WE’RE all familiar with a traffic jam – or its current equivalent, a petrol station queue – but have you ever heard of a container ship jam?

Well, this happened off the coast of California recently – and this time there was no stricken vessel stuck in a canal.

More than 70 container ships were waiting to unload their cargos outside the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the busiest port in the US.

Such incidents are likely to become more commonplace across the globe as we get closer to Christmas, the peak season for shipping goods to the western world.

The ongoing effects of the pandemic on port operations and capacity, the ripple effect of the Ever Given’s protracted stay in the Suez Canal and a shortage of container space has led to fears that many of the goods we want to put under the Christmas tree may not be available.

Naturally, everyone is working their hardest to make sure that doesn’t happen. John Lewis has even gone as far as to charter its own container ship to ensure its customers don’t miss out.

But why are container ships now carrying the fate of Christmas in their holds?

While consumer goods are designed all over the world, most are made in China and Asia-Pacific so once they are manufactured, they have to be transported to consumers.

How these goods are transported has been revolutionised. While container ships have been around since the 1930s, the amount of cargo they can carry has ballooned.

The past decade has seen the arrival of the giant Triple E containership, a vessel capable of carrying more than 18,000 containers, each of them 20 feet long. To put that in context, a train which could carry that amount of goods would need to be 44 miles long.

Bigger capacities mean more goods can be carried which means the individual cost of shipping those goods gets smaller. Giant container ships equal smaller bills for the consumer so unless we’re prepared to pay significantly more for what we buy, we need to get used to mega vessels.

However, if one of these big ships encounters problems during its 35-day journey from Asia-Pacific to the UK then this can potentially cause problems.

North P&I Club has been protecting and insuring ships from the banks of the Tyne since 1860. While we’re still based on the banks of the Tyne, how we support ships and seafarers has changed.

For example, we’ve developed a digital tool, called GlobeView, to make container ships and other vessels aware of potential threats such as extreme weather, piracy and war. It gives mariners real-time information to help them avert danger and navigate the complex web of country-specific port restrictions brought about by coronavirus.

Innovations like this, combined with the hard work and dedication of the shipping industry around the world, are all helping to deliver this Christmas.

Because sometimes even the bearded guy in the red suit needs a helping hand.

Paul Jennings is the chief executive of North P&I Club, a mutual marine insurance company founded in Newcastle in 1860