ABOARD THE SEA-LAND INTEGRITY -- The ship was five hours behind schedule. Capt. Alan Hinshaw gripped the rail outside the bridge, and his body shuddered each time the cranes slammed another cargo container into the hull.
Boom! Twenty-one tons of copper foil. Boom! Seven-hundred and twenty bags of glue.
Before the Integrity could leave its pier in Elizabeth, N.J., 2,300 steel boxes had to be loaded on or off. Four cranes worked the deck simultaneously.
Boom! Plywood, tulip bulbs, canned luncheon meet. Boom! Salted cod, washing-machine windows.
Sometime Saturday morning, Hinshaw would sail from New York harbor to Norfolk, Va., racing to get back on schedule and prove to his employer, Sea-Land Service Inc., that his crew and his ship are worth what they cost.
But Sea-Land would be fighting a battle of its own.
Both the ship and the company that owns it are among the last of their kind -- lone U.S. giants in an industry long since conquered by foreigners. What the ship means to its crew, Sea-Land means to the whole of the U.S. merchant marine -- the last survivors, in a final stand against obsolescence.
Boom! Hanging garments, beer, used airplane tires.
The Integrity would leave the pier as soon as the cranes stopped working.
"Everyone on board knows what it's like to lay up a ship, lose a job, move to another company," said Hinshaw, still wearing the black captain's uniform he puts on for guests.
"Sea-Land is the last bastion for most of us. It's the end. Sea-Land has all the blood."
Sea-Land is a company known for taking risks. It invented containerized shipping 40 years ago, and has defied the industry ever since with bold decisions that somehow pay off. It builds ports where no one else goes; makes a profit while others founder. It sails U.S.-flagged ships that other companies can't afford; invests in places like China and Russia, where few other companies can compete.
Sea-Land is considering a 25-year investment in Baltimore, a port that most shipping lines abandoned years ago. Again defying industry trends, the company is studying whether the nation's industrial base will shift away from New York and make a second-tier port like Baltimore a long-term strategic advantage.
At Sea-Land's suburban headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., hundreds of experts manage 94 ships and 220,000 cargo containers, trying to place all of them in the right place at the right time and for the right price.
Sea-Land makes billion-dollar decisions that affect thousands of stockholders and the very future of the U.S. merchant marine. The Integrity is just one pin on the map.
The ship's 21 crew members came from all over the country, and their resumes read like the obituaries of the U.S. merchant marine. American Export Lines. El Paso Natural Gas. United States Lines. Everyone on board has sailed at least one U.S. shipping company to its death.
Now they work for the last great American-owned shipping line, on an old, tired container ship with a reputation for being slow. And they were five hours late.
Hinshaw was digging into a roast beef dinner at 5: 30 p.m. one recent Friday when Dick Brown, the chief engineer, and Dan Wright, first assistant engineer, sat down next to him. They had black grease caked under their fingernails and into the folds of skin on their hands, and their clothes looked as if they'd just slept in a chimney. The Integrity needs a lot of maintenance, and they'd been in the engine room since 6 a.m.
Winds idled cranes
Five hours late felt like a victory. They were 32 hours late two weeks ago, because of high winds in Bremerhaven, Germany, that idled the cranes. Yet the crew made up most of it crossing the Atlantic. The North Atlantic -- the most treacherous trade lane on the globe. Their old, slow ship crossed the North Atlantic a day early.
"Our job is to move cargo," said Wright. "If we can't do that, there is no job."
"And it's not enough to just move it," said Hinshaw. "We have to move it on time."
The schedule is the god of the merchant marine. Everyone on board lives by it, bows to it. Ships can cost $40,000 a day to operate, so each hour at the docks, every extra day at sea, means lost money and angry customers.
In one corner of Sea-Land's Charlotte headquarters is a crescent-shaped room called the Tactical Planning Center. Reminiscent of NASA's mission control room, workers track all of Sea-Land's ships and containers throughout the world, as the Weather Channel beams from a giant TV screen. Their mission: Maintain the schedule.
Some cargo can't wait. When Alaskan fishermen bring in the king crab catch two weeks early, the planning center diverts ships and containers from all over the globe.
The $200,000 worth of clementines in Valencia, Spain? They'll be $0 worth of clementines unless they get ships, refrigerated containers and a guaranteed time of arrival in New York.