A Seattle Shipping Container's Choppy Journey through the Supply Chain

The Lego-like cargo in Seattle’s port endures quite the voyage to and from the Sound.

By Benjamin Cassidy November 4, 2021 Published in the Winter 2021 issue of Seattle Met

They’re the visitors we don’t talk about, the transient, Lego-like building blocks of the city’s industrial skyline. Every day, shipping containers pass through ports in Seattle and Tacoma via massive vessels hailing from international waters. This colorful cargo may seem rather stationary when stacked next to the Sound, but 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) experience all the bustle of a $66 billion trade overseen by the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA).

Where a Seattle Shipping Container Comes From

1. Loaded onto a vessel at a port in Asia (usually), the container travels across the Pacific. About 90 percent of NWSA imports come from the world’s largest continent. China is by far the most common starting point, with Vietnam and Japan a distant second and third.

How the Container Gets to Port of Seattle

2. Its ship slows near the U.S. Coast Guard station in Port Angeles to pick up a Puget Sound Pilot. A local maritime aficionado meets the incoming vessel out on the water, sidling up alongside it in a motorboat. A rope ladder is dangled down, and the pilot makes a precipitous climb that’s dangerous when the sea is choppy. Once aboard, this newcomer works with the captain to guide the ship into a port, using knowledge of Puget Sound tides and currents. “These duties are carried out in all weather conditions, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Puget Sound Pilots’ website notes.

3. The pilot navigates into Port of Tacoma or Port of Seattle, where the vessel goes to “berth,” or dock…unless there’s a backup. In 2021, all those online orders led to traffic jams at our local ports. Some ships had to anchor off Whidbey Island as they waited for days to unload. Help is on the way, though: In early 2022, Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5 will open the first of two new berths. Four 316-foot Panamax cranes will handle huge cargo ships at the renovated docks.

What's in the Container

4. Longshore workers unload the container with a crane, placing it on a truck or train. What’s inside? The top imports in 2020 were furniture, other machinery, motor vehicle parts, toys and games, and textiles. In addition to this containerized cargo, the NWSA also moves break-bulk cargo (agricultural and construction machinery, helicopters) and automobiles.

Where the Cargo Travels from Seattle

5. The container heads to a locale in Washington or, more often, to Chicago or another Midwestern market, where more than half of NWSA’s containerized imports end up.

Full containers imported by NWSA in 2020.

What Seattle Exports

6. While workers remove the ship’s cargo, other containers arrive by truck or rail to export. The top exports from NWSA ports in 2020 were hay and forage, frozen potato products, paper and paperboard, scrap paper, and other foodstuffs.

7. The vessel departs the port with a mixture of full and empty containers. NWSA exported more than 790,000 full containers and 590,000 empty ones in 2020.

Where Containers Ship from Seattle

8. After dropping off a pilot in Port Angeles, the ship continues across the ocean to Asian ports, where the goods are sold, and the trade process begins again. The top three destinations for NWSA containers in 2020 were Japan, South Korea, and China.

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