Five container ships wait in a designated anchorage off Bainbridge Island in Washington, near the Port of Seattle, Sept. 6, 2021. The supply chain backlog within the United States has resulted in a greater number of container ships utilizing anchorages in Puget Sound. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier)

Coast Guard Monitoring Backlog of Containerships at Puget Sound Anchorages

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 7068
September 25, 2021

Puget Sound anchorages are filling up.

The U.S. Coast Guard said this week it is monitoring a backlog of containerships anchored in the greater Puget Sound area as ports along the West Coast of the United States and Canada from Los Angeles to Prince Rupert, British Columbia continue to be strained under high import volumes.

This unprecedented backlog has resulted in a greater number of ships, particularly containerships, utilizing anchorages in Puget Sound, home to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

As of September 23, the Coast Guard reported 8 containerships anchored across Puget Sound’s five designated anchorages, including Holmes Harbor, Bellingham Bay, Port Gardner, Eliott Bay West, and Yukon Harbor. All but Bellingham Bay and Yukon Harbor are filled to capacity.

“The Salish Sea and Puget Sound are blessed by deep waters. This helps us avoid disasters of ships running aground with potential oil pollution,” said Laird Hail, director, Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service. “However, the deep waters limit the number of locations we can use for anchorages. Container ships have gotten larger since some of our anchorages were established, and as a result, many of the anchorages are no longer suitable for these ships.”

Holmes Harbor, off Whidbey Island, is one such location that although is designated as a federal anchorage, is not generally in use and yet currently filled to capacity (with all 4 of 4 spots in use) due to a lack of capacity available elsewhere. Other anchorages, such as Bellingham Bay and Port Gardner are seeing similar demand.

“Holmes Harbor is way off the beaten path requiring lengthier rides for vessel pilots and is further from the vessels’ ultimate destination,” said Hail. “We’ve only used Holmes Harbor once before on a similar basis in the last 15 to 20 years, and that was during the 2014-2015 slowdown caused by labor disputes resulting in a similar backup. As soon as the congestions resolve to where it is not necessary to use Holmes Harbor, we will return to using it only as an overflow location.”

The high volume of ships is even surprising locals, and some cases causing a nuisance. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound reports receiving a number of reports of excessive noise and lights from vessels anchored at various anchorages in the region. Vessels do not run their propulsion engines unless it is excessively windy (gales and above) and need to use propulsion to avoid dragging anchor. Reports of low-hum noise are likely due to generators, which container ships have to use to produce electricity.

To limit light pollution, ships should also not be using bright halogen or similar type lights. Deck lights, however, are necessary for the safety of personnel. The pilots discuss light usage before they leave the vessel, and the Coast Guard makes a nightly broadcast over the radio (approximately a half-hour after sunset) to remind vessels to use minimal lighting.

Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound is working closely with Puget Sound Pilots in reviewing criteria that determine which vessels can use specific anchorages. The Coast Guard relies upon the expertise of the pilots in handling ships and their familiarity with the constraints of each anchorage to manage, to the safest extent possible, their use.

Efforts are continuing to manage the influx of vessels. The Captain of the Port is encouraging container ship stakeholders such as the Northwest Seaport Alliance, the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, the Port of Seattle, Port of Tacoma, and terminal operators to develop new processes for containership queuing to manage vessel arrivals efficiently and reduce the demand and load on anchorages.

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