Big Ships

It’s 3 a.m. on a Friday and the Port of Long Beach is blanketed in a heavy fog. Captain Robert Lukowski and his co-pilot Mark Coynes sit quietly on a small boat, heading out to meet the MSC Valeria, an enormous container ship the length of four football fields. Their job is to steer the Valeria safely into the Port of Long Beach, where its cargo will be unloaded.

Think of pilots Lukowski and Coynes as valet parking attendants, but on a much larger scale: Imagine trying to park the Empire State Building. At 366 meters long, the Valeria is so big that there’s only one parking spot in all of Long Beach port’s inner harbor large enough to accommodate it. Even still, it’s a very tight squeeze.

“A 2,000 container ship was a big ship when I started piloting,” recalls Capt. Lukowski. “Now those ships, they hardly exist.” The Valeria holds 7,000 containers, each one the size of what you might see on the back of a semi truck. It’s one of the biggest ships in the world.


If moving a ship was playing a piece of music, the pilot would be the conductor.

Captain Robert Lukowski

By moving more cargo in a single load, these big ships reduce the ratio of fuel needed per container. “The ships are so massive,” Lukowski says. “They’re carrying much, much more cargo, which is much more efficient.” In other words, big ships make economic sense.

Like everything at the ports, the ships reflect the economic climate. Before the 2008 financial crisis, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach experienced 20 years of what seemed like limitless growth. There was so much stuff to ship that the biggest worry at the ports was how to move as much cargo as possible through the harbor.

When the economy crashed in 2008, world trade came to a standstill, sending shockwaves through the entire shipping industry. Traffic coming through the Port of Los Angeles dropped 26 percent and about 20 percent in Long Beach. “Nobody was buying anything, nobody was shipping anything and so ships were laid up and not, you know, going anywhere,” says John McLaurin, who runs the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.

In the two years that followed, fuel prices began to rise again and shipping companies started manufacturing bigger ships that could carry more cargo. The size of ships has increased more rapidly than anyone could have expected, almost doubling since 2008.

A look at how cargo ships have grown over time.

A look at how cargo ships have grown over time.

Ports across the world feel a need to become “big ship ready” in order to stay competitive. They are building the infrastructure to handle bigger ships by dredging the harbors to create a deeper channels, installing towering cranes to handle incoming cargo, and manufacturing automated vehicles that can efficiently move goods throughout the port.

Automation is coming to the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, too. At the Port of Los Angeles, a project is underway to build the first fully automated terminal on the West Coast. The renovations should be completed by 2016 and are being done for the shipping company TraPac Inc. At the Port of Long Beach, there’s a $1.5 billion project to develop Middle Harbor with bigger cranes and unmanned vehicles.

While automation will keep the ports of L.A. and Long Beach competitive economically, it also means fewer jobs. According to a report from the Los Angeles Harbor Department, automation could result in 160-200 fewer longshore jobs (longshoreman load and unload cargo from a docked ship). The actual number will depend on negotiations between the union and employers already underway.

The Locals

Amidst the towering cranes, clanging cargo containers and massive ships on the Los Angeles and Long Beach waterfront are thousands of workers who keep the stuff we buy moving.

Here you’ll find the longshoremen: the dockworkers, crane operators and drivers who load and unload cargo from a docked ship – they can earn up to $100,000 a year with good benefits if they are in the union.

You’ll find the casual workers, who live paycheck to paycheck, waiting each day for their number to be called so they can get a job.

You’ll see the linesmen, who tie the ships to the docks with rope. Frosty is a linesman. He dropped his cell phone “in the drink” while he was tying up a ship. There’s Spinner, a former union leader, who has fought to protect the benefits and jobs for his union “brothers and sisters” at a time of big changes at the ports.

You’ll find women who years ago fought to join the union when it was still mostly a man’s world.

You’ll also come across oldtimers like Johnny O, a lines bureau dispatcher. He calls himself a pirate. His parrot, Bok-Bok, nuzzles in the crook of his neck and nibbles on his cigarette.

Leave the docks and head to Utro’s, a San Pedro cafe, where you can study the walls plastered with old photos of longshoremen, worn postcards, and newspaper clippings that tell stories about life on the waterfront. Behind the bar, you’ll meet Nancy Utovac, who arm-wrestled her sister to win her father’s spot in the union, and her brother, Joe, who took her to the union hall on her first day.

Everyone here has a nickname and a story.

Life at the Ports

The Goods

The United States imports more goods than any other country in the world. From oil, its biggest import, to computers, tires, t-shirts, makeup and taxi meters, most of the things Americans use every day come in a 40-foot container on a cargo ship from somewhere else. From there, the goods travel to local stores by truck or train to be put on the shelves.

“I was always a collector of stuff,” says Geraldine Knatz, who was the Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles for over seven years. She retired at the end of 2013.

I think they were designed really to help people with geography,” says Knatz of her board game collection.

I think they were designed really to help people with geography,” says Knatz of her board game collection.

She’s in her office, where a series of vintage board games clutter the conference table: Trade Winds, Pana Kanal and Cargoes (for ages 7 to 15). It’s her personal collection of historic games from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She points to a newer merchant marine game from the 1990s.

“It is so complicated,” she says. “I took one look at it and I said okay, that’s nice to have for the collection, but I’m not gonna try and play it!”

Knatz, who is in her early 60s, has a relationship with stuff that is typical for a lot of baby boomers. It means something. “When I was in high school, heck you wanted to get married, you wanted to buy your house, and you wanted to fill it up with stuff,” says Knatz.

But she has noticed that as her generation has started aging, the constant influx of stuff is dropping off. Simply put, younger people aren’t buying as much. While their parents were getting old, the recession hit, the debt load grew, and things like cars and houses and other indicators of adulthood became less important. “There’s some dramatic things going on in society that are going to ripple through this industry, that are going to affect us in terms of that volume growth,” says Knatz.

Imports and Exports

Imports rule at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In 2013 the ports saw a whopping $314.9 billion in imports, while exports only accounted for $80.4 billion in trade.

2013 trade data from
Click on the cargo containers to get a closer look at some the goods that come through the busy channels of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.


Gas pumps.

Of the $86.67 billion in gasoline and other fuels that enter the United States, $2.9 billion is imported through the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. And $1.2 billion of the $111.8 billion in gas and fuel we export nationwide goes out through these same ports.

Photo: Upupa4me/Flickr/Creative Commons


Toys and more toys.

Toys are one of the top imports into the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, bringing in $5.1 billion in trade. Nationwide, the country sees $11 billion in imported toys, with most of them coming from China.

Photo: David Lofink/Flickr/Creative Commons


Bicycles in a row.

The ports of L.A. and Long Beach are the number one importer of bicycles in the United States. Most of the bikes come from China and Taiwan, though bikes also come from the U.K., Canada, Germany and Tajikistan, which sends more bikes than Spain.

Photo: Schristia/Flickr/Creative Commons


Cotton plants in a row.

The ports of L.A. and Long Beach export $2.5 billion in cotton. Most of it goes to China, and some of it likely comes back as knit clothing, which makes up over $8 billion in imports to these two ports.

Photo: Kimberly Vardeman/Flickr/Creative Commons


Cargo containers all stacked up.

It's a joke around the ports that the biggest export is air. Empty containers account for 23 percent of the trade at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

Photo: Commons


Lots of garbage is shipped to China.

Garbage is the United States' number one export to China. Paper and metal scrap make up a whopping $5.3 billion of trade out of the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. Some of this is recycled into new products and sold back to America.

Photo: Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources/Flickr/Creative Commons



With Boeing in Southern California, it's no surprise that civilian aircraft and parts is one of the biggest exports from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, to the tune of $784 million. Nationwide, the U.S. exports $105.55 billion in civilian aircraft and parts.

Photo: Doug/Flickr/Creative Commons



California is the number one producer of almonds, and this crop is one of the leading exports from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. Of the $7.11 billion total in almonds and other nuts leaving the United States, $1.6 billion passes through the ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

Photo: Harsha K R/Flickr/Creative Commons


Photos of many computers.

At the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, computers account for $12.8 billion in trade. Nationwide, computers account for $82.02 billion in trade, with most of the machines coming from China. And when Americans throw computers away, where does the e-waste go? China.

Photo Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería/ Flickr/ Creative Commons


Oil barrels

The United States gets most of its oil from Canada, followed by Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela and Iraq. While Texas sees most of this imported oil, to the tune of $50 billion in trade, the ports of L.A. and Long Beach see $11.7 billion.

Photo: Sergio Russo/Flickr/Creative Commons



Cars are the number one import at the port of Los Angeles, accounting for $11.9 billion in trade. But that’s just a small fraction of the $153.75 billion in cars that are imported annually to the United States.

Photo: Alex/Flickr/Creative Commons



Shoes and shoe parts make up $13.7 billion in trade into the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. It’s possible that the shoes you're wearing were made from hides that originated in the U.S., went to China to be turned into leather and were sent back to your local store via the ports.

Photo: mopsografie/Flickr/Creative Commons



The United States is the world's largest exporter of hides - the skin of horses and cows. Making up $1.6 billion of the trade out of the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, hides are one of Southern California's more valuable exports. While the tanning industry shrinks in the U.S., it’s growing abroad.

Photo: Lu Olkowski

Walter Kemmsies, an economist who studies global trade and economic trends, says, “The economy is about people. As people change, the economy shifts.” For a long time, the consumer economy has followed the baby boomer consumption patterns, from cars to furniture to diapers and school supplies for their kids. “They made Kmart do well in the early ‘80s when they were yuppies and then Walmart when they moved to the suburbs,” says Kemmsies. “As these baby boomers went through the cycle of life, they created booms and busts in one industry after the other.”

In the 2020s,1.8 million Americans will turn 65. As they get ready for retirement, their spending habits are changing. “They’re just retired or they’re getting ready to retire and they’re not spending money,” says Peter Peyton a board member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. “And we’re seeing numbers drop off dramatically. We’re seeing stuff just drop in a scary way.”

A real time look at cargo ships traveling in and out of the ports of L.A. and Long Beach

The Pirate

Early morning sunlight streams through the blinds as John Ostoich pours his first bourbon of the day. A cigarette hangs from his lips; his parrot, Bok-Bok, rests on his shoulder. Johnny O, as he’s known, has spent most of his 68 years working on the San Pedro waterfront. His skin is leathery and creased after decades of working on the docks, but he still has a twinkle in his eye. “The ocean is my mistress,” he says. “She is beautiful and dangerous.”

Johnny O tends to his parrot, Bok-Bok. “She's already been on my shoulder this morning and had tobacco and coffee,” he says.

Johnny O tends to his parrot, Bok-Bok. “She’s already been on my shoulder this morning and had tobacco and coffee,” he says.

For decades Johnny O worked as a linesman, literally using rope (also called line) to secure the ships to the docks. It’s one of the oldest and most dangerous jobs at the port. Depending on the size of the ship, the rope can be over a foot in diameter and take up to three men to handle. “This will take your legs off,” Johnny O says about a one such rope called the anaconda.

“I’ve seen a crewmember get his head chopped off laying on the top of a deck of a ship,” says Johnny O.

Johnny O has seen a lot of change at the San Pedro waterfront and has had to adapt. Before working as a linesman, he was a commercial fisherman. When that industry moved overseas, he became a master mechanic in the longshore union. Finally, he settled in at the Lines Bureau as a dispatcher, a so-called “antique” in charge of the linesmen who report for work on the docks day and night. He says it’s an easy job reserved for men too old to be hauling lines. But antique? He prefers to think of himself as a pirate.

Reporter’s Notebook: Life on the Waterfront

Linesmen are the men and women who tie ships to the docks with lines. It’s a pretty simple job; so efficient in its old-fashioned-ness that machines can’t do it any better. And around here, where container terminals are automating and longshoremen fear for their jobs, that’s something.

When I meet Johnny O, he works at the National Lines Bureau, one of the companies that dispatch linesmen.

Johnny O at the Lines Bureau

Johnny O at the Lines Bureau

On a December morning, he brings me into his inner sanctum at “the boys’ house,” a bungalow he shares with his two sons. He’s irritated that I’ve come so late – 7:30 a.m. He won’t let me turn on my tape recorder until he “understands the format of my show,” but really, he just wants to check me out. He wants to know if he can trust me with his secrets. We have a bourbon or two, maybe three. Smoky, golden light streams through the blinds. Johnny O places Bok-Bok, a small orange and yellow parrot on his shoulder and he reveals that he’s a pirate. Meeting a pirate is an irresistible way to start a project. And this pirate seems to encapsulate many of the changes that have taken place on the waterfront. Johnny O started out on fishing boats until the fishing industry in San Pedro dried up. He’s fixed boats and ships and cars and planes. He became a mechanic in the longshore union and finally a dispatcher at the Lines Bureau.

Eventually, I ride into the harbor on a foggy night to see Mark Coynes and Rob Lukowski board the biggest ship to call the Port of Long Beach. I visit a run down taco-stand of a building to see casual workers, the workers at the bottom of the totem pole, struggle to pick-up jobs shift by shift. I meet former union leaders Peter Peyton and James Spinosa Sr. – known to all by his nickname Spinner – who have tried to prepare and protect their union brothers and sisters from automation. On a day when no one will agree to an interview, I meet Harold Ericsson who tells me about a miracle he experienced at the steel dock over 30 years ago.

Somehow all of this leads me to a dusty construction site: Middle Harbor, a 9-year $1.3 billion project to develop an automated terminal at the Port of Long Beach. It’s estimated that this one terminal could eliminate 50 percent of the jobs here. Rich Dines, one of the commissioners, takes me on site. Cranes loom like dinosaurs at the water’s edge. He pulls out his phone to take pictures of them. “These are the largest cranes ever manufactured.” He explains that there will be a handful of workers on raised platforms, but that the rest of the container yard, usually full of longshoremen buzzing around in vehicles, will be free of people.

They say these kinds of terminals are unusually quiet. So quiet, they’ve earned a nickname: ghost ports. Standing there, I try to imagine this ghost port. The gentle whir of machines… the lap of water against the docks… the squeal of seagulls… the occasional bang of a container touching down… the voices of the linesmen as they haul the lines.

— Cargoland Producer, Lu Olkowski