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THOUGHTS ON CONTAINER SHIPS 

I WAS ADMIRING a southern California sunset—and stopped counting when I reached 35 giant container ships in view. A recent White House statement, November 10, 2021, said that fully 40 percent of containerized imports enter the U.S. through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Port congestion has been a significant challenge, only partially met by a shift toward 24/7 operation and optimized turnaround of the containers once emptied. Yet, it turns out the 35 container ships I counted were only part of the shipping fleet queued up waiting for dock space. 

Image from CBS8 San Diego.

CBS8 San Diego, November 15, 2021, reported, “The backup of cargo ships heading toward Long Beach and Los Angeles is so bad, you can now see vessels waiting off the coast of San Diego…. While some are going to San Diego, the majority are headed towards Long Beach and Los Angeles where, as of Sunday night, nearly 90 were waiting to get in.”

This got me thinking about the sailors’ plight of traveling 5700 miles across the Pacific, only to get caught in a traffic jam several miles from port. And also, just how long does a container ship take to get from, say, Shanghai to Los Angeles: days?, weeks?, months?

Wouldn’t you know, one of my daily news sources, The New York Times DealBook Newsletter, December 1, 2021, has an answer. 

DealBook says “Shipping times, which had been falling since March, shot up in early July, as Delta was causing a surge in cases, according to a shipping index that the logistics company Flexport Research is releasing for the first time today.”

“As of last week,” DealBook continues, “it took an average of 105 days to ship goods to the U.S. from China, up from 84 in early July and 50 prepandemic. ‘Every time you interrupt the flow,’ said Phil Levy, Flexport’s chief economist, ‘you add to the backup.’ ”

The average time ocean cargo takes from the exporters’ gate to the destination port: trans-Pacific eastbound. Source: Flexport Research from The New York Times.

Container Ship Details. According to transportgeography.org, “Most containerships are designed to travel at speeds around 24 knots [27.6 mph].”

Above, the Maersk McKinney Møller. Image by Maersk from Wikipedia. Below, a view into the holds of a container ship. The vertical structures stabilize containers. Image from Wikipedia.

Some Figuring. The distance from Shanghai to Los Angeles is around 5700 nautical miles, about 8.6 days at theoretical pedal-to-the-metal (or whatever one calls that ratcheted gizmo with the bells on the ship’s bridge). Internet sources differ on actual transit time between Shanghai and Los Angeles (15 days?, between 20 and 30 days?, 30-40 days?). 

I’ll go with the current 105 days described by Flexport Research. For one thing, container ships don’t change speed (or direction, for that matter) with any alacrity. Also, there’s trans-Pacific weather to contend with. And the traffic jam at the port.

My favorite container ship image. 

A Patient Crew? I imagine the container ship sailor must be a patient sort of fellow, waiting there off the coast when he’d rather be whooping it up in some San Pedro speakeasy. Or, given that my knowledge comes from Dashiell Hammett, do I have that all wrong? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

7 comments on “THOUGHTS ON CONTAINER SHIPS 

  1. Jack Albrecht
    December 3, 2021

    I just read a very detailed and somewhat depressing article from October about the shipping problem in the US and how demurrage and delays are only the start of the problem. Here is a link for anyone interested:

    View at Medium.com

    • simanaitissays
      December 3, 2021

      An interesting piece, though it twitched my agenda-detector here and there.

      • Jack Albrecht
        December 3, 2021

        As one of my mentors told me decades ago, “Everyone has an agenda.” I found the details of how things work from a trucker’s point of view very interesting. I work at the edge of large supply chains, and I know what a challenge they are, but have had no direct input from a trucker’s point of view before.

        The US has spent 40 years concentrating on “just in time” manufacturing. That is a very fragile system when the actual manufacturing now comes from so far away and has multiple bottlenecks.

        My takeaway was some confirmation that the current supply chain problems (not just in the US, but worse there than in Europe) are not going to have quick and easy fixes, and certainly, there is no “silver bullet” solution.

  2. Nate
    December 3, 2021

    It;s called the engine room telegraph . Do they still use them ? .

    -NateLIVE in the world as it is, WORK to make the world as it should be

    • simanaitissays
      December 3, 2021

      Hello, Nate,
      Thanks for this. I have no idea of modern ship controls, but I certainly remember this gadget.

  3. Michael Rubin
    December 3, 2021

    A guess here that all the “speakeasies” are long gone from San Pedro, or as it once was called, just “Pedro.” My wife, Linda, who’s father supervised hull construction on Liberty Ships during WW2 tells a story about her uncle, sort of a ner’ do well. The uncle’s wife called around 2am saying uncle Ray had been arrested after a fight at “Shanghai Red’s” the prototypical shorside dive. We went to Pedro a couple of decades ago and found no trace of “Red’s.” Were I an entrepreneurial type I’d copyright that name and put one in every gentrifying port area.

    • simanaitissays
      December 3, 2021

      Ha. Actually, I made up the speakeasy reference from whole cloth. Apologies to ‘Pedro folks.

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