Vintage Shipping – the way it was done

Cyber crime.. Nothing new, but something that didn’t affect the shipping and freight industry in a big way till the 27th of June 2017 when the world’s largest container shipping line Maersk Line, was hit by the global Petya cyber attack..

This unexpected and unprecedented attack led to a huge disruption in the operations of Maersk Line..

For a few days their operations were affected because

  • Some of the APM Terminals were affected and gates were closed
  • they were unable to serve new quotes
  • they were unable to accept new bookings (has since been restored), and
  • the attack limited their ability to communicate with their customers..

This is quite a serious issue and has come as a rude shock to many customers and the industry in general.. The delays caused by such incidents affects not just the line but also the customers that had booked their cargoes for loading on specific dates for arrival at destination within a certain time frame..

Such delays may specifically affect retail and assembly line customers (like automakers) who ship on the basis of JIT (Just In Time) deliveries where such precision in delivery is required..

While I sympathize with the affected lines and customers, this also got me thinking about how shipping was done in the past, before these technological advances came about and there was no possibility of such disruptions..

This prompted me to take a stroll down memory lane and write this article on Vintage Shipping – the way it was done.. 🙂 This could be a nostalgic overdose for many !! So read on…………….

Oxford Dictionary defines Vintage as “Denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind“..

I fully agree and identify with this definition.. While much of below is how I used to do it personally in my years working for a clearing agent, shipping agency and a shipping line in the 80’s and 90’s, I am sure many of you who have been around in the industry for long may identify with this and may have had similar experiences..

Feel free to add your stories in the comments section below..

Marketing & Sales

If we start with marketing and sales, while the marketing and sales process itself has remained pretty constant, what has changed are the methods of communication with customers..

In the absence of emails and websites not being so functional and advanced as it is now, shipping schedules were advertised regularly in the local printed newspapers or specific printed shipping magazines with information relating to ETA and ETD of ships.. Schedules were also “faxed” to customers..

vintage shipping - fax machine

For those who are not aware of what a Fax machine is or have not worked with it, this is what it looks like..

You place your document(s) in the machine pretty much like a copier, key in the “Fax number” of the recipient, hit the Send button and Hey Presto !! the person on the other side receives a “copy” of the document(s) on a “thermal paper” (like the till slips or receipts you get from some of the credit card machines)..

Thermal paper of course had its own problem as the information would disappear after a while, so the fax was photocopied onto normal paper.. As fax and printing evolved, thermal paper disappeared from fax machines and normal A4 paper was used..

If you are wondering “duh!!” I can still send a fax from a copier, those days a fax machine was a fax machine and a photocopier was a photocopier, no multi-function machines like now..


Most offices had pre-printed blank booking forms.. Clients would phone in for bookings or fax the details of their bookings.. Once the vessel/voyage details and space was confirmed, those details would be either hand-written or typed out on a typewriter and a copy would be faxed to the client or handed over to the sales person to pass on to the client..

There was no online booking systems whether 3rd party or the shipping line’s own.. We used to maintain booking details on a manual ledger notebook with the booking numbers in sequential order..

Container Tracking

One of the most laborious tasks that I recall doing was the “container tracking” which unlike now, was totally manual.. No Excel, no EDI, no online tracking system..

Container tracking involved maintaining a “T-Card” for each container.. The T-Card had details of the container number, vessel/voyage and all the moves such as discharge, gate out, gate in, load etc.. This is how T-Cards looked..

vintage shipping - t-cards

Each T-Card had a slot on a T-card rack as shown below.. Each of the slot panels (marked in Red) had multiple slots (marked in Green) for the T Cards and had label headings such as Depot 1, Depot 2, Port, De-Van (full container going for import unpack), Van (empty container going for export pack), Vessel/Voyage etc..

Depot 1, Depot 2 etc referred to the various empty container depots that the line had, so the empty containers would go under the respective depot and full or empty containers would go under the port..

Vintage shipping - T card rack

The T-cards for a particular vessel/voyage would stay under the vessel/voyage panel until it completed discharge or loading after which it was moved to the relevant blocks..

Once the containers were loaded on board the ship and the loading vessel details was entered into the T-Cards, the T-Cards for that vessel/voyage would be moved “out” of the rack, banded together and put away for any future reference..

Vintage shipping - container tracking

This activity was so intense and involved that many people doing this (including me) could remember 500+ container numbers and in which position or slot a particular container number was because these cards were being constantly picked up and updated..

Stowage Planning and  Vessel Operations

Container stowage planning was no exception and was also done manually.. We used to have pre-printed sheets of the profile of the ship’s bay plan.. A profile was kind of a birds eye view of all the bays on the ship.. I would mark the “profile” of the bay plan with the POD, container size/type etc and send the same by fax to the ship (which would be on high seas or the previous port most likely at that time)..

vintage shipping - bayplan

When I recently did a comparison of container ship stowage planning between a ship from 1996 and another from 2013, it made me realise how much things have changed..

Vintage shipping - pager

In terms of handling of vessel operations, telephonic communications were mostly through public telephones.. If the office or a client or anyone wanted to get in touch with me, while at the port or elsewhere, they would send a message on a “paging device” called Pager (image here)..

You would see most operational guys walking around port with this thing clipped on to their belts..

The pager shows the number of the person calling and a brief message such as Please call back or Go to the Port Office or Customs or some information message like that.. I would then go to a public telephone and call the person who sent the message.. Mission accomplished.. 🙂

vintage shipping - bill of lading preparation


Bills of Lading used to be prepared by the customers and not by the shipping lines as it is done now.. During my life in a clearing agent’s office I used to go to the shipping line’s offices, collect blank bill of lading forms, take it back to the office and type out the information on a bill of lading non-negotiable stationery using a typewriter..

Once completed, I would fax the draft copy to the shipper for them to confirm.. Once they confirmed the draft bill, I would then start the process of preparing the actual bills of lading..

Bills of lading were usually issued in sets of 3 originals and 6 or 9 copies.. Therefore to save time typing each page and to maintain consistency, I used to arrange the bills of lading with the blank original bill of lading in front, followed by a sheet of typing carbon, followed by a non-negotiable copy, followed by a sheet of typing carbon, followed by another non-negotiable copy and so on..

Typically a set for typing would be 1 original + 3 copies so 4 sheets of paper with typing carbon between each (best fit in a smaller typewriter).. Roll the whole set into the typewriter and type the bill of lading details as submitted by the customer.. The Original bill had the original type imprint and the non-negotiable copies had the copy type imprint from the carbon paper..

Repeat this times 2 per bill of lading so finally I would have 3 originals with original type imprint and 9 non-negotiable copies all with carbon type imprint..

vintage shipping - bill of lading typing

Once the bills were prepared as above, I would take the whole set back to the shipping lines office alongwith the cheque for the freight and other charges.. At the shipping line’s office there was a release counter with an area where the agents could “stamp” the bill of lading with Original, Non-Negotiable, Shipped on Board, Shipper’s Load Stow and Count and other clauses etc..

Then I would wait around for the bill to be checked and signed by the signatory and the shipping line would take a copy and give the rest others back..

vintage shipping - manifest typing on typewriter

On the shipping line side also the typewriter was extensively used and mainly for typing up the cargo and freight manifest.. We had these humongous 132 column typewriters (like below) where we would use pre-printed blank manifest forms usually in sets of 6 typed using carbon sheets between the pre-printed sheets and type the manifest information.. 

Once done, we would keep our copies with us and send the others by post/courier to the discharge ports and principals offices in order for it to arrive before the vessel arrived..

In the case of short transit ports, since the sheets could not fit into a fax machine, we used the photocopier to “reduce” the manifest copy size to A4 so we could fax those to some of the ports that were short transit and where the post would not have reached the discharge port in time..

I don’t know if many people know about or use the “enlarge” and “reduce” options in a photocopier that can reduce your copy size from A3 to A4 or A5 or enlarge it from A5 or A4 to A3..

vintage shipping - perforated sheets

At a later stage of the evolution of business, the responsibility of bill of lading preparation and printing was taken over the shipping lines..

At that time the shipping lines used “perforated” bill of lading stationery which had self-ink between the sheets and the stationery was not in loose A4 sheets as it is now in most countries..

These perforated bills of lading were printed using a “Dot Matrix Printer”..

By this stage of the evolution, we had “computers” which were in fact “dumb terminals”.. This means the users didn’t have a “computer” of their own, all we had was a terminal connected to a main frame based elsewhere..

These terminals had no storage, no memory, no disk capacity etc etc.. We could only do “our work” and nothing else..

Vessel arrival and sailing reports

Telex Machine

The vessel arrival and sailing reports were done using a combination of typewriters, fax machines and telex machine..

If you look at the machine on the left, that is a Telex Machine.. The name TELEX isthe acronym for TELegraph EXchange service..

A Telex Machine is a teleprinter which can send and receive text based messages using the telegraph service..

A message sent using the Telex machine is known as a Telex message..

A telex machine could be used for real time one-on-one communication with someone on the other side of the world, or could be used to send a previously drafted message..

Telex was one of the most popular methods for communicating with ships while at sea and maybe considered as the precursor to email communication..

We used telex machines for the transmission of regular messages to the ships, preparing and sending reports before, during and after a ship’s operation (Example : Arrival reports, Container Load Lists, Cargo operations progress reports, and TDRs (Terminal Departure Reports))..

If you see on the left of the telex machine there is a white tape.. We used this tape to “store” all the information on long messages such as the TDR which would list the container numbers of all containers loaded on a ship..

vintage shipping - seeing stars

We would prepare the message off line and the tape would “record” it using holes punched in various orders..

The messages were prepared off line because telex messaging was real time which meant there would be connection charges (like your “data” charges now) and since a vessel’s sailing report could take more than 1-2 hours to prepare (depending on the number of containers used), it would be a waste of money to keep the telex connection live..

Typing on a telex machine was not nearly as easy as typing on a modern keyboard as the keys were mechanical and were quite hard and slow..

Once the message was prepared, the telex machine would be connected to the recipients line(s) and the same message was transmitted to the various discharge ports and the principal at the same time.. We could also ask for receipt confirmation at the end of the message and that receipt was stored in the vessel file as proof of transmission..


To me, that was a period of much better communication between the shipping lines, forwarders and customers and it was much more personal.. If you have been in shipping from those decades or earlier, what are your thoughts.. 

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