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Supplying the suppliers: What happens when cargo ship workers run out of food?

With more and more container ships stuck at sea amid port congestion, ship chandlers are working double time to bring food and supplies to crews.
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Cargo ships and their crews are being forced to spend more time at sea as supply chain delays continue to cause port congestion in Southern California.  

As they wait aboard their ships, crews are going through more supplies than they normally would, since every route has become longer. When needing to restock at sea, they turn to ship chandlers, or dealers, like San Pedro Harbor Ship Supply. It’s one of two major chandlers in the region and caters to nearly every cargo ship coming in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. 

“I’ve had a ship out there for a month and a half already that probably won’t come in until the middle of January,” said Kenny Meyers, manager of San Pedro Harbor Ship Supply. “There’s a couple more ships now that are probably going to be out there for a month and a half.”

There’s a couple more ships now that are probably going to be out there for a month and a half.

The family-owned business fills orders for all types of different food items and caters to crews from all over the world, which means preferences vary greatly. 

“It’s a lot of everything, but the main consumables are rice, flour, sugar, juices and long-life milk. We’re a one-stop shop,” Meyers told NBC News. “They’ll also buy canned vegetables, ketchup, mustard, jams and jellies, peanut butter. The foreign ships buy a lot of fish. The American ships buy more fresh milk than long-life and more steak products.”

Pallets being loaded onto a water taxi.
Pallets being loaded onto a water taxi.Ahiza Garcia-Hodges / NBC News

In order to take a delivery, ships must come in closer to shore so that a water taxi can safely deliver their order on bundled wooden pallets. They’ll connect at one of about 50 anchorage points offshore but with the backlog there are often more ships than anchorages. This week, there was an average backup of 94 container ships, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

In some cases, these ships are arriving with little time to waste before restocking.

“They can’t wait another week because they’re almost out of food,” Meyers said. “They’re running out of everything.”

Some things that are in very high demand are bottled water, cleaning supplies and toilet paper, according to Meyer. Produce is also popular, especially for ships preparing to dock. That’s because customs requires produce to be under seal when ships are about to come alongside land in an effort to prevent the spread of disease. 

They can’t wait another week because they’re almost out of food.

But the orders go beyond food and basic essentials. Harbor Ship Supply can really source almost anything and, as crews are stuck out at sea for longer, they’ve been asked to. 

“Laptops from Best Buy, t-shirts, toys for their kids, lots of vitamins, socks, bluetooth speakers. One time we had to go out and buy 70-80 bottles of lotion and perfume from Victoria’s Secret,” Meyers said. “We get private orders also for Amazon, Best Buy. I’ve been asked for 25 Big Macs, 25 In-N-Out burgers, pizzas from Domino’s.”

The San Pedro Harbor Ship Supply warehouse where orders are processed and filled. Water and soda are in high demand.
The San Pedro Harbor Ship Supply warehouse where orders are processed and filled. Water and soda are in high demand.Ahiza Garcia-Hodges / NBC News

These types of requests have become more frequent because of the backlog and the ongoing pandemic. Typically, the trip from China to the U.S. takes about two weeks and ships might wait a day or two at anchor before being able to dock at a berth in the port, according to Meyer. Now, the trip takes four to six weeks from departure to dock and many ships are out there for longer. 

While they’re at sea, crews can’t disembark because they’re often so far offshore it wouldn’t be safe to send a water taxi to pick them up and bring them to a dock. Even if they’re closer to shore, it’s a very expensive service and most companies don’t want to foot the cost for an hours-long excursion, according to Meyers. But with the pandemic, even once docked, most companies no longer allow their crews to disembark because of stricter Covid protocols.

Their own ship might have the items on board that they and everybody else need.

Harbor Ship Supply, which has been servicing the ports since 1932, has become an even more essential life line for ships and their crews and that’s led to a boom in business. 

“We’re getting double the orders,” Meyers said. “This time of year usually isn’t very busy for us. [It’s] unusual for us to be this busy where we’re having anywhere from four to eight ships a day.”

While the backlog has helped generate more business for the company, it’s also led to some interesting challenges and shortages. For instance, orders for rice and flour are becoming harder to fill. The frustrating thing, according to Meyer, is that many times the very item that’s in short supply may be closer than anyone realizes. 

“The ship next to them or even their own ship might have the items on board that they and everybody else need,” Meyer said. 

The two ports are responsible for about 40 percent of the country’s imports, which means that issues affecting these ships and this supplier could soon hit consumers. 

“It’s just a trickle-down effect for everyone,” Meyers said. “People are starting to realize things don’t just drop out of the sky. It has to come from somewhere and a lot of stuff comes from overseas. Until it gets unloaded, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”