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View Full Version : Dare I ask?....Port Security (US)



Nekko
11-25-2013, 06:26 AM
I'm looking for info on general port security around cargo ships. (really NSA this is for a children's story) My story takes place in Seattle if that makes any difference.

My MC is ten, and when things go bad at home, he has this romantic vision of stowing away on a cargo ship by mingling in with the people carrying cargo onto the ship. He goes down to the port to check out the reality and finds that:

A) most cargo is loaded via cranes in some fashion (like those large containers that travel from ports as the trailer part of tractor trailers or on the flat beds of trains.)

But, smaller items must go on these ships - not paid cargo per se, but other incidentals. - T/F?
How are those loaded?

B) Everyone going on board has some kind of ID that is checked - T/F

C) I assume he can get to the dock area to observe all this - T/F
Yes, he could 'observe' from a distance - like through a fence, but I'd like him to be able to 'scope out' alternatives, little overlooked points of entry.

D) I have him discover that there are large metal carts with heavy vinyl curtains - like the kind used to move luggage at airports - that are rolled up ramps onto ships. - Is this at least plausible? T/F
(Again, how are smaller non-cargo items brought onto the ship?)

He never carries through with this plan, so I just need to know if this is believable enough? If not, any suggestions for how he might sneak onto a ship? They don't have to be workable in reality, just seem possible from his ten year old vantage.

Thanks!

Trebor1415
11-25-2013, 06:53 AM
The majority of cargo is loaded, shipped, and unloaded in "containers." To picture a container imagine the "trailer" part of a semi-trailer truck. A container is like that, only without wheels.

The containers are sealed and are hoisted abord and offloaded the same way.

As far as I know, there's no real equivilant to the "airport baggage cart" type system in use in modern U.S. ports.

The era of wooden crates in a giant net hoisted up by a crane is long over.

Dock security is reasonably tight as well, but heck, he could see the containers and the stacks and stacks of them being put on the ships from outside the actual docks. Just driving by on the highway some of that work is likely visible.

google up "container ships" for more info.

melindamusil
11-25-2013, 06:57 AM
a. In the larger ports (which seattle would certainly be), yes. There are some small ports, generally in under-developed and/or war-ravaged parts of the world, where this is not true.

b. Most definitely. Even the smaller ports do some kind of cursory check. (Now in those tiny ports, it would be easier to get around the security, but going in and out of the US, chances are the security would be very tight.)

c. Not necessarily. Most ports have a guard at the entrance who checks your badge as you go in - proving that you work on a ship or have some legitimate reason to be in the port. Use your creativity here though - he still might be able to go to a spot on a hill and see what's going on. Also, his youth could work to his advantage - aside from the cliched "sneaking through a hole in the fence", he could tell the guard something like, "oh my daddy works on that ship over there, and I forgot my badge, but my daddy sent me to get something from the store that he REALLY needs, pretty please can I take it to him?" It would still be illegal for the guard to let him in, but you know how kids can get away with stuff.

Then there's also the option of having a friend who works for the port, and/or sneaking in through an employee entrance.

d. I never saw anything like that. Have you ever seen/heard of a container? They're massive things, big enough to hold two or three cars, or boxes and boxes of the product you are shipping. A busy port will have probably thousands of these. They're all labeled/numbered, and remarkably organized - the guy in charge of the port can tell you exactly where one particular container is at any particular moment. That's what I saw - containers going in and out, all day, every day.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermodal_container

Nekko
11-25-2013, 07:00 AM
Thanks Trebor. I know about the containers. Grew up in New Jersey and drove past the ship yards on our way into NYC. But that was long before 9/11

I wasn't aware that they were no longer netting smaller containers - good to know.

I appreciate the info!

Nekko
11-25-2013, 07:13 AM
Thanks melindamusil!

a. In the larger ports (which seattle would certainly be), yes. There are some small ports, generally in under-developed and/or war-ravaged parts of the world, where this is not true.

b. Most definitely. Even the smaller ports do some kind of cursory check. (Now in those tiny ports, it would be easier to get around the security, but going in and out of the US, chances are the security would be very tight.)

c. Not necessarily. Most ports have a guard at the entrance who checks your badge as you go in - proving that you work on a ship or have some legitimate reason to be in the port. Use your creativity here though - he still might be able to go to a spot on a hill and see what's going on. Also, his youth could work to his advantage - aside from the cliched "sneaking through a hole in the fence", he could tell the guard something like, "oh my daddy works on that ship over there, and I forgot my badge, but my daddy sent me to get something from the store that he REALLY needs, pretty please can I take it to him?" It would still be illegal for the guard to let him in, but you know how kids can get away with stuff.

Then there's also the option of having a friend who works for the port, and/or sneaking in through an employee entrance.

d. I never saw anything like that. Have you ever seen/heard of a container? They're massive things, big enough to hold two or three cars, or boxes and boxes of the product you are shipping. A busy port will have probably thousands of these. They're all labeled/numbered, and remarkably organized - the guy in charge of the port can tell you exactly where one particular container is at any particular moment. That's what I saw - containers going in and out, all day, every day.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermodal_container

I guess in trying for brevity in my initial post I didn't make it clear that I am familiar with the large cargo containers. That is what I meant by various things loaded by crane. Sorry for any confusion from my end. (I'll correct my OP)

But, smaller items must go on these ships - not cargo per se, but other incidentals. How are those loaded?

I appreciate the info and the link :)

melindamusil
11-25-2013, 07:47 AM
Thanks melindamusil!


I guess in trying for brevity in my initial post I didn't make it clear that I am familiar with the large cargo containers. That is what I meant by various things loaded by crane. Sorry for any confusion from my end. (I'll correct my OP)

But, smaller items must go on these ships - not cargo per se, but other incidentals. How are those loaded?

I appreciate the info and the link :)

If you're referring to the personal belongings of the staff/crew, those were loaded onto the ship at the same time as each staff/crew member. i.e. when I first got to the ship, I brought two duffel bags and a carry on with me, which contained my clothes and personal belongings.

Oh, I remember we had a "crew shop", where they sold some incidentals (like soap, shampoo, toilet paper). I bet that's what you're thinking of. There was a second gangplank, a smaller one, which was only set up for one day every two or three weeks, and which led directly into the ship's hold. On that day, the shopkeeper and his employees would load cardboard boxes onto the ship with dollies. I must add, though, that this was in a third-world nation, and there was nowhere to buy incidentals like shampoo. I don't know how the larger container ships, coming into the US, would handle things like this.

Nekko
11-25-2013, 07:55 AM
Ah, so perhaps my naive ten year old might think he sees a way to sneak himself in via this smaller gang plank to the hold.

I appreciate your personal insight into all of this. It has been very helpful.

jclarkdawe
11-25-2013, 08:00 AM
Port security is very tight these days. Every person going through the outer gate has to have a TSA pass, which requires a security clearance. Actually getting onto a ship is fairly easy once you're pass the gate.

I've never been to Port of Seattle, so I don't know their exact details. But I'll give you a piece of freight that's perfect for what you want, except for one minor problem. I'm not sure Port of Seattle handles this type of freight.

Many vehicles are shipped from the United States. These go on ships that are called roll-on/roll-off. Basically they drive the vehicle onto the ship to load. Construction equipment, tractors, boats on trailers, campers, you name it, and it is probably shipped overseas.

And one of the vehicles is perfect for your story. School buses. I'm sure you've seen the pictures from third world countries of this bus in the middle of nowhere, crammed with people and animals. A lot of these buses are former school buses, who go overseas to die.

Now at the main gate for a port, truck drivers will line up early in the morning, waiting for the port (read US Customs) to open. School buses are driven right to the port, and then right into the ship. School buses frequently are not locked. The bus driver steps off to chat with his buddies, your kid sneaks onto something he knows and hides on one of the seats.

Going through the gate, paperwork is checked, not the actual contents. US Customs, on a bus for export, normally checks the VIN against the paperwork and calls it quits. Driver doesn't check anything usually.

All freight these days is either roll-on/roll-off or container. Small items that don't fit into a container are packed with other small items to make a container. This is not done at a port.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

Nekko
11-25-2013, 08:12 AM
Jim that is a brilliant idea! Thank you so much.

kids and school buses - what a combination!

frimble3
11-25-2013, 12:07 PM
I'm thinking that even if there was some sort of small cart used to load crew supplies, etc, it would be unloaded from a truck well inside the fenced area, and that vehicle would be checked thoroughly at the gate.

I would think that from a kid's point of view, a likelier plan would be sneaking into the back of an employee's vehicle.
If he's been watching for a while, he probably notices that even if everyone is checked, and everybody's got to have a pass, the 'regulars' get their pass checked and but guards are less likely to search the trunk of a guy they see every day, especially at shift changes when there's a steady stream of bored/late guys trying to get to work.
To a kid, this might seem like a plan: 'all' he has to do is sneak into the trunk/back seat of a car, or the cargo area of a truck, maybe wrap himself in a blanket or something. If he's never going to actually put it in practice, it might seen like a fine idea.

Nekko
11-25-2013, 01:40 PM
Thanks frimble
Very 'kid like' logic. I think I'm going to have my MC and his best friend bounce a few of these ideas around.

You guys have all be very helpful. I'm so glad I find the water cooler.

frimble3
11-25-2013, 02:20 PM
Think of the kind of things he's likely to have seen on TV or in movies. That's likely the inspiration for most children's ideas for this kind of thing, unless he's a budding criminal mastermind. Even then, probably more likely to see something and say "I can do that better/differently" than to invent something out of the whole cloth. After all, those 'Don't try this at home' warnings are inspired by just that kind of kid.
And his teenage brother.