At first glance, unloading cargo from a vessel looks like a horde of ants invading a juicy piece of cake. The vessel is huge, the people are little, and up and down the swaying ladder attached to the side of the ship, we (underwriters), insurers, other surveyors, dockers and supervisors climb on board to join the crew and get down to work. On the paperwork side onboard, everyone gets settled in the Chief Officer’s cabin and starts producing and signing tally sheets, daily reports and other papers. This temporary office will be the creation space of a vast paper trail that will allow the tracking of every single bag of rice during the unloading operations.*
Meanwhile, the discharging shift has begun and some of the other ants crawl into the belly of the vessel to manually lift and load bags of rice unto the slings that then lift and swing over to the dock to be unloaded unto delivery trucks. Dozens of shirtless, sweating men, with their gleaming muscles in the African sun move with dexterity on top of the bags that will soon be lifted out and unto the land. Other men sit inside the holds with clip boards and count the amounts discharged and the number of bags torn. On the docks, the same frantic scramble continues, this time on and beside the trucks. Lift, carry, pile, count, classify, smack a tarp on it, and off we go to the warehouse. This continues day and night, hundreds of bags after hundreds of bags…until the cake is all done.
We can imagine that the bag of rice we’re following has made it out, safe and dry and untorn, unto the truck now on its way to the warehouse. We learn that while out at sea during the vessel’s 4-week journey, somewhere near South Africa, the crew was slow to close the holds during a moment of passing rain… and some of the rice inside got wet. What’s more there’s been many additional torn bags today, as there’s a faulty sling and a new, inexperienced docker ripping bags right and left. We’ve noted an infestation in hold number 3. In short, for a bag of rice to make it out of the vessel unscathed today is a rare treat.
And, alas, getting to the warehouse is another perilous journey. Bags are stolen during transport, torn and ripped, their rice-fillings swiftly sifted into nameless, plastic bags. There may be rain on the way. Some of the trucks encounter accidents on the road…spilling it all on the asphalt.
It’s difficult to know what may happen next and just how our bag of rice will do!
*unloading operations can take anywhere from 10 days time to 3 weeks, depending on many factors such as the amount of cargo, cadence of the dockers (workers) and the weather.
As a cargo underwriter I represent the interests of the insurance companies that insure various imported and exported merchandise. Here in Senegal we’re doing a lot of imported rice (mainly Indian, Thai, Pakistani and Brazilian) which means that my days are full of rice discharging operations, lost bags of rice on the way to the warehouse, wet bags of rice because its rainy season and torn bags of rice because, well, lots of bags get torn. These need to be counted, recounted and accounted for. Damages have to be avoided or otherwise assessed, explained and fixed, if possible. All the while we create and sign all the necessary documentation. The logistics and amount of coordination necessary to successfully unload, transport, store, sell, ship and then retail the rice is astonishing. The amount of things that can go wrong during the process – countless.
Numbers and paperwork aside…what drew me initially to this work, and what intrigues me still, is understanding the intricate process that my food goes through before it actually arrives on my dinner plate.