There were an all-time-high 61 container ships in the queue in San Pedro Bay on Wednesday, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. Of those, a record 21 were forced to drift because anchorages were full.
Theoretically, the numbers — already surreally high — could go a lot higher than this. While designated anchorages are limited, the space for ships to safely drift offshore is not.
"There's lots of ocean for drifting — there's no limit," Capt. Kip Loutit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, told American Shipper.
"Our usual VTS [Vessel Traffic Service] area is a 25-mile radius from Point Fermin by the entrance to Los Angeles, which gives a 50-mile diameter to drift ships. We could easily expand to a 40-mile radius, because we track them within that radius for air-quality reasons. That would give us an 80-mile diameter to drift ships," said Loutit.
Limits on land
The Southern California gateway is acting like the narrow tube on a funnel: Ocean volumes pour in from Asia and can only flow out at a certain velocity due to terminal limitations as well as limitations of warehouses, trucking and rail beyond the terminal. When the flow into the top of the funnel is too great, as it is now, it creates an overflow in the form of ships at anchor or adrift. This offshore ship queue is equivalent to a massive floating warehouse for containerized imports whose size is only limited by liner shipping capacity and U.S. consumer demand.