Wondering about containership distribution

This is something I’ve been wondering about for some time now…

One of the things I love to do every morning, is check vesselfinder.com and see what ships are waiting out in the S.F. Bay Area (where I live). Through most of 2020, and first few months of 2021, we averaged 10 container ships or more at that anchorage, and Oakland container port was typically full. However, since about mid-summer, they’ve pretty much caught up, and for past couple of months, there have typically been 1 or 0 container ships sitting out there, though bulkers and tankers have increased somewhat… at this moment, there are 0 containers, 3 other cargo vessels, 2 tankers, 2 pusher tugs sitting there.

Yet there are still some 80 or so container ships sitting for over a week waiting for a berth in the Long Beach/Los Angeles area, as we are reading about regularly around here…

So why don’t some of those ships divert up here to unload? It would certainly take less than 10 days to get up here and get a berth. We can’t take the biggest container ship here in Oakland, but I’ve seen 14,000+ teu ONE vessels waiting out there, so we can take alot of them. Are there contractual reasons that require them to unload at a certain port???

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Because the world and the media and Washington think that it is a port problem. Biden even appointed a Port Envoy to fix it.

But it is not a port problem it is a ship problem. The ships are left to figure out what ports to go to.

When LA first filled up a lot of ships diverted to Oakland and then Oakland backed up so all the ships from China diverted to Seattle. Our Seattle and LA are backed up but Oakland has plenty of space.

There is no one at the federal government or elsewhere coordinating the ships.

We are 276 days into the band ministration and we still do not have a Maritime administrator. Even if we had one almost everyone recognizes the fact that marad is broken.

With no focus on the ships or coordination of the ships really dumb things start happening like open berths in Oakland which 140+ ships Waiting to discharge in LA… or chips anchoring near pipelines.


That’s the short answer. For a better answer to watch a series of videos by gCaptain’s own Sal Mercogliano:

This one outlines the problem:

This one outlines a few solutions:

Amazon Prime's Container Ship: From China to Texas | What's Going on With Shipping? - YouTube

well… okay… I’ll admit, that video was almost tl;dr for me… but I listened to most of it…

What I seemed to take away from it, mostly, was that the main reason ships were piling up at LA/LB was because it could handle the largest container ships… of course, I know that OAK can take 14,000+ teu ships, because the ONE ships are coming here regularly, but I don’t actually know whether it can take 20,000 teu ships or not… however, many of the ships hanging out at LA/LB are much smaller than this…

I can accept and understand your original response, and I appreciate it!! I’m not sure this lengthy video actually meaningfully addressed the issue, though…


So to help me understand the situation, permit me to ask a separate question…

Let us imagine that I’m an 8000 teu ship, moored out at LA/LB… I can read vesselfinder.com as well as anyone… if I wanted to abandon my scheduled slot in LA/LB (if they have such a thing; I am not in the shipping industry, I’m just an old Navy salt who is interested in the business), and sail north to Oakland, is there any reason that I couldn’t do that?? Again, it likely would take me less time to sail to Oakland than it would take me to get scheduled into LA/LB…

You can’t do that because you would have to cancel all your earth and truck and warehouse reservations. Then you would need to make more reservations in Oakland and find a new warehouse and come up with a new distribution plan.

Once they are in LA they are mostly locked into the system.

To do what you say requires time so they have to do it while they’re still in the middle of the ocean.

But they tried this once and everyone in the middle of the ocean decided to go to Seattle because none of the ships talk to each other and none of the logistics tracking systems talk to each other.

You would not believe the number of containers that are lost today because they still haven’t put simple GPS tracking units on shipping containers. That’s how backwards the system is.

The system is that backwards because Silicon Valley venture capitalist don’t want their name associated and reputation with a “dirty industry” like shipping. That plus the fact it’s really hard to hire someone in Silicon Valley who has shipping expertise (Big $$$$ VC’s if your are reading this :telephone_receiver: me!)


There is more to it than simply getting boxes off the ship and picked up by the various customers. There is there are boxes positioned for loading. To change ports also means repositioning everything that was planned to backload the ship…Another logistical nightmare.

Once due to being so far behind schedule we’ve skipped a port but in doing so all the loads had to be shifted to the next port of loading. Not a small endeavor as it involved a lot of shippers not just the boxes already in the yard.


Cool; thanks for these clarifications… I suspected such issues were involved, but wanted to hear some details…

Are all these arrangements made before the ship reaches the port? Or do ships in transit have some options?? I’m asking because we still have lots of space here in S.F. Anchorage #9, and many of us love seeing the colorful container ships pull into port!!

I was on Jeremiah O’Brien yesterday for fleet week adventures; I saw a mid-sized container ship coming into the bay about 1100 (Ever Liberal), and saw a much larger one heading back out about half an hour later (Ever Fine)… it was a lovely day.

The ship I was on (for many years) was a liner service with a very set schedule. This was crucial for contracts you have with the larger shippers. This is particularly important if dealing with just in time deliveries. The larger shipping companies that have their own terminals have the upper hand as far as getting their ships in and out. If the terminal is shared then the bottlenecks are worse.

Ships in transit do what they are instructed by their respective offices. They can slow steam, stop and drift for awhile, or take the arrival. Go to the dock or an anchorage. Decisions regarding changing ports and getting the required clearances are not made by those onboard.

Ahhh… okay, makes sense…

Having said that, I can’t even imagine what JIT business would look like in this day and age…
“When you said ‘we need the side panels by 1000 tomorrow’, would it be okay if we deliver at midnight on the 12th of next month??”

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Curious, but are there also logistical documentation issues with changing the port of discharge? I don’t have much/any experience with bills of lading. I assume you can’t just discharge a cargo in a different port without some serious paperwork changes, never mind the freight forwarding plan to get it to its final destination. Perhaps easier for FCL, but LCL and warehousing is whole other problem.

That is surprising. I rented a 30-yard dumpster a few weeks ago and it had a GPS module bolted to the side of it.

These arrangements are made months in advance and ship’s cargo capacity are portioned out by individual ports in the schedule. Even a simple plan like changing the rotation of ports can result in thousands of re-stows which are very costly.

The other factor to remember is that most shipping companies are now part of large alliances with other shipping companies. Any change to the scheduled ports have to be agreed to by the partners in the alliance. That is not something that happens overnight and definitely does not happen with anyone onboard the actual ship.

We go where they tell us to go and adjust as necessary.


JIT is nothing more than a memory of the good old days for me. I now have shelves of parts just sitting - paid for by me - for future projects we might not get if we can’t promise a completion date. The 12th of next month is a dream, the reality has become the 12th of the month after next if we are lucky.

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When the ports are conjested so the timetable is late they will skip lesser ports, so lots of work for feeder ships to then take the boxes back to where they skipped.
Happening lots in Asia at the moment.