Thirty-nine years ago, on 4 may 1966, Seal-Land’s container carrier “fairland” put into port of Rotterdam for the first time. She loaded and unloaded 35-foot containers with her own on-board cranes. With three sister vessels, all with a capacity of 226 containers, the “fairland” operated a weekly container service between North America and Northwest Europe.
Sea-Land did not invent the container. Nor was the shipping line the first to transport these containers across the Atlantic. It was, however, the first to load ocean going vessels with nothing but containers and the first to operate a full container service between the USA and Europe.
Railways and road hauliers
Containers have been used in transport for centuries. However, it was only in the nineteen eighties that they started to be used on a larger scale in a standadized form. Transport of containers took off in the First World War, when, the US standard to use the container in a big way for sending munitions to the front in Europe.
Container transport received an even stronger boost in 1928, when, at a conference in Rome, the European railways decided to use the container for door-to-door Transport. This made switching cargo from train to truck and vice versa easier. They hoped to compete in this way with the rapidly growing door-to-door service offered by road transport companies.
In the Netherlands, road hauliers Van Gend & Loos transported goods to and from the railways, first in wooden containers and later in metal ones. It was not until after the Second World War that the multi-modal containers also started to play a role in sea transport. British railways started shipping containers across the North Sea. The major European shipping lines also regularly carried containers between the ports of Western Europe.
Until the middle of the nineteen-sixties, however, maritime containers played a minor role in Europe. This in contrast to the US, where container transport had been developing spectacularly since the mid-fifties. One of the prime movers in this was road haulier, Malcolm Mc.Lean, the founder of Sea-Land.
Started in America
McLean had a large road haulage company in the US. When transporting containers from north to south, he encountered all sorts of problems because of the different transport regulations in the states his trucks had to pass trough. To get around this, in 1956, he put them on a converted tanker in the port of Newark (New Jersey) near New York and transported them to Houston (Texas). Initially, they were loaded complete with wheel chassis. Later , the chassis were left off, so the containers could be stacked.
Ten years later, container and ro-ro vessels were already sailing between some twenty-five ports in the mainland US, Puorto Rico, Alaska, the Dominican Republic and Panama. These ports had a adapted to this transport by constructing bigger sites where the containers could be parked. The shipping lines also started to use computers to organize the shipment and intake of the containers.
Yet again, it was a war that advanced container transport, in this case, the Vietnam War. The container was the most suitable means of transporting large quantities of general cargo to that country. In comparison with the US, container transport in Europe did not amount to much in 1966.
Although people in Rotterdam knew about the growth of container transport in the US, the port was nonetheless overwhelmed by the speed with which the container conquered the world. In 1966, the year the first containers came from America, the Eemhaven district (where ECT’s Home Container Division is now located) was still being built.
The Eemhaven was being laid out to handle conventional general cargo. Most of the sites were up to 60 meters wide, 25 meters for the shed and 45 meters in front of it. However containers need much more space. At the last minute, therefore, a section of the Margriethaven, which had just been dug, was filled in again.
The cargo handling company Quick Dispatch, which was to handle the first containers for Sea-Land in 1966, had originally reserved a 60 meter-wide site in the Prinses Beatrix haven in the Eemhaven District, but ended up with a site 171 meters wide in order to handle the Atlantic containers.
In April 1966, the first scheduled container service across the Atlantic Ocean was started by United States Lines (USL), which had partially converted four of its freighters, each with a capacity of 13.300 dwt, into container carriers. The first vessel to bring containers to Rotterdam in this scheduled service was the “American Racer”. With three sister ships, each of which could carry 140 20-foot containers, the “American racer” operated a weekly service between ports on the east coast of the US and Rotterdam.
The USL vessels were loaded and unloaded at the Muller Progress terminal in the Prinses Beatrix haven. (Eemhaven distict).
The first transatlantic service with full container carriers was launched in the following month by Malcolm McLean’s company, Sea-Land inc. The first ship in this service, the “Fairland”, arrived in the port of Rotterdam on 4 may. She had left Elizabeth (New Jersey) on 23 April with 226 35-foot containers on board, and called at Bremen and Grangemouth (Scotland) as well as Rotterdam .
The “Fairland” and her three sister ships in the transatlantic service loaded and unloaded the containers with the two gantry cranes which each had on board. This meant that they were not dependent on the port equipment.
Start of a success story
Since there was as yet no specialist container terminal in Rotterdam, the Sea-Land vessels berthed at the conventional general cargo stevedore Quick Dispatch (now part of ECT) in the Beatrixhaven (Eemhavendistrict) , A few days before the arrival of the “Fairland” however, the container company “Europe Container Terminus” (ECT) was formally set up by five Rotterdam stevedoring companies and the Dutch railways.
The ECT terminal welcomed the first container vessel on 31 August 1967 and became one of the largest container terminals in the world. A year after the arrival of the “Fairland”, Sea-Land had transported 6.000 containers to and from the port of Rotterdam. With the arrival of the “Fairland”, a success story had started.