What It’s Like Being Stuck On A Container Ship During An Epic Port Breakdown

Lost in the discussions over labor and concerns over delayed shipments to and from Asia: the people who sail with all that stuff.

What It’s Like Being Stuck On A Container Ship During An Epic Port Breakdown
[Images: Blend Images on Shutterstock, Martin Machado, Freightos]

For customers in the fashion, electronics, and retail industry who have been forced to cope with the Giant Port Shutdown of 2015, it’s been a stressful few months. Although employers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union came to a tentative agreement last week, more than 20 ships are still waiting offshore in what the Port of Long Beach’s CEO has described as an “amazing” and “epic” backup of shipments.


It hasn’t been very easy on the crews of the giant container ships either.

“The seafarers see the land but cannot reach it, which becomes frustrating for them,” says Guy Fox, president of the International Seafarers Center for the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, a charitable center designed to provide rest and services for visiting sailors. “However, they go about their normal duties as seafarers and stand their proper watches and do their chores. It is kind of like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner where there’s water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. They are stranded on an island—their vessel—with no place to go.”

The hundreds of international crew members of the giant shipping boats now floating in L.A. harbor are not directly part of the long-simmering labor dispute at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, which handle approximately 40% of America’s incoming shipping containers. Next to those containers—containing about $1 trillion a year in cargo—the workers who sail with them on transoceanic routes are rarely acknowledged, and are now caught in the middle of the largest maritime shipping backup since 2004, one whose effects are expected to be felt for months.

When landfall is delayed, sailors pass the time with movies, books, food (most container ships are alcohol- and drug-free, at least officially), and, at sometimes sluggish speeds, the Internet. They try to reach their families, thousands of miles away. And they wonder if they’ll be compensated for the long wait. Their counterparts on land have more freedom but are no less idled: A large number of truckers are waiting for delayed ships as the slowdown hit ports in San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and beyond.

Global Crews Stuck Offshore

Martin Machado, a member of the merchant marine who is now an artist living in San Francisco, wasn’t on any of the ships delayed in southern California, but he knows well what it’s like to be on a cargo container ship that’s unexpectedly stuck. On a run from New York to Asia via the Suez Canal once, his ship ran aground in the Egyptian port city of Damietta. During the boredom, crew members watched movies, played cards, and read.

Shipping container crews hail from across the globe, but certain countries, like the Scandinavian states, China, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, account for an especially large portion of sailors and supervisory crew. Depending on the shipping line, the job description, and nationality, overtime pay can vary significantly. In the worst-case scenarios, crew on ships stranded outside the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach are losing weeks of pay at a time.


Fox, whose organization provides sailors services on shore, said being stuck offshore is a particularly vexing state of limbo. “The vessel only carries so many provisions for such a voyage, and perhaps a bit in reserve, so they also have to hunker down with the lack of food supplies. They are in a state of limbo due to the fact they do not know when they will reach shore and be able to relax.”

Furthermore, according to Machado, “most of foreign crews aren’t getting launches” to go to land to shop and visit. And “most foreign crews get paid comparatively little anyway, and are probably not racking up a lot of overtime compared to U.S. workers.” He added that American crews make most of their money through overtime work, which on “good ships” can be up to four hours a day.

Passing The Time

To fight the boredom, shipping crews turn where most everyone else does. On-ship Internet, Machado said, had rapidly advanced in the past five years. In the early 2000s, he said, crew members had to write text-only emails that would then be transferred in bulk twice a day. Today, ships routinely have usable onboard Internet that allows sailors to reliably (if slowly) access Facebook, Twitter, and other networks by satellite connection. Cargo crews from different lines or nationalities routinely form private Facebook groups where they trade job leads, gossip, and links with abandon.

Modern containers ships offer a range of entertainment options, though they would never be confused for a cruise line. Journalist Rose George, who lived aboard a cargo container ship for her book Ninety Percent of Everything, said that in spite of her ship’s gym, karaoke machine, and library, the default recreation mode was a ubiquitous laptop computer that every single crew member seemed to own for watching DVDs. Machado added that many of the ships he has worked on more recently had extensive video-on-demand libraries (similar to systems on airplanes), and that almost every ship had one or two crew members expertly adroit at finding pornography on them.

If sailors are lucky enough to have a launch to shore or extended shore leave in Los Angeles, the International Seafarers Center offers shuttles to nearby Western Union locations and department stores. It has even sponsored trips to tourist destinations such as Universal Studios or Disneyland for crew on longer shore leaves.

But Seafarer Centers, George tells Fast Company, are “way too underfunded by the industry, disgracefully” and often have to make do on meager budgets.


“Only 25% of steamship companies pay the measly $35 per vessel tariff to help support the International Seafarers Center,” Fox said, which leaves his organization on the verge of shutting down each year for lack of funding. (The ISC accepts donations from the public and is especially looking for used vans with maintenance to help shuttle visiting sailors.)

Stuck offshore, sailors miss out on other opportunities, said Machado. When ships are in port, longshoremen and vendors frequently come on board to sell souvenirs and—crucially—local SIM cards crew members can use in their phones to call loved ones back home and surf the web at higher speeds. These vendors play a valuable role in port life, given that sailors may have limited time before their next sail and don’t have the opportunity to travel beyond the nearest supermarket or shopping center.

This time, however, sailors’ time to rest and restock on shore will likely be brief, Fox said. “I understand that the ‘slowdown’ is over and a contract has been agreed, so when they do come to a dock, they may just have a 24-hour turnaround. So, more time at sea, and no downtime on shore.”

Slowly Getting Back To Normal

Longshoremen at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are posting pictures of empty docks and storage areas to Facebook as well, while business owners complain that their goods aren’t arriving.

While ports elsewhere have been picking up some of the slack, the backlog has caused rising prices and lost sales for furniture, car, toy, and clothing imports from Asia. Panjiva, which collects logistics data, reports that traffic at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach from December into January totaled approximately $775,000 worth of cargo, a staggering decrease of 21%. And on-time arrivals at West Coast ports have decreased sharply since July of 2014, according to freight quote clearinghouse Freightos (one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2015). For retailers, the costs of the backup, Bloomberg reports, could total an estimated $7 billion this year, mostly due to lost sales and higher shipping costs.

Slowdowns, Machado said, are a common negotiation tool for longshoremen, who earn an average of $98,603 in California (including two-and-a-half-weeks of paid vacation) for their dangerous jobs. But it’s “super rare” for the shipping industry to deal with anything like the delays currently happening in California. While the unions and shipping companies have come to an agreement, and the backlog at the port is expected to decrease in the coming weeks, normalcy in operations may not come for three months.