Wal*Mart is fixed in all our vocabularies, but a related term –panamax–is not. Conjugations of panamax could be postpanamax and ultrapanamax. Are you wondering if I’ve lost my mind or if you’ve opened the wrong blog?

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Meet Bellavia, outbound from Port Newark toward the Narrows, around 66,000 tons dwt, panamax size. Plainly stated, anything larger could not pass fully loaded through the Panama Canal, given the current dimensions of that Canal. In case you haven’t counted, abaft the bridge those containers–each recently a trailer pulled by a truck on the turnpike or interstate–are stacked 13 wide by 7 high above the deck by 4 long. In other words, what you see there is a stack of 364 containers.

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The lighthouse just forward of Bellavia marks Robbins Reef. Before reaching Robbins, it will bear off to starboard for the Narrows. The shadowy tower to the right of Robbins light is the HSBC Bank in Brooklyn.

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Dredging the Kills is critical to the flow of commerce through the port of New York, which mostly means the ports of Elizabeth and Newark, currently the third largest port in the United States. Vessels like Bellavia draw around 35 feet.

Huge and deep you might say, but the ubiquity of cheap goods made in China sold in Wal*Mart and other retail stores is made possible by the lowered costs of shipping on vessels of ever increasing size. Consider Carsten Maersk built in 2000: containers are stacked 17 wide, 14 deep over the keel. If all the containers it can carry were placed end to end, the line would stretch almost 30 miles. Carsten Maersk will never travel through Kill van Kull into New York because it’s just too huge: 1130 feet long, it draws 45 feet of water. Its propeller has a diameter of 30 feet. At 25 knots, it burns 10 tons of fuel per hour.

It’s shopping season, so as you buy cheap stuff made on the other side of the world, think cheap labor and cheap shipping; think Panamax.

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