Introduction: Container Ship Spotting: a Beginner's Guide

About: Designer / maker

In our world of globalized production, most everything I have ever owned has at some point in its lifetime been packed into a container and shipped across the ocean. Because of cheap freight rates, and free trade agreements, many things I own have probably been shipped around the globe several times during their production.

I am deeply fascinated by the invisible systems that keep the world running, and the world of shipping and logistics underpins the built world, global trade and has a huge impact on the environment. The strawberries I am snacking on while writing this, the chair I am sitting on, and certainly the computer I am typing on all made it to this spot because of complex supply chains that wind all around the planet.

I am the first to admit that I am absolutely obsessed with shipping containers.

And by admit, I mean corner you and tell you various containerization facts.

Shipping containers are the visible tip of the vast iceberg of logistics and production. By trying to understand their history, their movement from port to port, and the future of the industry I am exploring the vast industrial sublime that seems entirely unknowable.

Right now I am based in San Francisco doing a residency at Autodesk's Pier 9 facility. Right on the San Francisco bay, I have a view of the Port of Oakland and the comings and goings of the ships. I'm going to outline some of my current strategies for observing the port and the container ships that dock there.

Step 1: Get Some Background Knowledge

Why might you want to explore the areas around ports and learn more about container ships? Because they are connected to everything, and also hauntingly beautiful in an Edward Burtynsky kind of way.

Smart people have made some excellent media about container ships and containerization, check some of it out!

I haven't actually read either of the books yet, but they're on my horizon for sure.

Step 2: Tools of the Trade

While it's not strictly necessary, it's nice to be able to learn about the ships you encounter. What companies are out there, what ports they work in, and the history of their fleet are all avenues you could explore.

This website lets you track marine traffic in real time using AIS data. You can filter by types of ships, or create a heat map of shipping routes across time. Every vessel has a little page where you can learn more about it, but it you want historic itineraries and other features you will have to create a paid account.

In the style of a bird watching field guide, this waterproof book is crammed full of information about the largest shipping companies globally. Created by a team of dedicated infrastructure geeks, this book is pretty great. I've been enjoying pulling it out and learning about the stories behind the graphically uninspired shipping logos.

Step 3: Exploring Oakland - Three Methodologies

Every city and every port is going to have different methods of approach - for the time being I can only report on Oakland, CA.

  • By Transit

For the part time container enthusiast, you can observe the comings and goings at the Port of Oakland while commuting. There are interesting views on the BART between West Oakland and Embarcadero, but if you really want the luxury commuter experience the ferry is the way to go. The ferry passes into the channel between Oakland and Alameda, so you're right up against the port infrastructure.

On my first excursion into the world of the port, I biked from Jack London Square, where the ferry disembarks, to Middle Harbour Shoreline Park. The ride (or drive) takes you through massive streets where trucks trundle by, and groups of sports cars cruise along together but there are no pedestrians. It's a hostile environment, and I couldn't shake the feeling that a white van could show up and disappear me. But upon arriving at Middle Harbour Shoreline Park, everything is different. It's actually really nice. There were people around, just hanging out and enjoying the day. And the container ship views are pretty next level. With just a chainlink fence separating the Eastern side of the park from the port activity, you could high five the dock workers.

  • Procure passage on a seafaring vessel

Pretty much everyone I have met here in California has been subjected to a long rant about how excited I am about the port and the containers. Sorry guys. But, that has led to some container connections. One of the folks at Pier 9 has a sailboat, and knows the area around the port well. He offered to take me out on some container watching by sea. What a lucky break, and a nice guy! You can really float up right next to the giant beasts. We made it to the end of the port as the sun set, and the cranes came down to take all the containers away. Pretty wild! So, if you can beg, borrow or otherwise procure passage on some sort of boat you can probably float up toward some ships. Please be careful, and respect any Port Authority in the region!

Step 4: Put It All Together / Follow Along at Home

With your background knowledge, research tools and ways to access the (one specific) port, you're good to go! Get out there, brave sailor and explore the world of global capitalism by understand container ships!

But well, many of us live places where there isn't a port. Or, maybe wandering through industrial spaces and skirting into spaces that may be restricted isn't a thing you feel comfortable doing. There are still ways you can follow along at home. The Marine Traffic website is still interesting without physical proximity to the ships.

You can also follow along on Instagram. I recently came across a bunch of hashtags where people post their maritime photos. #shipspotting, #instashipping, and #shipstagram are chock full of sweet container ship photos.

I am left wondering who the photographers are who contribute to these feeds. Merchant marines? Captains? Citizens who like boats? Other infrastructure enthusiasts?

Leave a comment if you're a fellow ship spotter and tell me what draws you to checking out container ships!

Step 5: Expanded Universe