You’ve probably heard a lot about the logjams in the supply chain leading to a backlog of ships waiting to get into ports.
As of this afternoon, for example, Los Angeles/Long Beach had 77 cargo ships in line.
Seattle’s backlog isn’t anywhere near that bad, but it’s still a logistical challenge, according to port and maritime officials who led a media briefing we attended online this afternoon.
The most visible effects of the backlog, as seen from West Seattle, are ships at anchor off Manchester and in Elliott Bay. But there are other anchorages in Puget Sound, and other options for ships while they wait, explained the briefers – Captain Patrick Hilbert of the U.S. Coast Guard, who’s the Sector Puget Sound commander; Captain Mike Moore of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association; and Port Commission presidents Fred Felleman of Seattle and Dick Marzano of Tacoma.
Whereas previously they would work out berthing logistics with a ship days before its arrival, now they’re doing that three to four weeks in advance. Early discussions might lead a ship to stay anchored in China for a while, for example, before crossing the Pacific. Or a ship’s master might choose to make the crossing at slow speed. Or they might wait a few hundred miles off the Washington coast – or if it’s safer than the open ocean, a ship might even sail “race tracks” (loops) in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (with Canada’s permission).
Felleman said the Northwest Seaport Alliance – the joint port authority of Seattle and Tacoma that manages cargo berths in both harbors – has offered its otherwise idle Terminal 46 downtown as a place for ships to wait, though so far no one has accepted the offer, despite low-to-no-cost availability. (Moore said it would probably be most attractive to ships that needed to reprovision, and he would remind his membership – shipping lines and terminal operators – that it’s available.)
The problem, Felleman explained, isn’t a high volume of cargo; he said they’re at about the same level as pre-pandemic, The trouble is that the timing is off throughout the system, disrupting an intricately interwoven series of actions that have to happen to keep everything flowing. With everything way out of synch, containers are piling up on docks because truck drivers aren’t showing up to get them, and that can mean a ship doesn’t get loaded or unloaded. Terminal 18 on Harbor Island, for example, had at one point 7,000 containers, empty and full waiting to be picked up. As we’ve shown you before, under-construction Terminal 5 here in West Seattle is being used as a temporary storage spot for container overflow, as is T-46.
Puget Sound only had three ships at anchor today, they said. Could this area handle some of that massive backup from elsewhere? we asked. Short answer, no, that would just be moving the problem around.