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High winds and rough seas complicate backlog of container ships on West Coast

As cargo ships pile up from the Pacific Northwest to Asia, harsh weather presents a new hazard to get shipments to shore.

The massive backup of cargo ships trying to unload at West Coast ports from Seattle to Los Angeles is being complicated by the rough seas and high winds as fall heads toward winter.

The consequences were made clear an Oct. 22, when the Vancouver, B.C.-bound ship Zim Kingston was slammed with high winds and high seas in the open Pacific Ocean off Vancouver Island. Initially, it was thought 40 containers were knocked off the ship. However, the Canadian Coast Guard now says the number was more than 100.

RELATED: More than 100 shipping containers now believed lost at sea off the coast of Vancouver Island

The backups extend clear to Asia.  The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association says 77 ships are now sitting off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, which are adjacent to each other.  They can end up waiting for 10 days.  

There are fewer ships waiting on the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, which work together as the Northwest Seaport Alliance.  The number of ships in sheltered anchorages is now at three, down from 14 on Monday. That didn’t include up to a dozen ships that were steaming slowly in an oval in the Straight of Juan de Fuca, in what’s known as the race track.  

“I think we’re going to be able to spread it out, even to the point where some vessels are even anchoring in Asia before they depart, if they know they’re going to sit there for 10 days,” says Capt. Mike Moore, of the shipping association.

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound keeps eyes on cargo ship traffic at Vessel Traffic Services, located on the main Coast Guard base south of downtown Seattle. Inside, personnel monitor the movement of ships and maintain contact on monitors that almost look like air traffic control screens.

They are also trying to keep tabs on the containers, which present a threat to navigation. Some of the lost containers crashed onto the beaches of remote sections of Vancouver Island. Photos show refrigerators strewn over a pristine beach after a container broke open.

RELATED: Global shipping delays are leading to increased demand for Everett-built Boeing freighters

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