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The fascination with port congestion: American Shipper’s top headlines of 2021

Container ship backlogs and a clogged canal kept writers churning out content

The world took notice of ocean shipping in 2021. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

2021 will go down as the year the mainstream media took notice of West Coast port congestion. American Shipper was writing about global port backups, shutdowns and labor issues months — no, decades — before supply chain snarls in Southern California were spotlighted on national evening news broadcasts. 

Port problems figured so prominently in American Shipper’s coverage this year that eight of the 10 most-read stories focused on problems in ocean shipping, from escalating costs to record numbers of container ships waiting to berth.

But it wasn’t ships backed up in California’s San Pedro Bay that surfaced in American Shipper’s most-read article of the year. On Sept. 24, several weeks before hundreds of media outlets jumped on the supply chain story bandwagon, American Shipper Senior Editor Greg Miller posted Container ships now piling up at anchorages off China’s ports.

More than seven months earlier, and long before the TV anchors and lawmakers showed up at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Miller published American Shipper’s second-most-read story: New video shows massive scope of California box-ship traffic jam. This was Feb. 11. You read that right — Feb. 11. While impacts of the consumer demand surge were being felt at the ports of LA and Long Beach, delays on the landside — in large part caused by COVID infections among dockworkers — primarily were the cause of the West Coast port congestion at that time. 

On April 26, Miller issued a warning with the No. 3 most-read story of 2021 — Flexport: Trans-Pacific deteriorating, brace for shipping ‘tsunami.’

“What’s going to happen soon is that some importers won’t even be able to get on the boat. For them, it will almost feel like trade is coming to a halt,” Nerijus Poskus, vice president of global ocean at freight forwarder Flexport, told Miller.

Did shippers heed the warning? 

Air Cargo Editor Eric Kulisch dove into the skyrocketing costs of ocean shipping on July 30 with the No. 4 article: Are you shipping me?!? $32,000 container move from China to LA.

Watch: Shipper strategies to combat congestion

Judah Levine, the research lead at Freightos, told Kulisch: “We’ve seen customers have to make really tough decisions, prioritizing what inventory they absolutely need and which they don’t. And at a certain point, some businesses are just being priced out.”

Very early in the year, on Jan. 21, Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills wrote what would ride out 2021 as the No. 5 most-read story: Maersk Essen loses 750 containers, sails for Mexico.

The vessel, with a carrying capacity of 13,100 twenty-foot equivalent units, reportedly “experienced heavy seas during her North Pacific crossing” and dumped LA-bound furniture, fitness equipment and electronics. 

It was back to port congestion for No. 6 on Sept. 16 with Record shattered: 73 container ships stuck waiting off California. Miller’s article included aerial video of ships at anchor in San Pedro Bay taken by Matt McLelland, the vice president of sustainability and innovation at Covenant, that would garner global attention. 

Days later Miller filed the No. 7 story: Just how many containers of cargo are stuck off California’s coast? That article included a map illustrating just how bad the San Pedro Bay congestion was.

“Vessel-positioning data from MarineTraffic confirms that a steady stream of container ships remains en route across the Pacific, destined for Los Angeles,” Miller forewarned. 

Rewind the 2021 clock to read what seems now like a rerun: Inside California’s colossal container-ship traffic jam. But Miller filed the eighth-most-read story of 2021 way back on Jan. 13. Who knew what was to come? 

By early June, there was a great deal of turbulence in the ocean shipping market. That was clear to see in the No. 9 article: Container ship scores ‘off the charts,’ ‘fantasy’ charter rate: $135,000/day.

In that story, Miller reported a freight forwarder was paying that $135,000 per day for a short-term charter of a 15-year-old container ship with a capacity of 5,060 TEUs.

Suez Ever Given
Ever Given grounded in the Suez Canal (Photo: Suez Canal Authority)

Finally, at No. 10 was another story that garnered worldwide attention. Link-Wills posted Evergreen container ship blocks Suez Canal traffic on March 23, at the beginning of what would be more than a weeklong saga. 

American Shipper followed the canal crisis closely, keeping readers informed with such content as US ports, shippers face major fallout from Suez Canal chaos; It’s free! Ever Given refloated in Suez Canal; and Ever Given containers finally being offloaded at Port of Rotterdam

What will be in the American Shipper headlines in 2022? Port congestion and container mishaps again are good bets.