The main thing I’ve found playing with Maersk’s calendar: distance doesn’t matter as much as demand. Americans buy a lot of atoms from China. The Chinese don’t buy nearly as many from the US. A 40′ container filled with household goods, shipped from Shanghai to Houston, TX costs $6169.93. Reverse the trip and ship the same container from Houston to Shanghai and the cost is $3631.07. That’s because 60% of containers on ships coming from the US to China are empty, which means Maersk and other shippers are desperate to sell container space.
(The 2006 New York Times article that offers that 60% empty container statistic suggests that lots of full containers are coming to China from raw-materials rich countries like Australia, Brazil and the Middle East. That suggests we should see the opposite pattern – expensive containers from Sao Paolo to Shanghai and cheap ones in the other direction. Nope. $5101.70 from Shanghai to Sao Paolo, $1930.59 in the other direction. Perhaps containers from China to Brazil are riding the same ships as those to the US and paying the same premiums?)
Maersk also offers a set of maps that help you get a sense for how these trade routes actually work. It’s a four day trip from Suva to Auckland on the Pacific Islands Express, and then the bottles of Fiji water are transfered to OC1, the Oceania Americas Service. The Pacific crossing is a long one – 18 days to the Panama Canal, a quick stop in Cartagena, and we’re in Philadephia 25 days out of Auckland. It’s a truck ride from Philly to Cambridge, and that short hop is responsible for $950 of the total transit cost.
As I poke through these maps, schedules and tariffs, I feel like I’m glimpsing a secret world. Part of it may come from the sheer poetry of the names. Shipping routes include “The Boomerang” and the “The South China/Australia Yo-yo” and connect ports like Tin Can Island (Apapa, Nigeria, the main port for Lagos). And part comes from the sense that these routes and rates, the infrastructure that supports an economy where transPacific bottled water is possible, are the ley lines of globalization, radiating a mysterious and sinister power.