Around 5:30 a.m., the cargo vessel Jinsei Maru crawls past the southern tip of Point Loma and into the San Diego Bay carrying thousands of cars from Europe. At 652 feet long – nearly two football fields — the Maru dwarfs the tugboat maneuvering it into position. As big as it seems, Maru is considered a baby in the shipping world, where vessels can reach twice that size. Crewmen blend into the vessels’ facade, distinguishable only by their bright orange safety vests, and throw mooring lines to men below.
A near miss, a catch, and a tie-up.
Longshoremen from the Local 29 wait patiently in the parking lot next to the terminal, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and listening only half-heartedly to the morning safety briefing. Three Customs and Border Patrol agents sweep the ship before anyone is allowed on or off. A ramp reminiscent of a medieval drawbridge lowers slowly from the bow. The longshoremen make their way onboard. And in the next few hours, thousands of Audis, Volkswagens, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, and Porsches are driven off the decks of the NYK-owned Maru and on to the National City terminal parking lot.
The cars are destined for both northern and southern California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. And one car in particular is destined for Robert Malthouse, an eager Volkswagen technician in Henderson, Nevada.
Hidden in a white protective wrapping, each car looks the same — distinguishable only by the shape of the body and the location of the exhaust. The full-body wrap protects the new cars from “rail dust” — tiny flakes of iron deposits that can settle into a car’s paint, a result of the friction between a railroad track and the wheels of the train transporting these cars from a factory to a port in a country half a world away.
Because factories like the one in Emden aren’t able to outfit each car to the unique specifications demanded by customers and dealerships, port accessorizing comes into play. In a building a few hundred yards from the ship, owner’s manuals are placed in glove boxes, spoilers are installed atop trunks, and portable solar panels are used to charge car batteries.
The Volkswagen Golf R, the car for Malthouse, needs Mojo mats, a trunk liner, and a first aid kit.
By 1:30 p.m. the next day, it’s ready — parked in space F59 — for the next leg of its journey.