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Looking After Cargo Ships and Mariners

Salt.  Cooking  oil.  Belgian blocks. Scrap metal.  Acres of autos.  Sky-scraping stacks of containers.  What do all these disparate items have in common? They arrive or depart the United States through Port Newark, on Newark Bay.  You can see the labyrinth of terminals, cranes and ships from the New Jersey Turnpike, or from a plane circling over Newark Liberty International Airport.  

Salt comes from Venezuela and Chile, for use in winter on New Jersey roads; Belgian blocks come from Africa.  Cooking oil comes from various countries and goes into vast steel cylinders, which are visited by rabbis to kosher it prior to distribution.  Autos come mainly from Japan and Korea.  The containers come from all over.

Port Newark

What about exports?  “Mainly raw material,” said Sam Ruda, deputy director of the Port Department, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the waterfront acreage under a long-term lease from the City of Newark.  Paper, for instance, goes to China, where it’s turned into resins and plastic, then shipped back to the United States -- the global economy at work.

“The profile of imported goods changes over the years,” said Ruda. “Currently, number one is furniture, followed by beverages, then apparel.”  Beverages?  “Think wine, Scotch, brandy, rum, and beer. Coming up on the list are food products and auto parts.”


Four container terminals are located in Port Newark and two are in New York -- with a combined 2016 annual volume of approximately 6,251,953 TEU (a “TEU” stands for a 20-foot equivalent unit and is an industry-wide volume measure used to describe the capacity of container ships and terminals) -- along with more than 600,000 automobiles -- make the Port of New York and New Jersey the largest on the East Coast, third largest in the United States and 20th worldwide.

According to Ruda, 80-85% of imports go onto trucks which, with immediate access to the Turnpike and interstates, can reach 44.7 million people in four hours and 13 million in just one hour.  Railroad tracks broaden the reach into the heartland.  In July, the first Panamax (largest container ship) glided into Port Newark under the newly raised Bayonne Bridge.  According to the Journal of Commerce, a major expansion to handle the mega-ships will double the port’s container capacity from about one million a year to 2.4 million by 2020.

Newark Port

While you can’t tour the terminals, you can watch the activities from panoramic windows in the three-story Seamen’s Church Institute’s International Seafarers’ Center (SCI) at 118 Export Street in the heart of the port..  A big brass ship’s bell from the SS Normandie will welcome you to the lobby, adorned with a hanging screen of blue-green glass waves evoking the sea. Throughout the building are displays of art and artifacts depicting life at sea through history. An imposing ship’s figurehead of Sir Galahad occupies a place of honor, though no one knows his origins. 

Newark Port

A marble baptismal font from the Church of St. Mark’s in the Bowery dates from the original floating Seamen’s Church, built in 1843 on a barge in New York Harbor. The church had a steeple and stained glass windows and served 200 to 300 seamen at any given time. It continuously expanded to various locations on Manhattan’s waterfront. Today’s SCI serves more than a million mariners of all backgrounds and religions who arrive annually at Port Newark, where it relocated after selling its last New York headquarters in 2010. “When the bulk of marine transport moved from New York to New Jersey, we decided we should go where the sailors were,” said Stephen Lyman, SCI director. “It was a good move.” 

SCI has always provided not only spiritual solace, but also whatever else seafarers needed in port -- sleeping accommodations, dining, banking and legal services, among others.  Changing times and mariners’ needs have altered SCI’s focus.  Now speedy unloading and loading technology no longer requires extended mariner layovers.  Often ships come in and go out within hours. Though chaplains board every ship that comes in, offering spiritual solace on request, SCI now provides a gym, health care (in collaboration with Rutgers and Yale Universities), internet, email, WIFI and certification courses in computer navigation.

Newark Port

“SCI is the human factor amidst the madness of the port,” explained Lyman. “We serve as a land base/community center for mariners arriving from all over the world, after months at sea, out of touch with home and family. 

“We still provide valuable services to mariners in port,” Lyman added.  “Possibly the most requested is a shuttle to nearby Jersey Gardens and Walmart, where mariners buy goods to take back home.  It’s sort of ironic, isn’t it?  They bring the stuff into the port, unload it, then go buy it back.”   

SCI encourages visitors to tour the center.  Lyman is happy to share his knowledge and many stories he has heard from the seafarers. To schedule a tour or get more information, contact  portprograms@seamenschurch.org.

Story By: Pegi Adam

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