Cargo ships sit off the coast of San Pedro on Tuesday, January 26, 2021. The approaching storm is forcing ships to flee to safety. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

By Brendan Murray | Bloomberg

Cargo ships enduring one of the worst U.S. port bottlenecks in more than a decade faced down another obstacle as they waited to offload near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach: a lashing from Mother Nature.

Winds gusting to 55 knots (63 mph) and 17-foot seas forced 17 ships – 14 container ships, two tankers and one cruise ship – to leave spots at which they were anchored for better cover from the elements.

Most of the ships went south from Los Angeles and Long Beach, seeking shelter in front of Catalina and San Clemente islands.

That location put the loaded vessels in direct sight – and in some cases – very close to the coastline. Some residents watching from their homes and beaches in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach grew concerned when at least one tanker appeared to come very close to shore.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said John Szabo, a Newport Beach resident who was at Corona Del Mar State Beach on Monday, Jan. 27. “There was a large ship about a quarter of a mile off the beach.

“Right now, there are a bunch of them all lined up off Newport and Laguna,” he said.

Harbor Patrol in Newport Harbor was aware of the situation but never received a call of distress, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Chris Corn said.

The wave surge damaged navigational equipment near the Newport Harbor jetty, and the U.S. Coast Guard was notified to fix the light, Corn said.

The storm prevented “many” scheduled port movements, and marine officials indicated the congestion doesn’t look likely to clear soon: 28 additional container lines are scheduled to arrive in the next three days – 11 more than the usual pre-COVID traffic.

“We cannot recall a more complex situation with this many vessels and this bad a wind and sea condition, for such a sustained period of time,” Kip Louttit, director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, said.

In the past two months, two container ships making transpacific crossings have encountered bad weather and high seas that contributed to the loss of nearly 2,500 containers overboard.

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