The CMA CGM Marco Polo is the largest container ship to ever call the US East Coast.
The Marco Polo is a visual representation of how much Americans purchased during the pandemic.
Larger ships can call the Port of New York and New Jersey thanks to new infrastructure improvements.
Ocean shipping has been thrust into the limelight during the shipping crisis as the public realizes the critical role of container ships in keeping the world's economy functioning smoothly.
The backlog of container ships waiting to enter Southern California ports is spreading across the US as Americans buy more goods. And the rising tide of consumerism during the pandemic has lifted all ports, including those on the East Coast.
In May, the CMA CGM Marco Polo became the largest ship to ever call the East Coast. The Port of New York and New Jersey was the first American stop on a long voyage from Asia that was previously impossible for a ship of its size.
The CMA CGM Marco Polo boasts a maximum capacity of 16,022 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. One 20-foot container equals one TEU. The larger 40-foot containers equal two TEUs.
The Bayonne Bridge over Newark Bay had clearance for 12,500 TEU ships until 2019. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey elevated the roadway connecting Bayonne, New Jersey, and Staten Island, New York, in a $1.7 billion project to accommodate ships as large as 18,000 TEUs, just in time for the pandemic.
It didn't take long for the ships calling the port to grow larger in size. The 15,072 TEU CMA CGM Brazil arrived at the port in September 2020, soon followed by the Marco Polo in May.
Insider went on board the CMA CGM Marco Polo while it was docked in New Jersey. Here's what it's like on board.
A long, narrow gangway is the only way on or off the Marco Polo for anything that isn't a container. It's a long way up as the gangway sways with the weight of the people on it.
Registered in the Bahamas, the CMA CGM Marco Polo is a nine-year-old ship delivered to the shipping giant in Marseille, France, in November 2012.
Hallways run the length of the ship's massive tower with rooms on each side.
Our tour began in the ship's office, also known as the cargo office, where we met Captain Zeljko Mioc.
The Croatian captain has served in the maritime industry for more than 30 years, traversing the globe on container ships. Before that, he worked issuing airplane tickets at an airport.
The Marco Polo started this voyage in China, with the crossing via the Suez Canal taking about three weeks, with a port call in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before arriving in New York Harbor.
Passing through the Suez Canal was normal, the crew described, even just a few weeks after the Ever Given had run aground and blocked the path for other ships.
The next stop was the bridge, located on the top floor of the tower. In addition to the main stairwell, there was an elevator to take us up.
Directories identify the areas of interest on each floor, which helps the crew find their way around the ship.
Like a hotel, the higher floors of the tower houses the crew bunks and staterooms for the ship's officers. The higher the floor, the greater the rank of the crew member.
The captain and chief engineer reside on "G deck," for example, directly below the bridge.
With the amount of time the average crew member spends on the ship, it's likely that they'll soon know its directory by heart.
Many of the rooms contain officelike workspaces with plenty of open space inside.
The corridors are largely identical, but some feature artwork to break up the monotony, such as a print of Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night."
Posters on the staircase leading to the bridge are also reminiscent of old airline advertisements highlighting exotic locals that this ship visits on a yearly basis.
The top floor of the tower is the navigation deck, which houses the bridge. It's also known as the wheelhouse, from where the ship is piloted.
Views from the bridge are expansive, with a line of sight for miles on a clear day, which helps the crew navigate and monitor other ships in the vicinity.
Even the New York City skyline, about five miles away, was visible from the berth.
The navigation deck is the limit for the containers as anything stack higher could impede the crew's line of sight.
A maximum of seven cranes, each taller than the ship itself, serviced the ship during its time in New Jersey.
Trucks wait alongside the ship to receive their containers. Then they bring them elsewhere in the port where they'll be transferred to tractor trailers.
Longshoremen sitting 200 feet off the ground pluck the containers off the ship in a fluid motion that takes a surprisingly short amount of time given their weight.
Back in the bridge, a small steering wheel is tasked with maneuvering the massive ship.
But unlike in days past, there doesn't always have to be someone with both hands on the wheel.
Trackpilot, similar to autopilot on an airplane, allows the ship to virtually drive itself.
The bridge is comparable to the cockpit of an airplane, and many of the same gestures can be found in both. The difference is that a ship's bridge is about 10 times the size of an average airplane cockpit.
Electronic charts help the crew navigate, just like on modern airplanes. "Before we had paper charts, and now everything is electronic," Mioc said.
A black line on the chart shows the ship's path for the past 24 hours. In the Marco Polo's case, it arrived in New York Harbor and made a loop around the Statue of Liberty.
On the side of the screen is a gauge that identifies the wind direction and its speed. Ships the size of the Marco Polo have a wind sail that can affect their course, especially while sitting idle at anchor.
Depth is another important factor since the ship can run aground if the water is too shallow.
Even with the conversion to digital, shelves in the bridge still store paperbound charts, manuals, and other necessities.
Some charts are taped to the walls for easy reference.
Very high frequency radios allow the ship to communicate with others in the immediate area, as well as with harbor pilots. Ships have come a long way from sending messages via Morse code.
Two types of radar, H band and S band, help the Marco Polo avoid other ships, especially in times of poor visibility. S band is the long-distance radar that helps the ship see beyond its immediate area, while H band is better for shorter distances.
H band is also better at receiving distress signals from other vessels, and it's a maritime requirement. Mioc has never had to attend to a distress call as a captain, but he said he's found himself in "distress situations."
In the center of the console is a general compass, while above is the magnetic compass.
Instruments above the windows also give the pilot key information, such as the engine rotations per minute and the rate of turn.
Typically, only two crew members are in the bridge while the ship is in open ocean, Mioc said.
The captain, most times, is traversing the ship and checking to see that its operation is running smoothly.
Cameras around the ship also let the captain see everything that's going on.
Though the captain doesn't spend most of his days on the bridge, he's present during times that involve periods of bad weather, intense vessel traffic, or maneuvering.
The bridge also features a small kitchenette with a coffee maker.
And just beside the kitchenette is a small dining-room-style table.
Crews spend a few days in each port before moving on to the next one, with sea journeys often taking weeks.
After New York, the next stop for the Marco Polo was Charleston, South Carolina, where it also broke records.
The life of a mariner can be filled with travel, but there can also be periods of extreme boredom while at sea.
Each mariner has a job to do while on the ship. Even when workers are off the clock, they're still bound to the ship while it's on the water.
A gymnasium and recreation room are on the boat, but we didn't have time to see either on the visit.
East Coast ports have largely been spared the backlogs affecting those in Southern California. But experts say it's only a matter of time before more ports see lines of ships waiting to enter.
Nathan Strang, Flexport's director of ocean-trade lane management, said he thought we'd see backlogs "regardless of the coast." He added that East Coast ports, such as the Port of Savannah, were already experiencing backlogs.
The Marco Polo's record-breaking voyage to the Port of New York and New Jersey could soon be smashed by an even larger ship.
It's the new reality in ocean shipping as more and more skyscraper-like ships seek to move hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of containers between continents every day.
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