In a park with a view down to the White Bay docks in Sydney I once sat fascinated as a couple of crews unloaded a car freighter. It was a tightly choreographed logistical dance.

A minivan emerged from the ship followed by eight cars. The first parked in its designated spot on the dock and the driver climbed out and closed the door. Then the next car came in close on its right, so close that it would have been impossible for the first driver to get out had he not already done so.

Then that driver got out, the next car pulled in beside it and so on. When all eight cars were in place the drivers got into the minivan to be taken back into the bowels of the ship for the next round. With a couple of minivans running it was remarkable how quickly the cars started massing on the dock.

But what I’d seen was only a small part of the delicate and precise art of moving a lot of cars from one country to another. And there’s no question about it being an art.

These ships have height-adjustable decks, each raised about 10 cm clear of the tallest car below them, which means that vehicles of the same height share common decks; cars on one, SUVs and four-wheel-drives on another and vans and trucks on still others. And they’re parked even more carefully than on the dock to get the maximum number of vehicles in the minimum possible space.

It’s not just a matter of parking them in a sequence to allow just 15 cm between the sides of each car (their wing mirrors folded against the body) and 30 cm nose to tail – the crews tying them down also have to work in a precise sequence so that they can access the underside of each car before it’s blocked off by other cars around it.

Parking them so close has an added benefit – if a car breaks its shackles and starts rolling it will only damage the cars immediately around it, rather than taking out the whole deck. Such incidents are rare these days not just because the cars are so securely tethered, but also because the ships go out of their way to avoid bad weather. It’s not unusual for shipping companies to allow a day’s leeway in each schedule.

At destination comes the unlashing and removal, deck by deck.

The big specialist ships, called ro-ros because the cars roll on and roll off under their own power, can transport up to 8500 vehicles at a time on up to 13 deck levels. They look for all the world like big shoeboxes and they’re unlikely to get any bigger than they are, otherwise they won’t fit through the Panama and Suez canals.

Published January 2013