European ports ready for wave of activity as Suez order book is wiped out

Workers at the Greek port of Piraeus had a moment of calm when the vast container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal, choking the flow of ships shuttling between Europe and Asia. It’s about to change.

“Our work has been slow in recent days due to the blockage,” said Dimitris Chrysochoidis, a truck driver at the Piraeus quay, one of the first major ports for northbound ships leaving the canal. “We expect the ships to all arrive at the same time – and then we’ll run like crazy.

The shipping industry heaved a momentary sigh of relief on Monday when the Ever Given, a container ship almost as long as the Empire State Building, grows tall has been freed of the trade vital artery after being stuck for six days.

But European ports are bracing for a wave of inbound ships as they try to minimize the disruption to supply chains caused by the blockage.

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

“What’s going on right now is a messy situation,” said Simon Sundboell, managing director of eaSea, which tracks container ship schedules. “Now that the ketchup bottle is open, negotiations begin.”

Suez’s growl couldn’t have come at a worse time. The ports were to fight since the end of last year to cope with a surge in the volume of ships due to the boom in the e-commerce sector in a context of a shortage of containers in China, workers sick with Covid-19 and additional restrictions at the border.

Before the blockade ever given, leaders believed they had cleared the worst of the backlog. But after nearly a week of disruption on a trade route through which 12% of goods pass by sea, a rapid return to normal for finely tuned shipping networks seems unlikely.

Ports are scrambling to prepare for the influx of incoming ships.

European anchorages expect a surge from the end of next week, while those in Asia and the east coast of the United States expect the bump to occur in the second half of April. The Ever Given itself is expected to reach Rotterdam in a fortnight.

In Rotterdam, which is home to the largest port in Europe, a special contingency group has been set up between port authorities, industrial groups and transport companies in order to maximize the space inland for the expected rise in containers.

“It all depends on how fast these ships can cross the Suez Canal,” the Rotterdam Port Authority said, adding that their speed of movement and rotation around ports would also be crucial factors in determining congestion.

About 360 ships have crossed the Suez Canal since Monday evening when traffic resumed. The majority are heading south and well above the usual rate of 50 per day. But more than 200 are still anchored at each end and more are arriving every day, according to Leth Agencies, a transit agent.

The ports have established a calm front. “We have a proven crisis management strategy for such cases,” said Tassos Vamvakidis, commercial director of Piraeus Container Terminal, owned by Chinese company Cosco.

Bar chart of net tonnage by type of vessel, February 2020 (m) showing that approximately half of the tonnage passing through the Suez Canal is on container ships

But container terminal operators and port authorities have been forced to make adjustments to adapt. Valenciaport, which runs Spain’s busiest terminal, will operate three extra hours a day from next week to handle the 24,000 stranded 20-foot containers. It would typically process 4,000 containers per day that had passed through Suez.

“We’re lucky it only lasted six days,” the body told the Financial Times. He estimates that it will take 10 days to two weeks to clear the backlog. “If it had lasted longer, it would have been a serious problem.”

Meanwhile, PSA, a container handler, does not allow containers destined for export to the Middle East and Asia to arrive at terminals in Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port, more than seven days before departure.

But even with shipping lines and ports at full speed, some are predicting long-lasting disruptions. “It will probably take weeks or even months to stabilize,” said the Antwerp Port Authority.

The liners will be desperate to restore the reliability of their services – and to make the most of exceptional freight rates.

Simon Heaney, senior director of container research at consulting firm Drewry, suggested they could dump cargo at a port to be taken to other destinations to speed their return to Asia. “They could truncate services going through the Mediterranean because they need to bring them back to Asia.”

Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, warned that “the blockade of the Suez Canal would have ripple effects on global supply chains for weeks to come” as ships congregate in ports, containers fail to arrive when and where needed and other scheduled crossings are spun out of its path.

As a result, it suspended short-term bookings on almost all exports outside Asia and a large number of other routes.

Bjorn Hojgaard, head of one of the world’s largest ship managers, the Hong Kong-based Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, said the cost of maintaining a ship per day was around $ 6,000 to $ 8,000. , while the loss of charter income per day was in the range of $ 15,000 to $ 25,000, making any additional waits undesirable.

The ports of northern Europe have a few extra days of grace to clear the bridges before the arrival of traffic. Further south, Vamvakidis pointed to the size and state-of-the-art equipment of Piraeus, as well as the experienced staff, as reasons to be confident in its ability to cope.

But he added: “[The Suez blockage] reminded me that in this business there are so many variables that you cannot control. ”

Additional reporting by Ian Mount in Madrid, Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong, Domitille Alain in Paris and Aime Williams in Washington

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