ChainMail | Shipshape Again

Southern California’s incredible container vessel backup finally ends

ChainMail | Shipshape Again

The gorgeous vista out to sea from Newport Beach, Calif., should be unbroken for 30 miles until the sloped, shaded protrusion of Santa Catalina Island comes into view.

But one day in late October 2021, I went to the beach and saw something shockingly out of place: Five massive ships were floating just offshore like sunbathing whales. They were among the dozens of container vessels waiting off the Southern California coast for berth space at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

By Nov. 16, 2021, there were 86 container ships in this makeshift queue, occupying every available offshore parking spot and more. That’s why some vessels were visible in Newport Beach, about 20 miles south of the ports.

“We had 86 container ships in our waters, but we only have 55 anchorages,” Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, told me. “The remainder of the ships of all types were just out there blowing in the wind.” 

Nov. 16, 2021, marked the start of an all-out effort to end a boat bottleneck that came to symbolize the supply chain crisis. Ships kept waiting for weeks were holding holiday goods hostage like an armada of Dr. Seuss villains. Things didn’t improve immediately. By Jan. 10, 2022, the container ship backup into L.A. peaked at 109 vessels. Normally no container vessels are at anchorage.

But the backup became less chaotic after Nov. 16, 2021, when the industry instituted a new traffic-control system that assigned each vessel a place in line to dock at L.A./Long Beach as it left Asia. Ships would then steam across the Pacific at a leisurely pace to avoid contributing to congestion and pollution in Southern California. 

It took almost exactly a year to unravel L.A.’s traffic jam at sea. On Nov. 22, 2022, Louttit announced via his daily update that for the first time since the crisis there were no container vessels waiting at sea for a berth and for dock workers to unload. Ships now arrive according to their schedule, discharge cargo, and leave without delays, the way the process worked pre-COVID. 

There were no collisions during the backup when ships not at anchor had to make sure they didn’t drift into danger, Louttit said. The only incident: One ship couldn’t restart its engine. “The captains were very, very good,” he said. “Credit to industry that we said, ‘Stay three miles apart, three miles from shoal water, and three miles from the traffic lanes,’ and they did that. They had to keep maneuvering their ships 24 hours a day.”

Success began with smart traffic control and skilled piloting, but there’s more than one reason for the backup’s conclusion. Shipping companies have been diverting traffic to East Coast ports, and they’ve been canceling voyages from Asia as consumer demand has decreased. Labor shortages caused by COVID have been alleviated, too.

Now, we just need rail, trucking, and the rest of the global supply chain to snap back into place.

Read the complete Issue 25 of ChainMail here.

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