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The return of the golden age of the general cargo ships?

The port area simmered, full of people and noises of all kinds.


Roberto Brandao

A chaos of voices, cranes humming, tugboats and trains whistling. A mess of sounds that we did not care to distinguish anymore. Crowded around the syndicate stand where labours were scheduled, a group of stevedores shouted with their documents in the air struggling to be the first picked for the next shift. The lucky ones ran to the ship as fast as their legs permitted. One who did not know the context would be led to think they were eager to work… In fact, arriving first on board meant to work only the first hour of the shift and leave earlier, surrendered by the latecomers.

Line of trucks waiting for their turn, the continuous comings and goings of the forklifts between warehouses and ships carrying pallets, wagons manoeuvring along the wharf, and several other vehicles in a frenzy that only those who lived in those days can understand what I mean.

Once the gangway was ashore, Port Health, Customs and Immigration would go aboard. They were received with snacks and drinks, and always left the ship with a souvenir. It was a must, then.

The crew anxiously awaited the green light to go ashore and embrace their “loves” from General Câmara street, who would be often waiting outside the port gate. They could, after all, enjoy the many days of port call, something unthinkable today.

Inside the ship’s holds a miscellany of cargo. Crates, cases, drums, bags, bales, machines, vehicles and even live animals in some cases. And several stevedores handling the slings and carpenters repairing eventual damaged packings, preparing cargo dunnaging and securing. And, of course, watchmen to avoid theft and pilferage of cargo, which despite their presence were still frequent.

That was the port of Santos, Brazil, in my first years of shipping agent in 1979.

But all that is gone with the container popularization.

In a question of years, the scenario changed, the ships changed, the port structure suffered a drastic transformation, and all that agitation on shore and on board was replaced by titanic cranes, such as portainers, ship loaders, MHCs, and tug masters, stackers, terminal tractors, as well as a few port operators with their walkie talkies and a much smaller number of union labours.

Some types of cargos still maintain the aspects of those former times, but they are getting rare and rare. Nostalgics like me wonder if all that will come back with the present crisis in the container trade, which is making shippers suddenly look at the general cargo ships as a solution for their cargoes. And some nostalgics even hope so. But technology changed and reality is totally different nowadays. It does not make sense, in this first quarter of the 21st. century, with all the demand for goods of consumption and production, to go back in efficiency, agility and costs.

However, it is a moment for reflection.

Recent facts made it clear that a crisis caused by unexpected – but probable – events, such as a pandemic or the grounding of a ship at one of the most vital routes in the international trade, such as Suez, is enough to congest and paralyse the whole logistic chain in the world. It is time for the experts in market intelligence to pore over the facts, statistics and reports and start simulating possible future events that may affect the international maritime trade as we are experiencing now, and elaborate contingency plans for different scenarios.

As for me, the memories of the general cargo ship age remain as an important background and experience of a time when Shipping fundamentals were practiced with more purity. A life experience that allows me to share a little my knowledge about the break bulk ships with those who now need to understand this segment.


MARPRO’s blog of the week is by Roberto Brandão, a maritime professional with more than 40 years experience in shipping.  He started his career in shipping agencies, and also worked for chartering companies, ship owners, freight forwarders and sea/inland bonded terminals. He is presently partner of Tere de Paula at TAP CONSULTORIA, a company dedicated to consultancy in logistics, chartering and port operations, and training of professionals in open and in-company courses.

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