Potential wake-up call over port congestion

Protecting vessels is taking on a higher profile after the container ship Zim Kingston lost 40 near the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

SEATTLE — The U.S. Coast Guard in Seattle is opening up more places for large container ships to get out of severe weather, especially as ships continue to wait a week or more before they can be unloaded at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, which together form the Northwest Seaport Alliance.

“Offshore, the master is responsible for the safety of his vessel — we took some steps to try and increase the availability of places for the ships to get out of the storm,” said Laird Hail, director of the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service and retired USCG captain.

The Vessel Traffic Service based in Seattle watches vessel traffic in three primary sectors in the inland waters in Washington state and between Washington and British Columbia. In one of those sectors, running from the outer coast to Dungeness Spit inside the Straight of Juan de Fuca, vessels can at least get off the open ocean and slowly cruise back and forth in a race track formation west of Port Angeles.

“We let their agents and the ships themselves know that we had additional anchorages we had opened up and that they would be able to do racetracks in the straight – but it’s up to the master whether to accept that option.  And the master is responsible to maintain safety of his vessel,” Hail said.

Protecting vessels is taking on a higher profile after the container ship Zim Kingston lost 40 containers while in bad weather on the open ocean, west of the entrance to the straight on Friday. The ship was inbound to the Port of Vancouver, Canada. Following its encounter with severe weather, it caught fire after hazardous chemicals in some containers ignited, according to the Canadian Coast Guard.

“I’m just glad right now the vessel is whole and we are not also dealing with an oil spill,” said Fred Felleman, a maritime consultant, environmentalist and Port of Seattle commissioner.

Felleman is concerned that too many ships are floating out in the open ocean in bad weather while waiting their turn to be unloaded as the global supply chain crisis affects West Coast ports in Washington and B.C. He is also concerned that rescue tugs may not be in position to help ships in distress. Though the Zim Kingston appears to have been hit with high seas and high winds while in route, Felleman considers it a bit of a wakeup call.

“And I was just responding to the congressional delegation, saying that the last thing we need is our own L.A. pipeline as a consequence of port congestion,” Felleman said.

At one point on Monday morning, the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Circle counted 12 ships on the racetrack. It opened up four additional temporary anchorages at Port Madison courtesy of the Suquamish Tribe. Two of those spots could be taken by Tuesday.

Director hail said there are only 16 anchorages available for these very large ships. Those anchorages include Elliott Bay off Seattle, near Manchester and Blake Island, and nestled in Holmes Harbor on the eastern side of Whidbey Island.

The Port of Seattle under the Seaport Alliance has been offering up two additional docking spaces at Terminal 46, with no takers so far.

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