The number of ships waiting to enter the largest U.S. gateway for trade with Asia reached the highest number since the pandemic began, compounding delays for companies trying to replenish inventories during one of the busiest times of the year for shipping.
Forty-four container ships were at anchor and waiting for berthing space outside the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, late Friday, surpassing the record of 40 initially set in early February, according to officials overseeing shipping traffic in San Pedro Bay. The average wait increased to 7.6 days, up from 6.2 in mid-August, according to Los Angeles port data.
Ships are queuing up because imports are arriving in the world’s largest economy just as inland transportation – such as trucks and rail – faces its own bottlenecks of containers not moving fast enough to distribution centers and warehouses.
Labor shortages are part of the problem, but companies are also trying to stock up ahead of the year-end holidays. August and September are key months for shipping goods from China ahead of that country’s Golden Week in early October.
In addition to these problems, importers that rely on goods from Asia, in particular, have experienced virus-related shipping disruptions, such as the one that Mike Witynski, CEO of Virginia-based discount retailer Dollar Tree Inc. shared on a conference call this week.
“One of our dedicated charters was recently denied entry into China because a crew member tested positive for Covid, forcing the vessel to return to Indonesia to change the entire crew before continuing,” he said. “In total, the voyage was delayed by two months.”
With vessels off schedule and most of them fully loaded with boxes of goods, container ports on both U.S. coasts are experiencing record volumes that they are having difficulty handling for a sustained period. Off the Georgia coast, for example, Bloomberg charting data showed at least a dozen cargo ships at anchor in a cluster with the port of Savannah as their destination.