Port Newark, N.J.
AN ocean voyage of thousands of miles may separate the factory where an import car is assembled from the garage of its new owner, but the weeks spent at sea are hardly an endless buffet punctuated by evenings of Las Vegas-caliber entertainment.
The trip is no Disney cruise either: the vehicle makes its crossing lashed snugly to the steel floor of a cargo deck, just inches from its neighbor, inside a vessel that looks both impossibly clunky and imposingly grand. When loaded, these decks look like a traffic nightmare on the Long Island Expressway; cleared in the hours after docking, they are as spotless and cavernous as a newly opened warehouse.
Car carrier ships are nautical workhorses of the industrialized world. Hauling up to 8,500 vehicles in a layer cake of 13 decks packed as tight as the Tokyo subway at rush hour, these ships do one basic task very well -- delivering vehicles, from tiny compacts to enormous excavators, unscathed to destinations like the port here.
The Andromeda Leader, operated by NYK Line, the Japanese shipping giant, with Panamanian registry, is typical of modern car carriers. Launched in 2004 when global auto sales were booming and shippers raced to keep up with demand from carmakers, the ship is two football fields long and has a cargo capacity of 21,443 tons, greater than some of today's largest cruise ships.
More relevant to its mission, perhaps, is the ship's width of 32 meters, or 105 feet -- one of measurements in the requirements known as Panamax because they are the largest dimension that will fit through the locks of the Panama Canal.
For eight years, the Andromeda Leader has brought Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles across the Pacific to the United States in all seasons without incident, maintaining an accident-free record. Its captains have detoured to avoid rough seas, keeping a day's cushion in reserve to maintain their promised arrival times.
In part, the ship's packing-crate profile is a result of only about 15 percent of the hull being submerged. Looking like a floating shoe box, it seems, to the untrained eye, on the verge of tipping.
"We call it a floating coconut because so much of the ship is above water," Capt. Vineet Kapoor, who was in command when the ship sailed to Newark from Japan late last year, said with a chuckle. Turning serious, he added: "It's part of our profession to deliver the cargo safely. Over the centuries, it is ingrained that cargo is sacrosanct."
In recent months, that cargo has been arriving with urgency. Toyota said it expected imports through Newark to increase by nearly 20 percent this year compared with 2011, as the company rebounds from last year's natural disasters in Japan and Thailand.
Captain Kapoor said he saw his job as an extension of the production process, which relies on precision as well as speed. Indeed, automakers depend on shippers to comply with their just-in-time production policies; for that reason, NYK has seven of its 120 car carriers dedicated to Toyota for North American service, and the carmaker has similar agreements with two other Japanese shippers, K-Line and Mitsui O.S.K.
To meet the tight deadlines, the Andromeda Leader sails at 17 to 19 knots during its 28-day journey from the port of Tahara, near Nagoya, to Jacksonville, Fla., where cars destined for the southeastern United States are unloaded, and then to Newark. On its return trip, the ship stops in Puerto Rico to drop off its few hundred remaining cars before continuing empty to Japan, a plan designed to avoid delays and keep the ship moving.
With its ready access to major United States markets, Newark is the ship's main port of call, where more than half of the Andromeda Leader's 5,500 vehicles are offloaded and parked in a 12,000-place lot at the pier. In the following days, the cars will be driven a few hundred yards to the Toyota Logistics Services facility, where electronics, roof racks and other options are installed before delivery to dealerships from Maine to Virginia.
On occasion, cars are damaged in transit, but just 0.04 percent of the vehicles that NYK delivers to Toyota in Newark need repairs, and most of those are for small scratches.
"We walk a fine line," said Matthew Martyn, operations manager for NYK Line North America at Port Newark. "We want zero damage, but as much production as we can. Even a little damage affects our presentation to Toyota."
Maximizing the number of cars a ship can carry while minimizing the damage to those cars is complex. Until the 1960s, cranes were used to transfer cars one or two at a time. The introduction of dedicated car carrier ships changed that. Like ferries and military transport, so-called ro-ro ships have built-in ramps, often at the stern, that let vehicles can be easily rolled on and rolled off.
Cars need at least 10 centimeters, or about 4 inches, of overhead clearance, so their height determines which deck they are parked on. On the Andromeda Leader, the shortest deck has too little clearance for a tall S.U.V.; two of its 13 decks, though, can be raised to more than 16 feet.
The spacing between the cars is just as critical. Just 30 centimeters, about a foot, separate the front and rear bumpers of the cars, and there is a gap of some 6 inches from side to side. The mirrors are folded in to make more room.
"Consistent spacing is the key, so you don't get scratches on bumpers and dents," said Bill Barrett, national logistics manager at the Toyota facility here.
Each vehicle is lashed with a minimum of four nylon tie-down straps that are looped through removable hooks at the bumpers or on the frame. (Larger vehicles need more straps, as do those parked perpendicular to the keel, a placement that lets the body move more on its suspension.) The clasps at the other end of the straps are attached to holes or rings on the floor. The straps are so taut that the cars barely budge -- a good thing, because if even one car comes loose and ricochets around a deck, it can cause millions of dollars in damage.
Even small scratches to cars can lead to costly repairs, which is why NYK and Ports America, which hires the stevedores in Newark, must determine the optimal number of drivers needed to unload a ship. NYK tries to limit the time its ships stay in port to 24 hours, avoiding overtime and berthing fees of $3,000 or more a day.
On a visit this spring, the Andromeda Leader arrived in the early evening, and the 22-person crew immediately set to work refueling, doing maintenance chores and buying provisions for the return voyage. The next morning, about 120 stevedores arrived at 7 a.m. to begin driving nearly 3,000 cars to their parking spots.
An advance team boarded the ship first to start removing the straps. A second wave of teams then arrived to stage the cars.
They find the key car -- marked with a sign on its windshield -- that must be removed first so the others can follow. The windows are rolled down and the cars are driven away from the tightly packed rows and into an open space nearby.
Within moments, more drivers arrive in vans. Supervisors in yellow safety vests direct them down the ramps that run through the ship to the unloading ramp at the ship's stern.
"Keeping them moving safely is the biggest challenge," said Paul DeMaria, a manager at Ports America, the operator of the auto terminal.
The drivers snake their way through the parking lot to an assigned space, walk to a meeting point and board another van for the ride back into the ship. After speaking to Mr. DeMaria, Mr. Martyn determined that the stevedores were removing 450 cars an hour, about 50 cars more than usual. The ship, he said, stood a good chance of leaving, as hoped, by 6 p.m. By then the ship's decks are as empty as a drive-in theater after the final credits.
As the drivers scurried back to the ship, teams of Toyota inspectors walked through the lot checking each car for damage. To get the best view, they looked at the cars from a distance of three feet and at a 30-degree angle.
The pier is already a beehive of activity, but it will very likely get busier. Recovering from the slowdown last year resulting from the disasters in Japan, Mr. Barrett expects to receive 170,000 vehicles this year and by 2015 to be back at the prerecession levels of 2007.
To meet the growing demand, shipmakers are introducing larger car carriers. Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, for instance, operates four new ro-ro ships, commissioned by its parent companies, that carry about 8,000 vehicles each. By sailing larger ships, the company can more efficiently serve the carmakers, who effectively control the size of the shipping fleet.
"It's about keeping pace with market growth," said Chris Connor, chief commercial officer at Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics. "Automobiles really drive the size of the global fleet, and they drive the frequency of service from port A to port B because they bring the most volume."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.