Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Port of Felixstowe

"A work trip with a difference"

On Friday I visited one of my employer's clients to help me write up a report we are doing - a joint entry for a training award.

Duncan, the man I went to visit, also wanted to show me round the port. Now, I guess a lot of folks aren't going to be excited by rubber tyred gantries, big ships and containers - but to see the Port in full flow was fascinating. Something like 15 million containers are moved through the UK every year (it's growing every year too) and Felixstowe handles around a third of these - thats a lot of 20 foot metal boxes! Seeing them stacked, seeing them lifted on and off 'tugs' (the internal transports that shuffle the containers around) and then up onto the ships was amazing. The scale - the sheer scale of everything was impressive.

Duncan took me in a port car up to the edge of the quay, so I could see closely how it all worked. He took me round Landguard, the older quayside which has a shallower draft (around 11 metres for those interested) where smaller ships still come in (I say small - still looked huge to me!) and eventually to the original dock which was the very first place ships (old sailing cargo ships) would have come in. It looked so small compared to the rest of the port. Soon they are going to fill it in, turn that whole area into a massive new quayside - but it was amazing to think that ships - from tall sailing ships, through steamers to modern ships - had probably come in there over the last couple of hundred years.

Bringing spice from the Indies, fruit from Africa, silk from Samarkand, timber and minerals from the Americas... and Christmas decorations (on the largest container ship ever to dock in the UK) from China. The older images are more romantic, eh?

Yeah, I guess to be accurate I should go look up my maritime history, but the port today is crucial to both the local and national economy. They have rail, ship and lorry (external hauliers, internal tugs) to coordinate, thousands upon thousands of containers (and they know where any one is at any time) and ships coming in and out all day, every day (except Christmas day and Boxing day). There's about 3000 people working at the port, yet one of those huge great ships only needs 12 people to operate it. Amazing.

The scale of things is what impressed me most - the gantries are huge, the stacks of containers make the final scene of 'Raiders of the Lost Arc' look unimpressive - and the number of 'moves' - each time a container is shifted - incredible.

It takes quite an operation to run all this, which is why I was visiting Duncan (we trained some of his Operations Staff) and unlike manufacturing, for example, there are so many variables to account for - weather, for one. No matter how much you computerise systems, you still have to account for people, weather and other unpredicatables.

I enjoyed the visit, and was impressed by Duncan's obvious enthusiasm for his job too. I learned a lot and I got my report written with far more insight than if I hadn't visited.

Will I get a song out of it? Not sure - too many darn good sailing songs out there already (mind you, I might finish my "Mary Rose" one eventually).

Here's some further information about the planned expansions, with a bit of history too:

And here's a more detailed page with historical info:
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