Maersk Diverts Ships and Containers as Backlog Snarls UK Ports

UK ports backlogged focing Maersk and other ships to divert
Fexlistowe's yard is overloaded with constiners forcing Maersk to divert ships and containers (file photo courtesy Port of Felxistowe)

Published Oct 12, 2021 3:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.K.’s largest container port is the latest port worldwide to experience the problems related to the surge in container shipping in 2021. Felixstowe, which handles more than a third of all containers in the U.K. was forced to briefly suspend the return of empties, and as the delays and congestion mounted major carriers including Maersk have begun to divert ships from the British port.

Among the issues that have been causing problems at the port is a shortage of truck drivers to move the containers. In recent weeks, Britons had been experiencing shortages of gasoline that the government blamed on a lack of qualified truck drivers. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a push to recruit additional drivers while they even talked of having the military drive tankers to distribute the gasoline.

The same shortage of drivers is now being blamed for the problems at Felixstowe. Britain’s ITV Network is reporting that dwell time at the port has nearly doubled to nine or ten days. A port official told the network that there are over 1,000 unused hauler bookings on most days at the port. The shortage of drivers comes just as the port is experiencing an additional wave of imports as retailers are working to stock up for holiday sales.

The resulting backlogs and congestion prompted Maersk to last week ask customers to divert returning containers to other ports. “Unfortunately, due to the high volume of empty containers on the terminal in Felixstowe, we are unable to accept any of your empty returns,” Maersk wrote in a customer advisory. Customers were told to send containers to feeder ports.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Lars Mikael Jensen of Maersk said Felixstowe was among the worst terminals in the world currently in terms of a backlog. “We had to stop operations on a ship because there was nowhere to discharge the containers,” he told the newspaper. “We are having to deviate some of the bigger ships away from Felixstowe and relay some of the smaller ships for the cargo.”

Media reports indicate that this is not the first time Maersk has diverted its larger container ships away from the U.K. port. Jensen told the Financial Times that the carrier had done it briefly during the summer and started doing it again because of the congestion. Other carriers, including Evergreen and CMA CGM, are also reported to have diverted ships away from the U.K. port.

Closing of the yards in Felixstowe has also had a ripple effect on other ports in the U.K. Maersk warned customers that “Due to the high volume of empty returns following the gate closures at Felixstowe, we have seen an extraordinary amount of empty returns into London Gateway.” The London port was also forced to close its gates briefly last week. Maersk is telling customers that it obtained additional storage space at Tilbury, while “We have been working tirelessly to increase the empty uplift on vessels alongside, and to find additional berthing windows to bring in extra loaders.”

While both ports have reopened their gates, port officials are continuing to ask the shipping lines to remove empties from the yards as quickly as possible. Maersk in its latest update to customers writes, “It is imperative we continue to reduce the empty flows at Felixstowe, we will continue to accept merchant haulage returns to other UK ports (with the exception of London Gateway).”