Port’s Stranded Ships Bring Ill Tidings

Times Staff Writer

Peering through binoculars from her beachfront landing, Donna Hilbert counts the huge cargo ships lining the horizon. “That’s 34, 35.... ,” she calls out.

Her gaze hasn’t even reached an aqua-hulled barge and a dozen freighters amid three oil islands and cranes outside the nation’s busiest harbor.

From this peaceful perch along Long Beach’s far-flung peninsula, where residents say Upton Sinclair wrote books like “Mental Radio” and residents covet their solitude, the ocean view has radically changed in recent weeks.


“It’s getting to be a parking lot out there,” said Hilbert, a published poet who wrote a sonnet about this spit of sand she has called home for six years. “Bumper to bumper.”

Record numbers of freighters, laden with holiday shipments, are stranded outside the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which divide a single basin. A severe labor shortage at what’s already the busiest time of year is crippling the flow of goods into the world’s third most trafficked harbor.

A plan to ease the backup by extending the hours at 13 terminals starting Nov. 6 is on hold, making it more likely that the number of ships awaiting entry could triple. Typically, 35 to 50 ships await entry each month; October isn’t over and so far the number is 94 and rising.

As the ships line up, the prized ocean view is increasingly cluttered.

For those who live and work around the bustling harbor area, the profile of heavy industry has long been a fixture, as much a bellwether of coming events as watching the tides and currents, or how the sun sets farther along the horizon as seasons change.

But even in a town where 1 in 10 residents have port-related jobs, the growing line of vessels parked at sea marks a major shift in the seascape.

Johnny Jacinto, 53, a maintenance engineer at the historic Villa Riviera on Ocean Avenue, said: “Lately, it doesn’t seem there’s much break between them. I guess they have a lot of Christmas stuff coming in.”


In the glamorous apartment building’s tower overlooking the weathered copper roof, he points to the Hollywood sign, downtown Los Angeles and the Compton neighborhood from which he and friends explored the alleys all the way to the shorefront Pike amusement park. Inland, he said, the view doesn’t change so much at places in the near distance like the Colonial Buffet, where he proposed to his wife seven years ago -- and where they were married.

Sweeping his arm toward the sea, he said the view shifts constantly, and counted the ships in sight, some shrouded in the marine layer.

A few miles to the north on Signal Hill, the panoramic views explain why Native Americans once used this spot to send smoke signals to the Rancho Palos Verdes Peninsula and across the channel to Santa Catalina Island.

Larry Forester looked out his condo window while cradling the phone. It’s midafternoon, the rain had passed and the sky was robin’s egg blue, which the city councilman noted, along with the fleet of ships dotting his skyline.

“There isn’t a person I know who hasn’t said, ‘Why are those many ships out there in the water when I only want to see water?’ But I love watching ships.”

His comments were no surprise for someone who spent 11 years with Exxon in the research and design of offshore mooring that accommodated supertankers too big to enter most ports.


Underscoring the dramatic presence of so many more ships along the coast, Forester explains that supertankers are the length of three football fields, 220 feet wide and so deep they draw a draft of 70 feet to 90 feet. By comparison, a cruise ship has a typical draft of 40 feet, he said.

“I’m not a sailing person,” he said. “But I love Friday, Sunday and Mondays because the Carnival Cruise ship is in port.”

Like Forester, others are taking the port traffic jam in stride.

Realty agent Erik Bueno, who has specialized in beach properties around Belmont Shore for a generation, said he’s heard no concerns about diesel-polluting ships clogging the coastline.

“I’ve probably had three conversations about it. One who had read some information about how they were backed up because of an employment situation and that there might be concern about checking containers on the ships. A guy I met yesterday counted 40 of them. I don’t think its really made a difference with the change of the seascape. They’re still buying.

“Some people prefer to have something to watch,” he added with the sunny spin that seems to come with a real estate license. “And now they just have more to see.”

Sheila Schaeffer, 88, would tell you that the ocean always brings changes, and since her arrival in 1923, there has usually been something from Long Beach’s shore to see.


She arrived from London after World War I with her mother and father, a tool and die maker who found work in the Signal Hill oil boom.

Schaeffer remembers the rumrunner boats that beached in darkness with crates of illegal liquor. Then came the glitzy and legal gambling boats that steamed up and down the Long Beach area’s coast.

And then the Navy destroyers and aircraft carriers that powered in and out of the base near the ports, when they were a dwarfed version of today’s ships.

A retired history teacher and athlete who has run marathons and swims laps at the health club where she met her boyfriend, Don Roberts, 67, Schaeffer still spends time at the beach. It’s at the end of the block from the 1920s Spanish stucco home where she was raised.

She has lived in Long Beach so long that she recalls when harbors and jetties didn’t exist.

Then, as today, the residents were lulled to sleep by the waves and foghorns. And there was no breakwater in sight.


She and Roberts are resigned to container ships coming and going, but not thrilled about them staying around this long.

“I don’t mind looking at them,” said Roberts, a retired sheet-metal worker who grew up in Seal Beach.

“It’s the air pollution while they run their diesel engines that is going to pollute this area,” he said.

“Well I don’t like looking at them,” Schaeffer said. “I’d rather they move along on their way and be gone.”