Port traffic creates ship backup off the coast

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 3:31 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - It’s a port backup that can be seen for miles. Off the coast of Tybee Island, ships idling at sea waiting for their turn to unload containers at the Port of Savannah.

Many of the containers are from Asia filled with Christmas décor, furniture, electronics and other items in high demand as U.S. retailers gear up for the holiday season.

A trip out to international waters with the Savannah Bar Pilots was quite impressive. On the day, WTOC tagged along, there were about two dozen ships anchored at sea.

Under normal trade conditions, the master bar pilot said there are maybe two or three ships anchored. What’s out there now is something none of the pilots have experienced in their lifetime until recently.

About 20 miles off the coast of Tybee Island, the backup of ships stretches as far as the eye can see.

“Twenty-four ships at anchor waiting to come in. The docks are full so as soon as one leaves, we bring another one back in,” Master Pilot Trey Thompson said. “The warehouses are full. The port is full. It’s just total port congestion on every end.”

Thompson explained how the backlog has slowed down the number of ships coming in and out of the Port of Savannah. And he allowed WTOC to ride along to see what the Savannah Bar Pilots are experiencing.

Pilot Nick Groover and apprentice Madison Bowman were picked up at the mouth of the port channel. The pilots are the people who steer the container ships into the port.

They had just finished bringing a container ship back out to sea to make room for another one coming into the port.

“These larger ships, it’s taken longer to discharge them,” Thompson said.

Larger container ships and more of them stacking up at sea. The congestion is not just on the East Coast. It’s also on the West Coast

Marine traffic shows in real time the backup of cargo ships happening here and globally in the shipping industry.

“It really highlights the role of global commerce in the modern economy,” Economist Michael Toma, with Georgia Southern, explained.

Low vaccination rates in Southeast Asia means product constraints at a time when higher vaccination rates in the U.S. and the holiday season have created a surge in demand.

And that’s led to shipping delays.

“It used to take about 40 days to get a container from China say to the United States’ west coast. Now, it’s about 80 days.

The retailers are saying if it wasn’t on a ship four weeks ago, they’re not going to get it in time for Christmas.

As for consumers, here’s how he says the backlog will impact you.

“For you and I going to the grocery store, things are going to cost a little bit more. When we go to Home Depot and Walmart, the things we would normally expect to see on the shelves for Christmas might not be there. We might need to plan ahead a little bit more.”

How long could this last?

“The expectations are that we will have these logistic difficulties in the supply chain extending well into 2022 It may even be into the second half of the year before things start to normalize.”

Back out at sea - some good news. The number of ships at anchor has gone down.

“A couple weeks ago it was 38. That’s the most I’ve seen here, so we have got it down a little bit,” Thompson said.

You might be wondering how the Port of Savannah is handling the backlog of containers. We hope to learn more. WTOC requested an interview over a week ago for this report and is in communication with the port for more information.

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