While vessel backlogs in Southern California continue to draw attention, ports up and down the Pacific Coast also report the impact of congestion. The U.S. Coast Guard and Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service highlight some of the challenges they face in managing the surge of vessels in the area.
This unprecedented backlog has resulted in an increased number of vessels, particularly container vessels, using the Puget Sound anchorages. There are currently eight vessels in the Puget Sound anchorages, which means the area is two-thirds full as vessels wait for space at terminals in the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
The Salish Sea and Puget Sound are deep-water areas, says Laird Hail, director of Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Services. “However, deep water limits the number of places we can use to anchor. Container ships have become larger since some of our anchorages were established, and as a result, many of the anchorages are no longer suitable for these vessels.”
Due to the lack of available capacity elsewhere, the Coast Guard and Traffic Service have been directing vessels to Holmes Harbor, off Whidbey Island. Although Holmes Harbor is designated as a federal anchorage, the Coast Guard does not typically need to use it. This is similar to other anchorages, such as Bellingham Bay and Port Gardner. The Coast Guard is working closely with Puget Sound pilots to review the criteria that determine which vessels can use certain anchorages.
“Holmes Harbor is far off the beaten path, so boat pilots have to make longer runs and it’s farther from the boats’ final destination,” Hail said. “We’ve only used Holmes Harbor once before in a similar fashion in the last 15 to 20 years, and that was during the 2014-2015 slowdown caused by labor disputes that resulted in a similar backup. As soon as the congestion resolves to the point where we don’t need to use Holmes Harbor, we’ll go back to just using it as an overflow location.”
Boats waiting in the bay have become something of a local tourist attraction, but the Coast Guard also reports that residents’ unfamiliarity with large boats at anchor has led to an increase in the number of reports of excessive noise and lights from boats at anchor in several Puget Sound anchorages.
The Coast Guard warns residents who call that vessels do not typically start their propulsion engines unless they need the ability to maneuver, unless there is excessive wind and the vessels fear dragging anchor. The low noises that tell residents are probably due to generators, which container ships use to produce electricity.
Complaints about light pollution are responded to with nightly radio broadcasts reminding vessels to use only necessary lighting while in the anchorage. Pilots are also discussing the use of lights before leaving the vessel after guiding them into the anchorage. The Coast Guard says that while deck lights are necessary for safety, vessels should not use bright halogen or similar type lights.
The Harbor Master is encouraging container vessel stakeholders, such as the Northwest Seaport Alliance, the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, the Port of Seattle, the Port of Tacoma and terminal operators, to develop new processes for container vessel queuing in order to manage vessel arrivals efficiently and reduce demand and load at anchor.