Captain Phillips ~ The Taking of the Maersk Alabama

Posted October 4, 2013
Category Company News
On December 8, 2011, J.W. Allen & Co., Inc received a cold call from a representative of a company that would eventually become a new client. The nature of the call was like many others before and since; someone needing information and advice on exporting from the U.S. and elsewhere. As with any client, new or otherwise, we were delighted to take the time to discuss this shipper’s needs and expectations.

The shipper had cargo originating in multiple locations within in the U.S. as well as one in Germany and was looking for a freight forwarder who could handle the entire project. In and of itself the described cargo and logistics discussed were unremarkable; skiffs, lifeboats, diving equipment and related cargo, some hand tools, all destined for Morocco.

Export equipment options, domestic and international logistics possibilities and documentation requirements were discussed. As the shipper planned to return some of their cargo to the U.S. after use it was suggested they consider having their freight forwarder file CBP Form 4455 on their behalf to facilitate the reimport. A lot of topics related to their shipment were discussed and factors brought up they hadn’t considered or accounted for during their internal planning.

After a while the representative said before speaking with us they had spoken with several other freight forwarders and none had taken the time to just talk and offer suggestions and advice as we had. Then he said based on the level of comfort he already felt with us and the knowledge we’d shared they felt we were the right people for the job. From that point the nature of the conversation changed from one of consultation to the more active position of acting as their service provider.

Next the representative told us the end use of the cargo would be to make a movie based on the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates on April 8, 2009. Maintaining perspective, we expressed while the nature of the project was exciting to be associated with and looked forward to doing whatever possible to support the production, their cargo would be handled just as any other client’s; with the professionalism and efficiency that are just two of the many mainstays and performance hallmarks of J.W. Allen & Company.

Having won the business it was now time to back up our earlier advice and opinions with action. Several days after our initial conversation the shipper contacted us again and asked a booking be provided to load out and export via Port Los Angeles. However, after loading the cargo into the container the shipper felt due to the production schedule it would be necessary to try to improve on the Moroccan ETA. Several options were considered and after receiving shippers approval arrangements were made to truck the container to New Orleans for export as this option had the best ETA to destination based on sail/ ETA date pairs.

At the same time of the U.S. booking, our German partner agent was provided information on three large lifeboats that would need to be picked up at vendor’s location, loaded individually onto three 40’ flat racks and also shipped to Morocco. These boats would be used as props in the movie to represent the lifeboat in which the Somali pirates held Captain Phillips hostage.

Things proceeded as expected; the U.S. container loaded with a variety of movie equipment arrived into New Orleans from Los Angeles and sailed, while the first of the 40’ flat racks from Germany had also been loaded and sailed. Our next task was to arrange for the delivery of two 40’ open top containers to a location in Texas 66 miles from Brownsville, for loading of two Willard boats and other equipment. These boats would be in the film as the boats the pirates used to take the Maersk Alabama.

Once again the shipper needed the transit time of the open top containers compressed so they too arrived destination as quickly as possible. By the time the cargo was available for loading the schedule was tight; picking up the empty equipment in New Orleans, draying and loading the containers in southwest Texas over a weekend and then returning to New Orleans in order to meet the cutoff. Fortunately everything came together and the containers made the earliest possible vessel on schedule.

As we awaited the shipment of the second 40’ flat rack from Germany the movie production company threw a curve ball. Their location scouting team had identified several beach locations in Morocco where parts of the film would be shot, but when the Director took a firsthand look he pulled the plug on that site and decided to move the whole shoot to the island nation of Malta. Given that decision we were tasked to divert everything already on the water to Malta.

Luckily, with the exception of the first flat rack shipped from Germany, none of the containers had arrived Morocco. Even more beneficial to our ultimate plan to deal with this change, the containers all transshipped at Barcelona.

As it turned out however, this wasn’t going to be as simple as diverting the shipment from Morocco to Malta. The original carriers out of the U.S. either did not have direct service to Malta from Barcelona or offered service with ETA’s later than was acceptable to our client. To further complicate the schedule one of the containers, the one originally from L.A., ended up by carrier error in Valencia, Spain rather than Barcelona as expected.

With only a few days before the two open top containers arrived Barcelona from the U.S. we worked with the ocean carrier to get the misrouted container back to Barcelona. During the same time, working with our Spanish agent arrangements were made so they would be able to take possession of all three containers from the U.S., trans-load the cargo into other carriers equipment and have the cargo back on the water on its way to Malta as quickly as possible.

In the end everything worked out fine; our partner agent was able to take physical possession of the first two containers, trans-load and get all the equipment back to the port over a three day span. On the same day the first two containers sailed from Barcelona the misrouted container was made available at the port and once again our partner did a great job trans-loading the cargo into another carrier’s equipment and returning it to the port within a nine hour span. Their extraordinary efforts in this matter allowed us to meet the shippers desired Maltese ETA.

Getting the three containers reworked and turned around was frantic work for our partner agent but they performed brilliantly. Their efforts on our behalf, as well as their taking on our clients shipment needs as seriously as if it had been their direct client was greatly appreciated. Having worked on several occasions before with this agent there was never a doubt they would come through for us in our hour of need.

While waiting for the first two containers to arrive Barcelona we still had the matter of the first 40’ flat rack which had already arrived in Morocco from Germany. Again the challenge was getting the lifeboat to Malta as quickly as possible to meet the filming schedule. However Murphy’s Law was in full effect as the importing carrier did not have any service whatsoever into Malta. Again it would be necessary to swing the cargo from one carrier’s equipment to another, and of course to aggravate the situation even more there was an acute shortage of proper sized equipment in Morocco.

Once more we turned to one of our partner agents to assist. Through their diligence and tenacity they were able to secure the necessary booking and equipment, have the swing done and get the cargo on board the next available vessel to Malta. It was fortunate everything went well as this first lifeboat was critically needed in Malta so filming could get underway. Save the extraordinary efforts of our agent in getting this lifeboat back on the water, it would be at least another two weeks before the second lifeboat shipping out of Germany would arrive Malta as at that moment it was not yet ready for shipment.

Eventually the second of three lifeboats did ship from Germany and went off without a hitch, sailing directly to Malta without any additional handling being necessary. This lifeboat would be used as a backup to the first and used while the first underwent repair of any damages that may have occurred during filming.

When it came time to ship the third lifeboat from Germany, rather than Malta as originally planned, the production company now wanted this boat to go to the U.K. This lifeboat would be placed into a huge water tank at the U.K. studio for shooting interior shots and some special effects. Fortunately that decision had been made soon enough it was only necessary to cancel the booking to Malta and obtain a replacement to the U.K.

This left two containers to export from the U.S.; one from Savannah and one from New Orleans. Each container carried materials needed for filming the scenes using the lifeboat located at the U.K. studio. The Savannah container carried replacement hatches and ladders as well as some other hardware and tools that would be used to repair damages that occurred to this lifeboat during filming. Special effects equipment (SFX) shipped from New Orleans was in the second container and would also be used filming some of those same scenes.

Finally everything was where it needed to be; Malta and the U.K. respectively, all having arrived within the production timeframe constraints we operated under. For the next few months, at least for us, all was quiet. That is until the production moved back to the U.S. for shooting of some additional scenes.

Once filming in Malta was complete we worked with the production company and our Maltese agent to arrange the packing of the movie equipment and props, including the two lifeboats, and trucking to Rotterdam for export to the U.S. This was a decision of the production company and made in order to reduce the trans-Atlantic sailing time as much as possible. Time was growing short for production and as much time as possible that could be saved on the ocean transit time from Malta would be beneficial to them once they were back in the U.S. and filming resumed.

At the same time the production company also made the decision to send a film team to Morocco to shoot some ‘scene establishing’ shots. Two 40’ containers were packed with movie equipment and sent to Casablanca from Malta, and once filming was complete this equipment was returned to the U.S. To assist in this we once again relied on the same partner agent we’d originally used when the first lifeboat was diverted from Morocco to Malta.

While the movie equipment and boats were in route to Rotterdam we reached out to our partner agent in The Netherlands for assistance. Their task was to receive the trucks and trans-load everything into containers or onto flat racks for the export to the U.S.
Once the cargo was loaded onboard vessels at Rotterdam our import department took the lead. Over a short period of time they cleared numerous shipments at multiple ports, while also handling the domestic drayage to Virginia Beach, VA from both Ports Baltimore and Norfolk. Later two containers with the special effects equipment and marine department equipment were sent from the U.K. to New Orleans via Savannah along with the two previously mentioned containers shipping from Morocco.

At Port Norfolk three containers and one flat rack arrived and were flagged for VACIS exams, with one of these containers and the flat rack being further held for intensive exam. Of course Murphy’s Law came into affect again later when after being released from hold one container was immediately placed on agricultural hold for inspection of wood packaging materials for bugs which required a return trip to the CES.
With the clients urgent need of their equipment pushing us, and while we waited for release of the cargo, it was necessary to coordinate with multiple drivers so someone would be ready to pull and deliver each cargo segment as soon as it was made available to us. Nonetheless, and luckily we were able to effect delivery of two of the containers five days after arrival, with the last container and flat being delivered four days later.

Another challenge was the steamship line equipment wouldn’t be allowed to leave Port Baltimore, so once the cargo was released from OGA holds cargo swings from Mafi trailers onto flat beds were called for. It took six days from the time of a Saturday port arrival for the flat rack containing one of the lifeboats to make its way through the various holds before our trucker could take possession and make delivery the next day.

Although it was down to the wire in meeting the production companies US shooting schedule, in the end all cargo was delivered in place and on time.

While many challenges in handling the shipments were placed before us, it was satisfying to be able to show our ability to face these challenges and deliver on the clients’ expectations. They expressed their appreciation, acknowledging the difficulties of dealing with their sudden changes to schedules, unexpected rerouting of cargo and all the other challenges we faced, all in a professional, expedient and efficient manner.

It was our honor to play a small part in this film and while we may not have a credit line we know the role we played.

Contributors to this article:

Beth Raymond - V.P. - Imports
Gretchen Groom - Export Account Representative
Bill Yennie - V.P. - Exports
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