European ports and shippers face logjams after Suez blockage

"A messy situation": Shippers face logjams in Europe after Suez blockage

Shippers are braced for massive congestion in key European ports and gateways following the reopening of the Suez Canal, adding to the delays that the coronavirus has already caused for trade between Asia and the West.

Hundreds of container ships were left waiting when the Ever Given ran aground and blocked the key trade route for six days. The 400-meter long ship became stuck on March 23 on its way to Rotterdam from Malaysia's Tanjung Pelapas. The ship was eventually freed by a flotilla of tugboats on March 29, allowing passage to resume.

Those bound for Europe are now set to arrive all at once this week, to be followed several days later by vessels that avoided the Suez logjam by sailing around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, Nikkei Asia reported.

The disruptions caused by the Ever Given hit the logistics sector at a time when more than half of global vessel traffic is running later than scheduled, owing to knock-on effects of manpower shortages caused by coronavirus lockdowns that began in early 2020.

"Logistics had been out of order even before the Ever Given logjam, and the looming container congestions in European ports will greatly complicate the bookings for export containers that head back to Asia," said Lothar Thoma, managing director air & sea at Austria-based logistics company Gebrueder Weiss.

"Adding to this dilemma, many millions of Americans will get their $1,400 coronavirus aid checks soon, which will lead to sharply increased demand for Asian consumer goods in the U.S., and, in turn, to increased competing demand for containers on the Asia-North America route," he added, referring to Washington's recently passed economic stimulus package.

A messy situation for European ports

Workers at the Greek port of Piraeus had a quiet time when the vast container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal, choking off the flow of vessels plying between Europe and Asia, the Financial Times reported. That is about to change.

“Our work has been slow these past days due to the blockage,” Dimitris Chrysochoidis, a truck driver on the pier at Piraeus, one of the first large ports for northbound ships leaving the canal, was quoted as saying.

“We expect that ships will come all at the same time — and then we will be running like crazy.”

Shipping operators are frantically negotiating with port authorities to secure berthing slots for vessels arriving late to anchorages after the Suez delay, competing with other ships already scheduled to arrive for space to offload their goods.

“What is happening now is a messy situation,” Simon Sundboell, chief executive of eeSea, which tracks container vessel schedules, was quoted as saying. “Now the ketchup bottle has been opened, the negotiations start.”

Valenciaport, which manages Spain’s busiest terminal, will operate for three extra hours a day from next week to handle the 24,000 20ft containers that were held up. It would typically deal with 4,000 containers a day that had passed through Suez.

“We’re lucky it only lasted six days,” the body told the Financial Times. It estimates it will take 10 days to two weeks to absorb the backlog. “It if had lasted longer, it would have been a severe problem.”