Supply Chains that Rock Around the Clock: Come Sail Away With Me

Supply Chains that Rock Around the Clock: Come Sail Away With Me

From Manic Monday to Friday Night, ports are awash with activity.

The ocean shipping industry is awash with challenges as tepid freight volumes and overcapacity continue to erode revenues. Steamship lines are hyper-sensitive to shifts in demand. Consequently, many are idling vessels, reconfiguring service strings and port calls, and joining alliances to help rationalize capacity and better utilize assets.

Port efficiency and throughput is equally important. As the Panama Canal’s grand re-opening nears, and larger containerships come online, carriers are further challenged with streamlining and expediting vessel discharge and loading at port. Time is money—especially as containerships approach 20,000 TEUs.

Marc Bourdon, North American president of French shipping line CMA CGM, the world’s third-largest ocean freight carrier, offers a 24/7 behind-the-gate view of what happens when a container vessel arrives at port.

A containership’s arrival at port generates a buzz of activity as stevedores and truck drivers gather enmasse to work the vessel. That said, most of the preparation occurs days in advance. Steamship lines often start planning five to 10 days out, depending on the origin of the last call, to ensure discharge and loading happen as seamlessly and efficiently as possible.

Among pre-arrival considerations:

  • Pre-filing of Customs manifest: Enables Customs to inspect manifest information prior to vessel arrival. This task is usually performed electronically.
  • Preplanning of stowage and container yard prep: Five days before a vessel arrives at port, CMA CGM opens up receiving of cargo. As containers come into the terminal for export, they are normally removed from trailers and stacked four to five feet high in the container yard. This reduces the space required to store them. Containers dwell in these stacks until loading begins.

Containers in pre-loaded stacks are reworked into proper sequence to avoid delays during loading to vessel. In this scenario, it’s worth the cost of rebuilding and resequencing boxes to ensure the smoothest operation loading to the vessel. Each container going on the ship has a designated stowage location onboard, based on destination and weight. Having them arrive at the crane for loading at the proper time is critical to avoid re-handling or wasted time spent waiting for containers.

  • Labor orders: Vessel stevedores including line handlers, lashing gangs, crane operators, and working gangs have to be ordered from the union the day prior to vessel arrival in accordance with their Collective Bargaining Agreement.
  • Ordering tugs and pilot: Pilots are also notified one day prior to the vessel arrival. Timing is coordinated as the vessel comes closer to the port. The terminal also identifies and communicates exact berth. An email loop circulates among the steamship line, terminal, and vessel captain during transit, sharing mission-critical information.


The arrival of a vessel at destination harbor or channel triggers a sequence of events. Consider, for example, this scenario: CMA CGM’s 8,469-TEU Dalila reaches New York Harbor early in the morning for an expected 48-hour layover.

  • 4 am: Onboarding pilot/vessel arrival at berth. Pilot boards the vessel just prior to entering the channel for approach into the port and works with the ship crew and tug boats to ensure a safe arrival to the container berth. Pilotage may require anywhere from one to four tugs depending on the complexity of the maneuvering. The length of pilotage varies port to port. For example, it might take as long as eight hours in Baltimore because of its distance from the ocean. By contrast, Los Angeles/Long Beach is about one and a half hours.
  • 6 to 7 am: Vessel arrives at dock. It takes about 30 minutes to one hour for longshoremen to secure the vessel dockside.
  • 7 am: Customs inspections occur. U.S. government agencies—Customs, Coast Guard, Department of Agriculture—board the vessel to check all documentation, perform safety inspections, and look for any signs of pollution or contamination. At this time, laborers also arrive to begin unlashing containers on deck for discharge.
  • 8 am: Vessel discharge begins. Longshoremen initiate the process of removing hatches and cycling containers to maximize productivity. Container stacking, sequencing, and staging prior to vessel arrival help increase efficiency. The longshoremen unsecure containers, discharge on-deck cargo, then remove hatch covers to reach under-deck cargo.Containers often are stacked four to five tiers high on deck, and eight to nine tiers below deck.Containers are unloaded and loaded simultaneously whenever possible to reduce the number of crane movements and speed the operation. Once the cargo operations below deck are complete, hatch covers are returned and more containers are stowed on top of the covers, then secured in place by the lashing gangs.
  • 11 am to 1 pm: Lunch. During the two-hour window when longshoremen are required to take a one-hour break, a shore gang often replenishes ship stores.


During the Dalila‘s stay at port, four gangs of longshoremen work the vessel 21 hours per day for two days—including mandated one-hour meal and leeway breaks.

Provisions are usually delivered shipside by truck using a small onboard crane to bring pallets up to the main deck. Bunker fuel is loaded from a barge on the off-shore side of the vessel while cargo operations are ongoing. Crews will take a taxi to local stores for personal shopping or dining while off ship.

Even before the Dalila arrives at Port Newark, plans are already in motion at its next port of call—Norfolk—to open receiving for cargo. All along the vessel’s service string, a cascade of inputs and outputs impact forward planning and operations. Upon completion of loading at port, the vessel prepares for departure.

Once all cargo operations are complete, the tugs and pilot return to guide the vessel back out of the harbor. When reaching the end of the channel, the pilot departs with the tugs, and the vessel proceeds to the next port, where the entire process is repeated. 

Meanwhile, at Port Newark, Customs clears and releases containers discharged from the Dalila. They then continue their onward movement to their final destination in North America. Some containers move by truck on shorter drays within the local area, while others move directly from the container yard onto specially constructed railroad cars bound for hinterland destinations.

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