Friday, December 21, 2012

Port Stories...

I just read a story at Jim Sinclair's site ( that the International Longshoreman's Association ("ILA", the union that represents the East & Gulf Coast dockworkers) may go on strike on or about December 29.  Strikes by the dockworkers are serious business, as they affect all kinds of businesses and people up and down the economic food-chain.  Here is the link to the possible strike by the ILA:

Reading this story brought back a whole lot of memories of when I had various opportunities to visit US cargo ports...


My first port visit was in 1980/1981 when I was living in Houston (I was about 25).  One weekend, my good friend "Robertus Magnus" and I were bored, so we went out driving.  As we went around the "Loop" of Houston, we saw the Exit Sign for the Port of Houston.  "Wanna check it out?"  "Yeah, sure!"

In those days it was pretty easy to get into a port, remember no 9/11s had happened, etc.  I just told the Gate Guard that we just wanted to look around, that we would not damage or steal anything, etc.  He waved us in, and I found a place to park my truck.

We got out and walked a couple of hundred yards or so across the quay to a cargo ship.  As we got closer we saw it said "Algeria".  Cool, we thought.  There was a tall structure on the dock next to the ship with a chute running down into one of the ship's holds.  There was also a gangplank to board the ship, and since no one was around, we did.  Once aboard, we saw a guy standing leaning up against that same hold.

We walked over to chat.  He was just standing there, monitoring the loading of grain into the hold.  The ship was a "bulk carrier" type, the kind of ship with 5 - 8 BIG holds with BIG hatch covers, perhaps 50 ft x 50 ft by maybe 40 feet deep.  Here's a picture of a bulk carrier (from wikipedia,

File:Sabrina I cropped.jpg

Our conversation went more-or-less like this (when I write "Me" it was either me or my friend talking):

Me:  Hey, howzit going?
Him:  Good!
Me:  You work on the ship or for the port?
Him:  The port.
Me:  Ah, OK.  So, um, what are you loading for Algeria?
Him:  Corn.
Me:  And, um, how much money do you make to do this?
Him:  $25 / hour   [1980 or so remember, now it's over $50 / hour]
Me:  Wow, that's pretty good!  How do I get a job like this?
Him:  It's very hard, you have to be in the Union.
Me:  Oh, and how do you get in to the Union?
Him:  Can't, unless your dad is in it.
Me:  Oh.


Me:  And, um, what exactly are you doing for your $25 / hour now?
Him:  Watching them load the ship...
Me:  Uh, uh, they PAY you $25 just to stand here?
Him:  I watch so they don't load it too much on one side, or the ship might roll over.
Me:  Oh, yeah, that WOULD be a problem...
All of us:  *Laughs*


Me:  Do you ever, have to work HARD, like carrying stuff out of the ship?
Me:  You know, like in the movies, you know, carrying sacks & stuff up by hand?
Him:  Sometimes, rarely though.
Me:  Oh.

My friend and I shared some laughs about THAT on the way home...


My second visit was with my great friend Ed in about 1988 to the venerable Port of Newark (New Jersey), I was living outside of DC then and had JUST started my lil ol import company to bring in "green coffee" (unroasted coffee beans, green in color, they stay good for maybe a year that way).  I wanted to do a "test shipment" of 10 bags to see how it went before ponying up some $50,000 (for a full 20' containerload, the usual way green coffee is shipped).  Here's a picture of two container ships (, our bearings from Korea, Japan and China come in 20' containers straight to Peru):


So, Ed flew up from Houston to "help" me drive a rented 5-ton truck that I was to drive from DC to Newark.  He was kind enough to ask me: "Should I bring my gun?", well, I said no because handguns were likely illegal in New Jersey (unless of course you were Mafia...).

We left at 1:00 AM and drove through the night, arriving to the Port Gate at +/- 5:00 AM.  I presented my papers, and the guy told us to drive over to where the other trucks were waiting in line to get in to pick their cargoes.  While waiting line there, we did have the chance to interact with some of the locals:

"How bout dem Yankees?"  Etc.  We felt like we were on another planet...  Ports (at least then) were NOT women-friendly either.

After they let us in we went to a building to start the HUGE amount of paperwork necessary to get an import shipment (a "Formal Entry" as this was not some package by mail) cleared by US Customs.  We had been drinking coffee all night and into the morning.  Well, one of the side effects of coffee is that you must use the restroom a lot...  I enquired where the Men's was, and duly went.  Now, when I am seated in some stall in a bathroom with graffiti (and assuming I am not rushed or anything), I read it, graffiti is sometimes very funny (even in Miami).  I noticed that a Teamster (the truck driver's union) had kindly written what "ILA" REALLY meant...  So afterwards, I suggested to Ed that he visit the same stall and check it out for himself.  ILA means:

I'm a

Laughs (the Teamsters do not make NEARLY the money that dockworkers do, not even close, and they resented that)...  As the day went on, however, there was much less hilarity, as they kept sending us (driving a big truck remember) all over beautiful Newark to do paperwork shit.  But, we were able to get it all done by afternoon.  The last formal step was presenting our papers at "the window" there at warehouse port-side.  Just like in the movies!  The opaque glass window slid open, I handed the guy my papers and told him I was there to pick up my coffee...  The window slid closed.  90 seconds later, it slid back open, he growled at me, "Door 37".  We walked down the warehouse to Door 37 and found a dockworker waiting for us, I went and moved the truck there.  He was big...  He picked up those 155 lb bags and slung them aboard the truck as if you or I were throwing a 10 lb bag of potatoes...

Thus ended our day in Newark, and I drove back to DC and had my coffee stored nearby.


As my import business continued, I would visit the Port of Baltimore each time I had a containerload of coffee arrive.  Once it cleared Customs, I would go there and ask a dockworker to open up the container so I could pull a couple of lbs from several sacks to send out as samples to my prospective customers.  This got to be routine, so nothing of great interest here.

The FINAL visit I ever made to a port was with my wife!  She wanted to ship her old Honda down to Peru for her sister, what a gift.  We were told to take off the catalytic converter (no unleaded gasoline in Peru at that time) and make another modification or two.  The car would ride down in its own 20' container.  "Ahh, thought I!  Maybe I can put a few boxes of bearings in the trunk and maybe some engine parts in the back seat or elsewhere inside the container!  Save a little bit of money...!"  No, "against the rules"...  All these rules...


Nowadays, it is almost impossible to get into a port because of the MUCH higher security levels post 9/11.

Perhaps a song or three might get you into the spirit of things (first one shows Jimmy Buffett in Key West in 1973, THAT seems like ages ago!)?


An old Irish sailing song...


Roger Whittaker's classic song:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.