PORT NEWARK, N.J. -- An ocean voyage of thousands of miles may separate the factory where an import car is assembled from the garage of its new owner, but the weeks spent at sea are hardly a leisure trip.
The vehicle makes its crossing lashed to the steel floor of a cargo deck. Cars need at least about 4 inches of overhead clearance, so their height determines the deck they are parked on. About a foot separates front and rear bumpers of cars, with a gap of 6 inches from side to side.
Hauling up to 8,500 vehicles in a layer cake of 13 decks packed tightly, car carrier ships do one task very well -- delivering vehicles, from compacts to enormous excavators, unscathed.
The Andromeda Leader, operated by Japanese shipping giant NYK Line, with Panamanian registry, is typical of modern car carriers. Launched in 2004 when global auto sales were booming and shippers raced to keep up with demand, the ship is two football fields long and has a cargo capacity of 21,443 tons, greater than some of today's largest cruise ships.
More relevant to its mission, perhaps, is the ship's width of 105 feet -- the largest dimension that will fit through the Panama Canal's locks.
For eight years, the Andromeda Leader has brought Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles across the Pacific to the United States in all seasons, maintaining an accident-free record.
In recent months, that cargo has been arriving with urgency. Toyota said it expected imports through Newark to increase by nearly 20 percent this year compared with 2011 as it rebounds from last year's natural disasters in Japan and Thailand.
Indeed, automakers depend on shippers to comply with their just-in-time production policies; for that reason, NYK has seven of its 120 car carriers dedicated to Toyota for North American service.
With its ready access to major U.S. markets, Newark is the ship's main port of call, where more than half of the Andromeda Leader's 5,500 vehicles are offloaded. Later the cars will be driven a few hundred yards to Toyota's Logistics Services facility, where electronics, roof racks and other options are installed before delivery to dealerships.
Just 0.04 percent of vehicles that NYK delivers to Newark need repairs, and most are small scratches.
Maximizing the cars a ship can carry while minimizing damage is complex. Until the 1960s, cranes transferred cars one or two at a time. Dedicated car carrier ships changed that. Like ferries and military transports, they have built-in ramps that let vehicles easily roll on and off.