Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 18, 2021

Life in the Supply Chain: At the Port

You know about the ongoing troubles in the world’s shipping, distribution and delivery industries. The phrase, “supply chain” is ubiquitous in the news.

Just two miles from where I sit, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest ports in the United States.

Today, the ports are jam-packed. Due to a cascade of causes, approximately 70 oceangoing freighters are waiting — sometimes for many days — in holding areas outside the ports.

Below is a display showing vessels currently in the ports as I type.

Green symbols are cargo ships. Most of those are container ships, although there are also petroleum tankers, automobile carriers, bulk carriers (chemicals, etc) and a variety of other large vessels.

Dark blue icons are passenger boats, including cruise ships.

Light blue dots are tugboats and a variety of other work boats, and the clusters of pink dots are private boats gathered in marinas.

It’s a busy place.

The next graphic shows ships at anchor outside the breakwater or seawall.

As you can see, the anchorage is full of those green dots. That view, however, doesn’t show dozens more ships holding positions farther offshore, waiting for a spot in the anchorage.

Here’s a photo of a portion of the anchorage, looking from approximately the upper left corner of the above graphic, across the breakwater.

Long Beach has recently amped up to run 24/7, and L.A. is preparing to do so.

Why, you ask, didn’t they do that sooner and move freight through at a faster rate?

It’s not Simple

The cargo terminals are enormous enterprises. This is one of scores.

Adding shifts requires more than bringing on more skilled operators to run those towering gantry cranes.

Before I address loading and unloading of ships at a faster rate, there’s the issue of moving more ships in and out of the ports.

The equivalent of “air traffic control” for the port is the Marine Exchange.

Operating around the clock, the Exchange tells ships when they can enter or leave the port, when and where they should anchor if they’re waiting (it’s assigned seating only in the anchorage), or if they need to hold between 20 and 100 miles offshore.

Ultimately the U.S. Coast Guard has to be satisfied that traffic levels in the port are within their scope, because ships are subject to a variety of safety, security, immigration and environmental regulations. Here’s U.S. Coast Guard Base Los Angeles/Long Beach.

A number of federal, state and municipal agencies have some jurisdiction over the loading and unloading of cargo, and all of them need to have the resources available if traffic multiplies. Take, for example, the Los Angeles and Long Beach fire departments, which have a number of stations, crews and both land based and waterborne vehicles. They include LBFD’s mighty Fireboat Protector.

(I wrote about LAFD’s equivalent big fire boat at this link.)

Ready to Bring in a Ship? Not Quite.

No large commercial ship moves through these ports (or any of the world’s large ports) without a Port Pilot. Navigating 1,000 foot-long ships through narrow, busy channels is a highly specialized skill. Pilots are specially trained, certified and engaged by their ports to guide commercial traffic in and out. There are a finite number of pilots at any port, so they have to be scheduled in advance if the rate of traffic increases.

Here are pilot boats at the Port of Los Angeles that ferry pilots to and from ships entering or leaving.

I wrote more about port pilots at this link.

In addition to skill and knowledge, Pilots use one extremely powerful tool to help navigate ships through the port and in and out of their berths: tugboats.

Cargo ships aren’t highly maneuverable. With their enormous mass and great length, they require supplemental power to navigate in often crowded, narrow ports. Tugboats represent one more resource a ship requires before entering — or leaving — port. The tugboat in the above photo is literally tugging on a line from the stern of that ship to help the Pilot steer it through the channel.

Bring in the Boat

Finally, once there’s an available berth, a ship enters the harbor, docks and begins unloading. I’ll describe a container ship. The cargo aboard other types of ships requires different handling, but is equally as demanding.

A container ship may have 20,000 containers aboard. The initial work is done by those towering gantry cranes, as shown above.

Once containers are off the ship, they have to go … somewhere.

A variety of specialized haulers move the thousands of containers on land. One workhorse is the mobile crane. Some move freely on tires, others move back and forth along rails.

There are smaller mobile cranes, specialized forklifts, small trucks and multiple railroad lines.

Eventually, the containers leave the port. Some go onto other ships, more go onto freight trains (the port has its own railroad with more than 80 miles of track), but even more are hauled away on over-the-road trucks.

Thousands of trucks queue up around the clock at the port’s terminals.

Add to these demands the requirement that ships be maintained, refueled and resupplied while they’re in port, all services that have to be in place to handle additional traffic.


Obviously, those cranes, machines, railroad engines and trucks don’t operate themselves. Add another shift? Add more people: a lot of people. Truck drivers are in especially short supply, not just in the U.S., but in many global economies. Without enough trucks, cargo of all sorts is accumulating at ports everywhere, with limited space in which to stage it.

I shot the photo below 24 hours ago: a portion of one of the port’s many terminals. That suggests the scope of how much freight has to be unloaded, sorted and shipped, in a never-ending stream.

The Port of LA, alone, employs something on the order of half a million people, directly or indirectly.

There are armies of clerks, traffic managers warehouse staff, security personnel, in addition to the resources mentioned above.

That’s an oversimplified look at why you may not find every shopping list item already on the shelf. The work goes on: soon, around the clock.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. Truck photo courtesy M. Vincent, copyright 2021. Port traffic graphics retrieved from on Nov. 16, 2021. All rights reserved to contributors.


  1. For all that we’ve heard about the backlog of ships in those two ports, this is the first account I’ve come across that explains all that’s entailed in dealing with those ships. You did well to look into it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the appreciation. My illustration is certainly an oversimplification of an enormous, complex and many-tentacled system that reaches far beyond the ports. At least I did manage to avoid using the metaphor of “turning a large ship” to describe the process of ramping up.


  2. Yikes! Thanks, Brad. I understand El Lay and San Peedro are not the only backed up ports, so nationwide the problems are multiplied. I know Seattle is backed up, and assume Portland Oakland and SF are too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Every port: Galveston, Savannah, Newport, name ’em. These ports get attention because of their sheer scale, but — you’re right — they aren’t unique.


  3. Your report explaining the supply chain disruption is far superior to the one I saw on CNN. There, the reporter showed the crowded port of LA,, but then blamed slow production in China for our supply chain problems. He didn’t connect the dots, so his report made no sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a complex thing. To paraphrase a famous supply chain philosopher, the problems of a few little ports don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.


  4. […] In my previous post, (that’s a link) I provided a high-level survey of some challenges facing the world’s ports as they scale up to clear away an unprecedented backlog of ships laden with cargo, many of them stalled off the coasts of nearly every continent, while demand builds. That’s what’s been called the “supply chain” problem,” if you’ve been following the news. […]


  5. You’ve done an excellent job of illuminating the details of port operations and placing the current disruption in context. Your photos bring it all alive. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Everything you say here is true, and you did a wonderful job of explaining the intricacies of the process. Living and sailing in the midst of all this gave me an early appreciation for the process: learning rules of the road in the Houston ship channel, sailing around in the offshore anchorage, tying up in a Galveston marina with a terrific view of the ‘giraffes’ — the cranes used for unloading container ships.

    It’s also been interesting to witness changes over the past two decades: the widening and deepening of the Houston ship channel to accomodate larger ships, the development of two new container terminals, the increasing use of automation, and the institution of flex-time schedules for round-the-clock work.

    I read this three times, looking for a mention of things that have been much discussed around here. I must say I was shocked to learn that round-the-clock work hasn’t been the rule in your ports. The stacking rules also have been discussed in local cafés. At our Bayport and Barbours Cut terminals, containers have routinely been stacked four high, and I’ve heard (but haven’t confirmed) that five now are allowed in certain circumstances. CBSLA reported on October 22 that:

    “In an effort to ease the current backlog of ships waiting to unload cargo, [Long Beach] will waive enforcement of their current restrictions for at least 90 days. Their current code limits containers stacking to no more than two containers, no more than eight-feet tall. This is normally mandated to reduce the visual impact of the port on surrounding areas.” (Emphasis and accompanying grin are mine.)

    Another interesting issue is the on-going struggles over automation. The role of the ILWU and its leadership certainly is worth pondering. The presence of Bobby Olvera and other union leaders on port commissions that don’t have representative from the trucking or shipping industries seems a tiny bit odd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the careful reading and detailed comments. You’re considerably more knowledgable than I, having actually navigated enormous ports, while I simply stand and observe.
      The unions vs. terminal operators, port managers, etc? A subject on which I hope never to become well schooled.
      Clear sailing, following wind.


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