The World Shipping Council estimates that nearly 1,400 shipping containers are lost a sea annually. (Contributed)

USA - Our Ocean Backyard | Shipping containers carry cargo and danger

Much of what we all consume or own today arrived here in a shipping container. These large steel boxes have become the vehicle by which virtually everything that isn’t shipped in bulk like oil, coal or grain, for example, is transported around the planet today.

Most of these are painted a single color and when stacked on a ship look a lot like Lego building blocks. The stacks of these extra-large Legos start down in the ship’s hold, as much as 23 abreast, and can reach the height of a 10-story building, high above the deck of a container ship. The standard unit for describing these very large Legos is a TEU, which is a 20-foot equivalent unit, or a container 20 feet long. A 40-foot-long container would be two 20-foot equivalent units.

The earliest container ships were just converted cargo vessels or oil tankers and were only about 400 feet long, roughly the distance from home plate to the fence in deep center field. But as time went on ship owners realized that for both oil tankers and container ships, more cargo could be carried on larger ships with no additional crew.

So the container ships grew until we reached what are known today as Ultra Large Container Vessels (or a U.L.C.V.) that are now about 1,300 feet long or the length of four football or soccer fields. In a word, these are massive and the costs of construction are also massive, with one of these superships going for about $150 to $170 million. Ninety-four percent of the world’s container ships are built in China, Korea or Japan, and when they reach the end of their useful lives, they are taken to Bangladesh, India or Pakistan where about 88% of the breakdown and recycling takes place.

Costs to ship a 40-foot container from China to the U.S. West coast is now about $5,400. These huge ships can carry as many as 23,000 containers from Asia to California with a crew of 25. The operation of these megaships has become extremely efficient, with container ships staying in port for only about 17 hours on average. And one individual container can be loaded or unloaded in about a minute, more or less, about as long as you can hold your breath. There are now about 1,950 container ships in operation in the oceans of the world, and 939 ports around the globe that handle shipping containers.

Maybe not surprising, nine of the 10 busiest container ports on the world are in Asia, with six of these being in China. California has three of the 10 busiest ports in the United States, with Los Angeles and Long Beach ranking first and third in total volume of 20-foot equivalent units. Oakland squeaks in as No. 9.

While precise statistics are difficult to come by due to the international diversity of the container shipping business, the best estimate is that there are about 226 million shipping containers moved across one ocean or another every year. And it turns out, it is easier to keep track of the 25 crew members on a U.L.C.V. than the 23,000 steel boxes being carried.

There have been some well publicized failures in what have become known as stack attacks. While these heavy containers do have a Lego-like interlock system, when they are stacked as high as a 10-story building and a ship encounters heavy seas and high winds, things can go bad in a hurry.

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