Port of Everett craves cargo that won’t fit in a box

By Dan Catchpole, September 15, 2014, Everett Herald

Consistency can be hard to come by on the Port of Everett’s waterfront.

It’s the nature of the port’s niche — handling cargo too big or too heavy to fit in a container. That’s called break-bulk cargo. It includes things like big tractors and massive electrical transformers.

A 291-ton transformer recently moved through the port en route to the Cherry Point refinery, said Walter Seidl, the port’s marketing director.

“You don’t have regularly scheduled ships moving 291-ton transformers. They only need one,” he said.

As marketing director at the Port of Everett, Seidl’s job is to make sure the seaport’s piers and terminals are as busy as possible.

Tacoma and Seattle have the state’s busiest ports. They mostly handle standardized containers, which dominate marine shipping. Containers are efficient in high volume, but they don’t work for everybody.

Everett’s focus on the business of moving big, heavy things requires a soft touch. The port has to maintain a reputation for taking care of customer cargo, Seidl said.

Things like massive transformers and airplane assemblies can’t be treated all the same.

Also, the port has to do what it can to make everyone’s job easier, from shippers to customs agents. “If we do what we can to make the customs agents’ job easier, they can do their work faster, they can clear ships more quickly. Word gets out” to the shipping industry that cargo won’t sit in line for customs inspection, he said.

Reputation and relationships are critical to keeping the port busy, Seidl said. “It’s customer service 101, it really is.”

The Port of Everett’s most consistent cargo comes from Boeing. Goods headed for the airplane maker’s nearby plant come in by cargo ship to either Tacoma or Everett, where they are transferred to barges.

The barges then move the cargo to the port’s Mount Baker Terminal in Mukilteo. From there, it is put on rail cars for a short run up Japanese Gulch to Boeing’s Everett plant at Paine Field.

“They are very consistent. They have an order book that stretches out for years,” Seidl said.

By the beginning of September, 52 barges had moved through the port, compared to 40 during the same period last year, according to port data.

But ship calls lagged during the same period, with 67 this year compared to 79 last year.

Seidl expects the total of ship and barge calls to Everett this year will be about the same as last year, 185 — 112 ships and 63 barges.

April through October are the port’s busiest months. Some of those shipments are bound for Russia and China.

Much of what moves to China is farm equipment, while Russia-bound cargo includes mining equipment, RVs and luxury cars.

So far, the number of Russia-bound ships has not changed from last year, despite economic sanctions between the U.S. and Russia — prompted by the latter’s invasion of Crimea and ongoing proxy war in eastern Ukraine, Seidl said.

However, the conflict’s uncertainty has prompted some schedule changes, he said.

Two vessels owned by SASCO, a Russia-based shipping line, came to Everett in June. They typically arrive in August.

“We’re waiting” to see if the port is affected by the geopolitics, he said.

The cargo tonnage moved by the port is ahead of last year, as well, mainly due to a slight bump in commodity shipments, Seidl said.

The port has moved a couple more log shipments than it did last year, and last month it had its first cement ship since the economic recession began in 2008.

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