Shipping port rules burning daylight

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on April 6, 2007.

When an NYK Lines ship loaded with cars showed up at the mouth of the St. Johns River last month, it had to sit at anchor for several hours before being allowed into port.

The reason for the holdup: It arrived during the night, and the Coast Guard in Jacksonville is no longer doing mandatory security inspection of vessels in the dark, although they are done at most other U.S. ports.

The impact, according to company officials: At least $10,000 in labor costs paid to Jacksonville longshoremen standing around waiting for the vessel to come in after the daybreak inspection, as well as the potential loss of upwards of $100,000 stemming from cancelled reservations at the Panama Canal and missed berths and labor issues in other ports dominoing from the initial delay.

"That six-hour delay could turn into a six-day delay," said Finn Roden, area operations manager for the NYK division that carries vehicles. "We want to be searched on arrival."

The policy was changed, local Coast Guard officials said, because of concerns about personnel safety as well as a desire to make sure officers aren't called away from inspections to handle emergencies, causing the ship unexpected delays.

The holdup of the NYK vessel was one of at least three that have occurred in the past month since the local Coast Guard sector instituted its ban on night-time inspections. The policy to only inspect during the daytime appears to be an unusual one: Coast Guard spokesmen in Savannah, Ga.; Brunswick, Ga., Boston and Miami said their personnel carry out mandatory inspections at night. Generally speaking, the captain of each local port has autonomy in matters such as this.

Local shipping agents said they are unaware of any other port that does not do such inspections.

The ships targeted for the inspection - known as High Interest Vessels - are those that U.S. Department of Homeland Security matrixes have identified as posing potential security risks after looking at things like the makeup of the cargo and crew, who owns the ship and where it's coming from.

Such targeted ships must be searched in open water before coming into port, a process the local Coast Guard said can't be done safely or efficiently in the dark.

"We've determined it's really risky for our crews," said Lt. Cmdr. Heather Hanson, chief of the Coast Guard's Jacksonville sector Response Department. "We're not saying we will not ever do it at night, we just want to set expectations."

Searches in the dark are more dangerous for the Coast Guard personnel, said Cmdr. James McLaughlin, chief of the local Coast Guard's Prevention Department, particularly because targeted vessels are assumed to be at least potentially dangerous. "We want to be in the daylight where we can see and do things safely," he said.

There have been no Coast Guard personnel in Jacksonville injured during vessel searches in at least two years.

A lack of resources is another reason not to do mandatory searches at night, because the new policy frees up personnel for other work, the Coast Guard said. Typically, the local Coast Guard only has one team working overnight, and duties such as responding to emergency flares take precedent over vessel searches.

Local officials are still conducting random inspections of nontargeted ships at night, Hanson said, because those searches can be called off if the personnel need to handle an emergency situation. If mandatory searches are halted because officers are needed for, say, a search and rescue operation, the search would have to continue later in the day, setting up an unplanned delay.

With about two High Interest Vessels coming into the port each week, it's better for shippers to have certainty about when they'll be searched, even if it means waiting a bit, Hanson said.

"If we tell folks its going to be in daylight, we'll be there," she said. "We know it's an impact. We're sensitive to that."

Jacksonville's geography makes the situation more complicated. Because of the relatively shallow depths along parts of the river, some fully loaded ships can only enter the harbor at high tide: If waiting for an inspection leads to missing the day's first high tide, the ship must sit around for even longer.

Also, Jacksonville's position on the globe makes it a natural first port of call for ships coming through the Panama Canal, an advantage touted by those marketing the port. However, ships are more likely to be targeted for inspection at the first port of call in the United States, causing the number of High Interest Vessels in Jacksonville to be higher compared with other ports. That situation that could become more dire in 2008, when Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd, ramps up service to Jacksonville from Asia, increasing the number of ships coming to the First Coast after passing through the canal.

The financial effect the holdups have on shippers might have broader ramifications for the Jacksonville economy if steamship lines bypass this port for others that are seen as more efficient.

"My biggest concern is that you have to be on the same playing field as everyone else," said Roy Schleicher, senior director of trade development and marketing at the Jacksonville Port Authority. "You can't give a steamship line an excuse."

One way to deal with at least the resource side of the issue, said Chris Kauffmann, the authority's senior director of terminal operations and port security, is to pressure the federal government for more funding for the local sector.

Additional resources, including personnel and vessels, might help, McLaughlin said, because it could lead to a dedicated crew trained for nighttime operations and make sure officers are available both to handle searches and respond to emergencies.

Kauffmann said he plans to work on that issue, asking shippers for information about delays that he can use to show politicians the necessity for more funding. "I believe we will collectively come to a resolution," he said. "This isn't an adversarial situation. We need to figure out a way to make it happen."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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