SEATTLE — cargo containers are so ubiquitous, they can be hard to see: hauled singly by trucks on the highway, double-stacked on trains passing by, massed together in building-size slabs on container ships chugging up and down Puget Sound, so common they fade into the background like pebbles or power lines.
But if you want to appreciate the sheer volume and velocity of containers moving through Seattle, a weekday-morning visit to Terminal 18 Park on Harbor Island, just alongside the Duwamish Waterway, can be a Road to Damascus moment.
Suddenly, they’re everywhere: stacked in towers as trucks stream by, each one either carrying or about to carry a single container that has been plucked off its ship by a crane and passed from a vehicle to a stack to another vehicle that deposits it on the back of an 18-wheeler bound for wherever. And that’s just 30% to 40% of the containers coming into Seattle. Longshore workers and port officials say the other 60% to 70% leave on trains for even farther afield.
In 2021, the Northwest Seaport Alliance — the combined cargo-port operations of Seattle and Tacoma — reported moving 3.7 million containers, putting it among the top five busiest container ports in North America. (That NWSA merger was engineered to stop the two ports from competing and undercutting each other for shipping-company contracts. Perhaps in the spirit of noncompetition, it does not make Seattle- or Tacoma-specific figures available to the public.)
Top imports that year included furniture, motor vehicle parts and toys/games. Top exports included hay, frozen potato products and … empty containers. According to NWSA’s 2021 report, it exported 20,743 containers full of apples and 836,012 containers full of air. NWSA is not alone in this: U.S. demand for imported goods is so strong, hauling an empty container to Asia to fill with stuff can be more lucrative than shipping a container full of apples.
Whatever’s in them, the intensity of the container trade is overwhelming, but often invisible. “In spite of the fact that the port’s footprint has grown, it seems less noticed,” says John Persak, who worked as a longshoreman for 23 years before joining the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development. Why is that? Because, he suspects, so many newcomers have arrived for other reasons, with other preoccupations.
“If you come to Seattle from a different place, you might think arts and culture, natural beauty, Microsoft, Google, all the works,” he says. “The fact that it’s a medium-sized industrial city is an afterthought. As a result, you get people elected to office on other issues, like homelessness and police reform. It becomes like the trains running on time. Nobody notices until it breaks.”
And it has broken recently, as pandemic shutdowns snarled supply chains — but even in those moments, public attention usually turns on consumers (photos of empty shelves) or macroeconomics (graphs detailing unemployment or inflation). The links in the chain, particularly the seafarers drifting by, mostly escape our attention.
So I’d gone to Harbor Island that busy weekday morning, with its overwhelm of trucks and containers, to meet the Rev. Cristi Chapman and Deacon Joey DeLeon of the Seattle Seafarers Center, a maritime ministry that supports sailors — and to go aboard some container ships.
REMEMBER THE EVER GIVEN? The massive containership, longer than two Space Needles, that got stuck in the Suez Canal?
Egyptian officials blamed high winds. A New York Times investigation suggested human error. But the captain of the Sunrise Dragon, a much smaller container ship docked at Harbor Island, has another theory: cigarettes. Or, more precisely, their absence.
“We call that place ‘Marlboro Country,’ “ says Captain Paler, a 30-year mariner from the Philippines who is currently enjoying a post-meal cigarette of his own aboard the Sunrise Dragon. Chapman and DeLeon had boarded the vessel shortly beforehand and were invited to lunch: rice, crispy fried chicken and egg drop soup. Now the captain is telling sea stories.
Suez tugboats, Paler explains, are notorious for demanding cigarettes to shepherd a ship safely. (In 2015, the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network launched a campaign attempting to end the practice.) When the Ever Given got stuck, cargo captains began saying — jokingly or otherwise — that its captain must’ve refused the customary bribe.
“The Panama Canal is OK,” Paler clarifies. “You only need cigarettes for Suez. Fifteen cartons!”
The talk turns to COVID, which has caused havoc on supply chains but also on seafarers and their mental health. Last year, Paler says, he had crew members who had been stuck aboard for 14 months — vaccines weren’t available, and no country would let them disembark.
Some shipping companies still won’t let even vaccinated sailors go ashore — they say because of COVID risks, though some seafarers and their unions argue it’s about keeping them at work, which further cloisters them from the wider world.
“We say our job is to make visible the invisible seafarer,” says Rev. Chapman, who serves as executive director of Seattle Seafarers Center (SSC), founded about 10 years ago in a merger between Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopalian maritime ministries. SSC visits dozens of crews each month, estimating it walks up the gangways of 80% to 90% of the cargo and cruise ships calling in Seattle.
During visits, the reverend and the deacon check in with seafarers; hand out SIM cards for their phones; distribute knit caps, care packages and rosaries; and provide any counsel or aid Chapman (Episcopalian) or DeLeon (Catholic) can provide. When the pandemic hit, they also coordinated vaccinations. Sometimes, they try to sniff out abuse of crew — unpaid overtime, punitive officers — and resolve any festering disputes.
“Every time I come to a ship, it’s like going into a puzzle or labyrinth,” DeLeon says. “Having the right discernment to do what you are supposed to do is always the question.”
SSC used to take mariners shopping or sightseeing, but another factor besides COVID increasingly blocks the sailors from shore time: faster cargo turnaround. Some old-timers reminisce about pulling into Singapore or Alexandria, Egypt, with weeks — even a month! — to explore. No more. The Sunrise Dragon had arrived from Oakland at 6 a.m. and would be gone by 6 p.m., bound for Shanghai.
The sailors, all from the Philippines, are a little tired-looking and taciturn, but they crowd around Chapman and DeLeon for light talk in English and Tagalog. (DeLeon grew up in Manila.) “When do you come back?” DeLeon asks. Two months, one sailor answers. “Email us ahead of time, and we can take you to the mall — or send us a shopping list, and we’ll bring you things.”
The sailor seems to smile behind his mask: “This is good. In Oakland, nobody came.”
THE SUNRISE DRAGON is owned by a Japanese company but registered in Singapore — pretty much every cargo ship calling in Seattle flies a foreign flag.
Not that there are many U.S.-flagged ships to go around. Even as global, just-in-time shipping has accelerated, the American cargo fleet has dropped steeply, from more than 2,000 ships (in the 1940s) to 850 (1970) to just 178 in January 2022. Of the thousands of ships crisscrossing the ocean, stitching countries and their economies together, only 61 boxships and 65 tankers (their hulls full of chemicals or oil) fly U.S. flags.
But U.S. cargo sailing is still a profession, though experiencing its own labor shortages. Brendan Bohannon, Seattle agent for Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, says his job board used to hold two or three openings that’d disappear quickly. Lately, he’s had more than 30 hanging there, untaken.
It’s hard work, with 12-hour days, but can be lucrative. “I bought my house five years ago and paid it off,” says Jill Holleman, who grew up in Eastern Washington but, through a few twists of fate, took her first boxship run in 2010: Los Angeles, Honolulu, Guam, ports in Asia, then back to L.A., in 35 days. “It’s pretty amazing that a single mom can own her own home at 42.”
Holleman also has sea stories most of us — single moms or otherwise — do not, though she tells them in a compellingly nonchalant way. She’s sailed in 100-knot winds off the Oregon coast (“We just sort of rode it out for two days”); was in a three-ship collision in Yokohama, Japan (nobody was seriously hurt, though a few people got fired); and has sailed on ships that erected big metal screens and brought on hired guns to fend off pirates. They’ve never been necessary. “The closest I had to a pirate experience was in the Red Sea,” she says. “We were dead in the water because something happened to our engine, and a small boat came alongside. The captain sounded the alarm for pirates, and we all went to the hiding place.” Turned out the small boat was carrying fresh fish and wondered whether the big boat wanted to buy any.
She typically works as a bridge watchstander — someone who assists in the continuous operation of the vessel, in the equivalent of its cockpit — and rarely knows what her ship is hauling, but sometimes can smell it.
“Like Christmas trees going to Honolulu,” she says. “We’ve carried live cows, which you can definitely smell. They’re in open-air boxes and come with people who water and take care of them. Sometimes a cow will die, and it’s our job to throw it over the side. Luckily, that’s never happened to me.”
Becoming a professional sailor is trickier than it used to be (gone are the days of just showing up at the union hall), with background checks, trainings and credentials. But it’s not impossible — Holleman attended a yearlong program at Seattle Maritime Academy, through Seattle Central College, and still finds the job rewarding.
“I like being at sea,” she says. “I like the motion, the swells. I like storms. You get thrown around quite a bit, but it’s exciting to see nature up close. I see sperm whales up north toward Alaska and China, humpbacks in the Indian Ocean, crocodiles in the Panama Canal. Some people never notice any of that — they tend to be a little more bitter about their jobs. But there’s some good things out there for me.”
Onboard, she says, there’s usually a mix of races and nationalities, typically one or two other women, and a substantial age range, from 20-somethings to 70-somethings.
Though, she allows, “My perspective is so small, just U.S.-crewed ships. There are so many other ships that are foreign-flagged.”
And some of those flags have better reputations than others.
IT’S EARLY AFTERNOON in an office aboard the containership Gemini, and Captain Florin-Julian Pop is cooperating — but he’s not happy about it.
Fit and trim with a shaved head, salt-and-pepper stubble and a polo shirt bearing the name of his employer (French shipping giant CMA CGM), the Romanian officer clearly would rather be somewhere else.
“The first thing you must write is that these inspectors pretend they want to help,” he says, looking at me. “But they always come at noon, when we need to eat, or the afternoon, when we need to rest.”
His tone is maybe 10% jokey and 90% bristling. It would get bristlier.
The inspector in question, Jeff Engels of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), shrugs lightly. He’s used to grumpy captains from all over the world.
Engels, who has bushy white hair and an energetic but unflappable demeanor, comes across as a combination of old salt and enthusiastic college professor. He grew up on Vashon Island and worked as a seafarer for 20 years (oceangoing tugs in Alaska, military cargo to the Persian Gulf, boxships to ports across Asia) before joining the ITF — a global, London-based union that, among other things, boards cargo ships for surprise inspections to ensure international crews are being paid and treated fairly.
The Gemini is a global affair. Captain Pop is Romanian; the crew is from Myanmar, Ukraine and elsewhere; and the ship is French-owned but registered in Malta — which put it on Engels’ radar.
He and the ITF have a passion for ships flying “flags of convenience,” or FOCs — that is, vessels registered in countries such as Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands, which have, shall we say, business-friendly reputations when it comes to taxes, labor laws and other regulations. Malta is another FOC country.
Like Chapman and DeLeon, Engels has to work fast. “As soon as you get onboard, you have to strike up a quick rapport with the crew,” he said before we boarded the Gemini. “There are tells. If the seafarers are smiling, happy to see me, that’s a good sign. If they’re standoffish, looking at the ground, maybe something’s up: bullying, discrimination, stolen wages. It can get tricky.”
“Tricky,” in part, because non-U. S. ships aren’t subject to U.S. labor law. “FOC ships can be real Wild West,” he said. “I have to be able to negotiate, bluff, take advantage of international conventions to get fair representation for some of the most exploited workers in the world.”
True to plan, as soon as we get up the gangway, Engels is chatting up a storm. He asks for the chief mate, then tells the young officer he wants to see the captain. After a brief pause (“The captain? Now?” “Yes, now.”), we’re whisked up an elevator and into the office.
Engels works twice as fast with the captain, asking for a flurry of paper, including recent pay slips to confirm sailors are getting what they’re owed. The room’s collective blood pressure is rising, but Pop and the mate hustle, pulling out binders and printing out documents. Cargo containers whiz past a window, followed by dull, ship-rattling booms.
There’s an issue with the pay documentation: Pop says each sailor gets it emailed, so he doesn’t have copies, and pulls out his phone to show Engels his own pay slip.
“Oh-ho!” Engels teases. “I bet it’s gonna be big!”
“If they give me more responsibility, then yes, it’s big,” Pop snarls. “Because it’s not the bosun who’s up here showing you the Myanmar pay agreements and the contracts. Everybody’s not firing on him! They’re firing on me!”
After maybe an hour of tense exchanges and booming containers — and summoning individual sailors to show pay slips on their phones — Engels is satisfied. The inspection is clean.
“Thank you very much, Captain,” he says, grinning. “And I’ll tell you a little secret: I go fast on purpose, keep people a little off balance — if they’re lying, sometimes I can catch them. But you did great; everything looks good.”
This disclosure doesn’t exactly overwhelm Pop with bonhomie, but he shakes our hands and sends us on our way with the mate. After a quick tour of Gemini’s kitchen, mess halls and bulletin boards, Engels strides back down the gangway, glancing up and timing his descent so he’s never directly beneath one of the millions of containers being slung from shore to ship and ship to shore.
“IT’S A BIG ECOSYSTEM,” Engels says as we drive back downtown, past the boats and cranes and fences separating Seattle from the cargo terminals. He wishes the whole thing commanded just a little more of people’s attention. “It’s huge economically for King County, with lots of jobs and millions and millions of dollars. And what’s our baseball team? The Mariners! But people just drive by. The maritime heritage is being lost.”
He talks about previous fights he’s led with shipping companies over wages and abuse — and captains, some pleasant and helpful, some thieving tyrants, and others just prickly. “Sometimes my work is lonesome and tedious,” Engels says. “Other times, I get to make a difference for the forgotten men and women of the sea who transport 90% of the world’s cargo.”
If Rev. Chapman and Deacon DeLeon serve as caretakers and shepherds in that hidden world, Engels is a detective — and, when necessary, a bulldog. Though their methods differ, they’re answering a similar call, bearing witness to a global network most of us depend on and see only in small hints: ships lumbering in Puget Sound, the “made in China” label tucked into a favorite shirt, the name of Seattle’s baseball team.
But those three, and people like them in ports around the world, all want the same thing — to make visible the invisible seafarer.