More Containerships Wait off US East Coast as West Coast Backlog Falls

containership congestion swings to US East Coast ports
More vessels and TEU capacity is waiting off Charleston, South Carolina than the San Padero Bay ports in California (SC Ports file photo)

Published Apr 7, 2022 4:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a unique reversal of fortune, U.S. West Coast ports are celebrating their progress at reducing congestion and backlogs with the pendulum however swinging east where major ports are now struggling with the overload of containerships. Analysts at Marine Traffic highlighted that the TEU capacity waiting off ports had changed with more capacity now stuck offshore outside the east coast ports than the west coast.

“As of today, 609,287 waiting TEU capacity was bound for the U.S.,” MarineTraffic reports. “Of this, 186K are currently off the U.S. West Coast and 273K off the East.” They calculated that 15 boxships were waiting off the port limits at San Pedro Bay while there were 18 containerships off Charleston, South Carolina, and 12 vessels at Norfolk, Virginia.

Analysts point out that vessels began turning to the U.S. East Coast ports as early as last summer as the waits grew at the Pacific Coast ports. Ports on both coasts experienced similar problems with labor shortages and trucking delays due to workers reporting in sick during the pandemic. Similarly, they all faced a lack of space especially with empties piling up to return to the factories in Asia. The U.S. East Coast ports boasted that they did not have the backlogs that were being seen especially off California and even ran promotions saying “come east we have space.” Florida proposed contributing to the cost ships would incur by changing routes.



Marine Traffic’s data shows just how strong the reversal has been. They reported the recent median waiting times for containerships off Los Angeles was under four days and had been under two days with Long Beach running from under a day to a maximum of approximately two days, possibly in part due to the vessels slow steaming under the new traffic programs. Charleston by comparison they report is topping nine and even 10 days and Norfolk has approximately three to four days median waiting times.

The 15 vessels that Marine Traffic was tracking off Long Beach and Los Angeles had a combined capacity of 95,000 TEU. By comparison today there are 16 containerships in the Charleston anchorage with a total capacity of nearly 120,000 TEU. Combined Charleston and Norfolk have a total of 209,000 TEU waiting according to Marine Traffic.

The delays seen at U.S. East Coast ports recently led Peter Sand, chief analyst at Xeneta to predict, that the U.S. East Coast is “the next hot spot for terribly high congestion.”

The reversal of backlog is already being reflected in the shipping lines' schedules. MSC, for example, announced that this month it would be resuming its service between Asia and Seattle after having omitted Seattle from the route since last October due to heavy congestion. At the same time, MSC said that it will now temporarily omit the Port of Charleston from its U.S. to South Asian East Coast route also due to increased waiting time for vessel berthing.

Adding to the concerns are new factors including the uncertainty over the upcoming labor contract negotiations on the West Coast. Some shippers and carriers are believed to already be rerouting volume to the East Coast as a precautionary method against potential disruptions. Analysts have forecast that the volumes routed through the U.S. East Coast ports are likely to rise as the negotiations begin next month and the contract expiration looms for the summer.

Last month, South Carolina Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome highlighted that Charleston had already seen 12 consecutive monthly records for its volumes with the expectation that the high volumes will continue for the foreseeable future. The South Carolina Ports Authority had predicted that it would clear its backlog by the beginning of 2022, later delaying the forecast to late February and then April before saying it would no longer predict when the congestion would clear at the Port of Charleston.