From Wikipedia’s United States Lines:
Duquesne Spy RingMain article: Duquesne Spy Ring
In 1941, two Nazi spies, Franz Joseph Stigler and Erwin Wilheim Siegler, worked for United States Lines as members of SS America‘s crew. While on the SS America, they obtained information about the movement of ships and military defense preparations at the Panama Canal, observed and reported defense preparations in the Canal Zone, and met with other German agents to advise them in their espionage pursuits. They operated as couriers, transmitting information between the United States and German agents aboard. Stigler worked undercover as the chief butcher. Both remained on the SS America until the U.S. Navy converted that ship into the USS West Point.
Stigler and Siegler, along with the 31 other German agents of the Duquesne Spy Ring, were later uncovered by the FBI in the largest espionage conviction in U.S. history. Stigler was sentenced to serve 16 years in prison on espionage charges with two concurrent years for registration violations; Siegler was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on espionage charges and a concurrent 2-year term for violation of the Registration Act.
The use of crewmen on large liners as observers and couriers would be a useful tool in Solomani Security’s bag of tricks.
In the late 1970s, the most reliable industry forecasts saw the era of high oil prices lasting indefinitely, and it was projected that the price per barrel would double by 1985, meaning that any company that could find a way to weather the storm would be positioned for dominance as those that couldn’t adapt inevitably collapsed. The solution was what McLean dubbed the “Jumbo Econship”, which was an absolutely brilliant design. The Jumbo Econships were by far the biggest freighters yet conceived – 950 feet long, 57,000 gross tons, and able to carry nearly 4,500 containers- so large that many ports weren’t equipped to handle them and container terminals scrambled to make upgrades to accommodate the type.
Then, something unpredictable happened – oil prices collapsed. Rather than double by 1985 as predicted, oil instead reached historic lows. All of a sudden, the whole justification for the Econships evaporated. (…) It was a disaster- United States Lines filed for bankruptcy in 1986, straining under the debt it had accumulated building its Econship fleet. (…) The failure of United States Lines sent shockwaves through the global shipping industry and ranked as the biggest bankruptcy filed in US history up to that time. Selling the Econships proved one of the biggest challenges of the restructuring process, ultimately the nearly new vessels had to be sold off for basically scrap value.
Ironically, unencumbered by the high cost of building them in the first place, the ships went on to fairly long careers with other operators, and two of them are still sailing as of 2014, with the other 10 having all been scrapped in recent years after about a quarter century of service – not overly long, but a reasonable life span for a container ship.
Capitalism is really exciting, but the ability to bet the company on a single innovative idea and a shrewd guess about the future has the possibility for a serious blow-up, just as much as for serious profits.
As small operators, many PCs get to enjoy the boom & bust very up-close and personal. In a low-traffic environment like the Six Subsectors of the Imperial Empty Quarter, buying a 400-ton freighter is just as risky, just as much a gamble, and has just as much impact on local trade, as buying a 20,000-ton freighter in a more civilized sector. It’s not just pirates: actual planetary economies can be affected by the visit (or lack thereof) of a 400-tonner freighter in the Empty Quarter…
Just a comment from “The Dude”
If you read the book “The Box” by Marc Levinson it will give you the entire rundown on the history of the industry. Interestingly enough I have asked most of the top management of liner companies if they have read it and I almost always get a blank stare back. Container shipping has been a boom and bust business since its inception. The father of container shipping, Malcolm McLean went bust with US Lines in the 80’s. Todays liner shipping companies are run by managers who have no clue about running a business and in many cases no knowledge of the history of their industry.
Let’s say the merchant captain PC has been around the block a few times, and has a better grip on the subsector ebb and flow of trade than the parachuted-in line managers for the majors – yes, even Tukera Lines.
Let’s say he knows that a bust is a’coming, and there is going to be a bloodbath in the industry – literally, depending on the corporate warfare environment. (The Empty Quarter loves it’s race & religion hostility: but in most of the Third Imperium, conflict is strongly grounded on profit/loss outcomes. “It isn’t hate: it’s business.”)
And let’s say that said merchant PC can — by calling on old friends, loan sharks, and/or certain stashed funds — can make a purchase of one of the “excess capacity” major freighters.
What’s the most outrageously daring venture he can put that huge cargo capacity to work for, which can bring the fastest returns? Troop transport and resupply? A colonial venture? A single, bet-it-all journey to a fabled, wealthy, distant system?
But the container didn’t just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean’s success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container’s potential.
Now, that’s an interesting thought.
In the Stellar Reaches timeframe, the Solomani Rim War – the largest conflict since the Final War of the Ancients – is raging away, and someone has to ship the ammo, rations, and equipment to the men (“regardless of species… or sex, for that matter”) at the front.
Of course, Tukera Lines grabbed the lion’s share, but even 1% of that business is a huge amount of money. Factor in the usual war profiteering, sweetheart deals, and once-in-lifetime opportunities, and even a successful “bit-player” can get stupid rich, if — and that’s a HUGE if — enough gambles pay off and the size & power of that expanding enemy list doesn’t quite get out of hand.
In more peaceful Imperial eras, any conflict zone can become hair-raising life-or-death battlegrounds for the PCs. If your ship is your life, even a Free Trader making a do-they-or-don’t-they bet on the exact tech level of two anti-space rocket emplacements…
- TL 8 or less for it = Green. Go for it!
- TL 9 = Yellow. Think about it!
- TL 10 = Red. Forget about it!
…has just as much import as the decision of the Argentines to attack Royal Navy ships (the flashy distraction), instead of the civilian transport (the heart of the mission.)