SoCal Ports Operating at Record Levels with Peak Volumes Still to Come

SoCal ports operating at record levels
Containerships waiting in San Pedro Bay (Kip Louttit)

Published Aug 26, 2021 6:13 PM by The Maritime Executive

Update: On August 27 the Marine Exchange of Southern California confirmed three records fell on one day for the San Pedro Bay port complex. A total of 72 containerships are in port in Los Angeles and Long Beach, surpassing the previous record of 70 ships. In addition, 44 containerships are in the anchorage with nine in the drift areas breaking the previous record of 40 containerships in the anchorage. In total, 124 vessels of all types are in the port complex with a record 71 in total in the anchorage. Another 25 vessels are due to arrive in the next three days, but if there is any positive news, 27 ships are also scheduled to move from the anchorage to the berths in the next three days.



The ports in the San Pedro Bay of Southern, California are once again operating at record levels with the rush of containers and containerships building over the past month. Yet, while the ports are moving record numbers of boxes, the volumes are now maxing out other critical parts of the system in overland transport. As imports enter a typically busy season, prospects are that congestion and bottlenecks will continue to multiple.

The Marine Exchange of Southern California and the Vessel Traffic Service for the San Pedro Bay reported that the complex remains at a record level of 40 containerships waiting either in the anchorage or the drift areas. On Friday, August 20, the region tied its record with 40 containerships at anchor, a level it had not seen since February 1. That same day, they set another record with 70 containerships in port, and there continue to be 70 containerships in port today.

“Regular and contingency anchorages remain essential full,” reports Captain Kip Louttit, Executive Director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California. He reports that they are using all 10 of the contingency anchorages near Huntington Beach, California with nine containerships and one tanker. With the port complex unable to offer anchorage positions, six additional containerships were in the drift areas further offshore.

Louttit reports that 13 of the containerships in the port also are qualified as mega-containerships, each having a capacity of over 10,000 TEU. Seven of the ships each had a capacity rated at over 13,000 TEU, making them among the largest handled in the port complex.

“Despite the record number of containers being processed at the Port of LA and Long Beach, the antiquated rail and road infrastructure on the West Coast is preventing the efficient removal of containers at the port,” says project44 in its latest analysis of the supply chain in Southern California. “Processing the influx of containers across the west coast ports is running up against capacity issues facing North American rail and road carriers, as inland congestion tacks on additional delays.”

According to project44 data, the average weekly dwell times at LA and Long Beach have dropped by nearly three days last week indicating a strong rally to handle the backlog of container vessels once they reach the dock. However, the Port of Los Angeles in its daily Signal update on inbound traffic shows that the wait time in the anchorage has ballooned by nearly a day to an average of 7.6 days. 

Industry experts attribute the latest surge to retailers and manufacturers who are starting earlier than normal to increase their inventories anticipating further congestion as they enter the busy holiday season at the end of the year. 

The Marine Exchange reports that its systems show a higher-than-normal rate of arrivals for the coming days. Currently, a total of 37 vessels were scheduled to arrive over the next three days, including 15 containerships, which would be near the pre-COVID levels of 2018-2019.  Further, blank sailings levels are expected to decline now that the container terminal in Ningbo-Zhoushan, China reopened this week further adding to the anticipated onslaught of boxes heading towards the ports in the coming weeks.

In its outlook report, the Port of Los Angeles forecasts a nearly 30 percent increase in the number of containers due to be handled at the port two weeks from now. Volumes are already up 15 percent this week over last to a forecast 136,000 TEU, with the outlook at 176,000 TEU during the week of September 5. 

“If recent history teaches us anything, port issues in China coupled with strained inland capacity and infrastructure could still prevent critical inventory from reaching retailers in time for peak holiday season sales at the end of the year,” concludes project44 in its analysis.

Maritime officials remain confident that the Southern California port complex is operating as efficiently as can be under the COVID-19 conditions. They however expect that more records will be broken in the coming weeks and the challenge will be for all portions of the supply chain to keep up with the expected wave of imports.