands cliff when the bar pilot maneuvered the ship precisely to the right depth to drop an anchor and kept the ship from drifting into the rocks.

Ken “Kip” Carlson, a longtime resident of Strawberry in Mill Valley, is a veteran bar pilot and knows well the hazards of the bay. In addition to the natural challenges of tide and fog, there is all the other water traffic, everything from other cargo ships to the numerous ferries, sailboats and, right at the Golden Gate Bridge, darting windsurfers.

“When I’m guiding a 1,000-or-so-foot-long container ship,” Carlson says, “I want people in the water around me to consider my vessel a floating metal Alcatraz Island.”

Crossing the bay from the Port of Oakland to the ocean buoy that marks the end of the outer shipping channel takes about three hours. “We travel at 12 knots and container ships are especially challenging because there’s often a row of big metal boxes blocking my line of sight,” says Carlson. “Container ships have what’s called a ‘large invisibility sector.’”

Bar pilots rely upon radar, GPS systems accurate to three meters and, yes, foghorns. “Foghorns reconfirm your position,” says Carlson.

They also depend on one other navigation tool that ship captains have used for centuries. The best method, says Carlson (only half in jest), for avoiding San Francisco Bay’s many obstacles is “looking out the window.”

Contain Yourself

To truly experience the massive size of container ships, you have to get up close—real close.

The best place to do this is at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a 38-acre waterfront greenspace built by the Port of Oakland and operated by the East Bay Regional Park District. The park abuts the Alameda Estuary, where you can see container ships, guided by tugs, making the way to the port’s APL and Hanjin terminals.

The opposite end of the park connects to tiny Port View Park, whose pier stretches out into the bay and offers spectacular views. Visit

You can time your visit to Oakland when ships are coming or going —or try to be on the Golden Gate Bridge when a ship passes beneath—by consulting Hi-Def San Francisco, a web site with real-time locations of all large ships in the Bay Area and offshore.

Matson's Hawaiian Connection

One of the oldest and most-storied shipping companies with a terminal at the Port of Oakland is the 127-year-old Matson Navigation Company.

Once known for its luxurious Pacific cruises from San Francisco to Hawaii and beyond aboard the S.S. Lurline and her similarly well-appointed sister ships, Matson introduced containerization to the Pacific Coast in 1958 and dropped its passenger service in 1970. Today, the Oakland-based company operates 13 container ships, the longest 722 feet long with a 2,600-container-unit capacity.

 “Most of our container ships leave the Port of Oakland heading to Honolulu,” says Bal Dreyfus, vice president of West Coast operations for Matson and a Belvedere resident. “Hawaii is an island economy that depends on ocean transportation for virtually all of its goods.”
Matson’s Hawaii-bound containers are typically filled with fresh (and refrigerated) California fruits and vegetables, clothing, furniture, construction materials and automobiles. Matson’s M.V. Mokihana, a combination roll-on/roll-off garage and container ship, can carry up to 1,400 vehicles.

“A Matson ship arrives in Honolulu from Oakland almost every other day,” says Dreyfus, “which allows Hawaiian businesses to use our services as part of their distribution system, which reduces the need for costly warehousing.” Traveling at 22 knots, Dreyfus says, Matson’s ships make Honolulu inside of four days.