The surge of coronavirus-driven imports at U.S. seaports is putting a strain on truckers who move cargo through the Port of Charleston, with a domino effect of late containerships playing havoc with supply chains and drivers' schedules.
"The imports aren’t arriving as scheduled," said Rick Todd, president and CEO of the S.C. Trucking Association, which represents hundreds of trucking and logistics firms around the state. "This causes hardships for the importers, motor carriers, ultimately the customer and drives up transportation pricing."
Todd said vessels also are arriving late in bunches, "causing scheduling difficulties for the motor carriers already facing a driver shortage."
He said some trucking firms are losing customers who've become fed up with delays and are looking for alternative shipping methods.
The problem isn't the State Ports Authority's fault, but largely stems from ships docking late because of to weather-related delays, fog and congestion at larger ports where vessels — often dozens at a time — are anchored offshore for days in a floating traffic jam.
"The best way South Carolina ports supports motor carriers is by ensuring efficient operations, well-run terminals and fluidity at our gates so truck drivers can move in and out of our terminals with ease," said SPA spokeswoman Liz Crumley.
Jim Newsome, the maritime agency's president and CEO, said the SPA is "focused on providing congestion-free terminals and available berths to keep the supply chain fluid."
But even the most efficient terminal is of little help when a scheduled ship is still out to sea instead of tied up at the dock.
Only 10.5 percent of containerships arrived on time in Charleston last month, down from a 13.3 percent on-time figure in January. Even in better times, vessels arrive as scheduled only about one-fourth of the time.
The situation isn't likely to improve soon, with the National Retail Federation projecting on March 8 that imports will grow "dramatically during the first half of 2021" as more people are vaccinated and able to get back into brick-and-mortar stores. Online sales, which have propped up the retail sector so far during the year-old pandemic, also are expected to remain strong.
"Retailers are importing huge amounts of merchandise to meet the demand," said Jonathan Gold, the federation's vice president for supply chain and customs policy.
The global shipping boom is "almost unsustainable," according to Federal Maritime Commission members, who are urging every player in the supply chain — not just shipping lines and port operators — to find solutions.
"I've never seen anything like this," Lars Mikael Jensen, told The New York Times. He's the head of Global Ocean Network for A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world's largest shipping line and the Charleston port's biggest customer.
"All the links in the supply chain are stretched," Jensen told the newspaper. "The ships, the trucks, the warehouses."
The SPA moved the equivalent of 81,899 20-foot cargo containers through its terminals in February. While that is a 7.1 percent drop from last year's record-setting February, it's still above-average for what's typically a slow month following the Chinese New Year holiday, when Asian manufacturing plants usually shut down for extended periods. The demand for goods has been so strong during the pandemic that many of those factories remained open this year.
Still, logjams at other ports led to fewer ships making their way to Charleston, accounting for much of February's decline.
Exports are another problem, according to Todd of the Columbia-based truckers group, as drivers often take a customer's container to the port only to find the ship it's to be loaded on hasn't arrived. The driver then has to return the container to the customer or a trucking firm's yard. That can lead to numerous truckers trying to turn in three days of work at the same time, he said.
"It also disrupts the balance of containers (they) turn in and turn out, not to mention making sure there are enough quality chassis," Todd said, referring to the trailers that the boxes sit on.
Some shipping lines, overwhelmed by the number of export containers they're having to take on to make up for the delays, are starting to leave some of the metal boxes behind for succeeding vessels to load. And some are opting to take empty containers rather than loaded ones back to China because that country has a shortage of boxes needed for the goods it sends overseas.
"Often the export containers are bumped once or twice," Todd said.
Mickey Baldwin, general manager of coffee warehouse Continental Terminals of SC, said he's seen firsthand the impact on truckers when big container ships consistently arrive late.
"The large ships have created issues for truckers as they are hardly ever on time, causing major planning issues," Baldwin said. "Imagine planning Friday for (a) Monday ship arrival with, say, 40 containers (for) your customer ... You have the drivers set up to handle, then the vessel slips. This happens all the time, and the trucker has no recourse when the vessel is late or the port has issues. They just lose."
The SPA is looking to its rail network to help ease some of the inland cargo movements. The maritime agency's rail-served inland port in Greer set a cargo record in February, handling 14,418 containers. The other inland port in Dillon handled 2,823 containers in February.
"As retail imports continue to boom during the pandemic, the ability to quickly move goods from ships to the hinterland via rail is paramount," Newsome said.
But only about 25 percent of the port's cargo travels by rail, and every container moves at least some distance on the back of a truck — whether it's to a rail yard in North Charleston or a distribution center in the Midlands or Upstate.
Compounding the trucking issue is a shortage of drivers, with many reaching retirement age without a waiting pipeline of younger drivers available to replace them.
"Driver recruitment and retention are likely the biggest challenge that we have as an industry, both today and into the immediate future," Phil Byrd, head of North Charleston-based Bulldog Hiway Express, told Logistics Management magazine. "If you are running a trucking company, you should be concerned. We need a better way to attract good people into this industry ..."
Daniel Maffei and Louis Sola, two members of the Federal Maritime Commission, said in a recent statement that the current congestion crisis at U.S. ports likely won't get better until "the various parties with their diverse interests (work) toward the common goal of a fluid and efficient supply chain."
"The word 'unprecedented' has almost lost its meaning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," the commissioners said. "But yet, it is still the best way to describe conditions in the ocean container shipping industry."