Port congestion, tight capacity, container shortages and other woes, all linked to pandemic-induced disruptions, have shippers tearing their hair out over ocean shipping transit time.
No one expects the global transportation pipeline to get back to normal anytime soon. But by deploying a few smart techniques you could, in some cases, shave some time off your ocean transit.
The first thing to understand about ocean transit time is that it’s more than the weeks a container spends on the water. Bottlenecks that stall freight can occur anywhere in the shipping process – from the day you ask for a booking until the day a container reaches its final destination. Opportunities to save time also arise throughout that process.
Here are some possible ways to grab those opportunities:
Pay more to get on a vessel sooner
Make a call today to book a container, and you’ll probably hear that the earliest available vessel leaves in about four weeks. It is possible to get an earlier sailing. But you’ll have to pay a premium over today’s already-hefty rates. Want to cut your transit by a couple of weeks? An extra $5,000 or so will buy you that time.
Route cargo strategically
Not every port is equally jammed. In some, ships sit a mile out at sea, waiting days for berths to open, while containers sit in the terminal waiting to get loaded onto those ships. At other ports, vessels move in and out faster.
Say you normally ship from a large port in Western Europe, but that port has been clogged for weeks. Maybe you should try another port that’s not seeing as much volume. Your container might spend a few extra days on the water. But if the vessel arrives and departs roughly on schedule, you could end up with a shorter total transit time.
The same logic works when you choose a destination port. If you usually ship into Savannah, but conditions there are bad, maybe you should use Charleston or Norfolk instead. You might need to truck the container farther to the final destination, and pay accordingly. But if your main goal is to cut your ocean shipping transit time, this could be a good strategy.
One caveat: conditions at ports change all the time. A location where traffic was moving smoothly last week could be congested today. To make a strategic choice, you need to stay up to date on conditions at all the ports you might use, or else work with a proactive forwarding company that monitors port traffic all the time.
Of course, even the savviest partner can’t read the future. From the time you book your cargo to the time the container arrives at the departure port, conditions at that port could change. So this strategy isn’t foolproof. But it’s sometimes worth a try.
Split the shipment
What’s worse than five containers racking up storage charges for days while you wait for a trucker to retrieve them from the terminal? Ten containers racking up storage charges!
When you ship multiple boxes, you might be able to reduce your risk by splitting the shipment. For example, you could book five containers on a ship bound for New York, and then put the other five on the same route one week later. That way, you’ll only need five truckers at a time to pick up your load. With trucks hard to find, the fewer you need to engage at once, the better the chance you’ll get all your containers on the road before your free time expires.
You might also split a shipment by route. For example, if Charleston and Norfolk are both fairly uncongested, ship five boxes to one and five to the other. Maybe conditions at one of those ports will get worse by the time your cargo arrives, but maybe they’ll still be good at the other. Splitting the shipment increases the chance of saving some transit time for at least half of your containers.
Don’t let the steamship line book your land transportation
When it comes to sourcing dray capacity, a freight forwarder or trucking broker almost always does a better job than a steamship line. Ocean carriers reserve their best service for high-volume customers. When trucking capacity is scarce, as it is now, the Fortune 500 shippers of the world get the trucks. Smaller shippers see their containers sit for days, waiting for transportation. Not only does that add to your total transit time, but it costs you extra money as those containers accumulate storage charges.
In today’s tough environment, a third-party partner can’t guarantee it will get your containers off the terminal before your free time expires. But nearly always, a forwarder or broker will value your business enough to find you a truck as fast as possible.
While you shouldn’t let steamship lines book over-the-road transportation, if you use intermodal rail to move a container from the port to its destination, that service is nearly always part of your booking with the ocean carrier. Unfortunately, many steamship lines today refuse to book containers on the rails. This is most common at West Coast ports. The reason is simple. If the steamship line manages transportation to the final destination, then it’s responsible for any storage fees that accrue while a container sits in a congested terminal.
Many ocean carriers are telling shippers, “Sorry. Your container is at the port, and you’ll have to pick it up yourself.” That’s when you, the shipper, start scrambling for a trucker to handle the final transportation.
Unfortunately, drayage carriers on the West Coast are so busy with local moves, it’s almost impossible to find one to transport a container to someplace like Denver or Chicago. And if you do find one, you’ll also pay to take the empty container back to the port.
One possible solution is to transload your cargo from the ocean container to a conventional truck van. You’ll pay for that service, of course. But transloading could cost you less than hanging on to the container. And you’ll probably save time, since it will be easier to find an available tractor-trailer than a truck equipped to haul a container.
With ocean transit shipping time, small advantages add up
There’s no magic formula to leapfrog your cargo over the congestion that plagues global trade. But if you track conditions at the ports, keep up with services available from different shipping lines and maintain relationships with truckers so they’ll help you when you need them, you might be able to save a day here and half a week there. Taken together, those small savings could make a big difference to your business.
If you don’t have time to manage the subtleties of today’s tough transportation market, you can get help from a partner that offers comprehensive freight forwarding services. An experienced freight forwarder can devise creative strategies to save you money and keep your cargo moving.
For ideas about how to move freight faster, start a conversation with I.C.E. Transport.