EVERETT — It’s an unusual sight, a king-size container ship anchored in Port Gardner near the Port of Everett — but thar she loafs.
“Container ships do not normally go to anchor,” said Mike Moore, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade group representing marine terminal and cargo vessel operators.
There’s a simple reason they stay under way, Moore said. A ship that’s not under way or at a dock, loading or unloading, “is not making money,” he said.
The ship’s last port of call was the Port of Tacoma. The vessel’s next destination is the Port of Vancouver in British Columbia, said Peter McGraw, a spokesman for the Port of Seattle.
But with a backup of ships at the Port of Vancouver, the Brilliance has had to lay anchor in Port Gardner. Time-consuming COVID-19 safety protocols, coupled with a surge in consumer goods imports, are causing slowdowns and backups at some of North America’s largest ports.
“There’s a backlog” for loading in Canada, said Laird Hail, director of the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service of Coast Guard sector Puget Sound. Much like air traffic control, the service directs boat traffic and manages the Coast Guard’s designated anchorage areas, where ships can “park” for short stretches, usually three to 30 days. Elliott Bay, Anacortes and Port Gardner, which only has one designated parking space, are on the general anchorage list.
A spike in imports
Demand for consumer goods has surged. With no place to go but home, many households are buying toys, furniture, paint, garden tools and other items, according to the National Retail Federation.
“Nobody would have thought last spring that 2020 would be a record year for imports,” said Jonathan Gold, the retail federation’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Retail sales saw strong growth during 2020, even with the pandemic.”
And the shopping spree is expected to continue, he said, potentially creating more port backups.
The backup at the Port of Vancouver, which has two main terminals and five container berths, is minor compared to backlogs in Southern California, Moore said.
The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have had up to 40 container ships at anchor waiting to load or unload cargo. Ships carrying goods from Asia have backed up at West Coast ports in particular, Moore said.
Puget Sound hasn’t been affected, so far, except for anchoring several Vancouver-bound container ships, such as the Brilliance, Moore said.
“We have plenty of capacity at our terminals — Seattle and Tacoma — so no backups here,” the Port of Seattle’s McGraw said.
If you’re wondering why the Port of Everett couldn’t help shoulder the off-loading burden, it’s because container ships can’t just pull into any terminal. Their movement is governed by U.S. Customs and maritime law, port schedules and terminal capacity. And the port couldn’t lend a hand to the Brilliance if it wanted to. The seaport can only accommodate 700-foot ships.
Could Everett see more container ships at anchor this year? Perhaps, Moore said.
The Brilliance is scheduled to start its engines and get moving this week. In the meantime, there’s no shore leave for crew members. COVID-19 maritime restrictions have kept them in their quarters.
Lit up at night
From her Everett home, Cynthia Thomas has gotten used to seeing the big blue container ship floating peacefully in the bay. Per Coast Guard rules, it’s running generators for power. At night, it’s lit up like a Christmas ship.
“Right now the sun is shining on it and it looks very pretty,” Thomas said.
Still, Thomas is concerned. A check of the vessel tracking service FleetMon.com says the Brilliance is carrying hazardous cargo, she said.
Without a copy of the ship’s manifest, it’s not clear what it’s carrying, Moore said. However, household cleaning supplies, perfumes with alcohol and even medical supplies are classified as hazardous cargo, Moore said. Plus, a ship carrying thousands of containers is bound to have a mix of consumer goods, including items classified as hazardous.
The Coast Guard says there’s no cause for alarm.
“Whether its toothbrushes or natural gas, everything is stowed according to international shipping regulations,” said an officer with the 13th Coast Guard District, which covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Hail, the vessel traffic director, says the stopover in Everett is unusual.
“I’m sort of surprised it’s there, myself,” he said.
“Container ships are normally in and out. The only time they normally go to anchor is if they have a piece of equipment that needs to be repaired,” Hail said. “Very rarely we’ve had to put a ship at Port Gardner. I would say once every other month, and if we do, it’s generally a bulk ship carrying grain or cement.”
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods