What is a blank sailing and how can they impact your business?

Blank or void sailing: A definition

Blank or void sailings are when a cargo ship cancels its call at a port they were scheduled to visit.

For example, a ship may set off from Ningbo port, China with scheduled stops at Dubai, UAE and Valencia, Spain before ending at Felixstowe, UK. On route the captain could cancel the stop at Dubai, preventing cargo being dropped off or boarded in the United Arab Emirates.

Unfortunately for shippers, blank sailings are an infrequent but unavoidable part of international sea freight.

Why do blank sailings happen?

There are a variety of reasons, but we will now run through some of the more common ones. Unfortunately, none are easy to predict ahead of time.

1. Ship running behind schedule

The ship might be needing to make up time.

2. Port congestion

It could not be possible for the ship to dock.

3. Poor weather

High winds, excessive rain, poor visibility or maybe all three can make it unsafe for cargo to be handled

4. To keep freight rates higher

Reducing the supply of space on vessels, put upward pressure on freight rates.

5. Port closed

Strike action, poor weather or a whole host of reasons could shut a port.

6. Damaged ship

Immediate maintenance might be required on the vessel.

1. Ship running behind schedule

Journey delays, from poor weather for example, mean ships need to make up time. One way of doing that is by skipping a port.

If the port has a low quantity of containers for drop off or boarding at a particular port, this increases the chance of a void sailing if running behind, as the captain will prioritise delivering most cargo on time.

Sometimes delays mean ships miss their docking slot and when unable to acquire a new one, they’re forced to blank sail.

2. Port congestion

Port congestion (at time of a strike, or excessive demand) might mean the ship is unable to dock. In this scenario, a captain may opt to skip the port to avoid congestion.

If a captain opts not to skip the port in question and wait out the congestion, the same boat could find itself blanking later ports because it is running behind schedule.

More information on port congestion, its likelihood and its causes can be found here.

3. Poor weather at the port

Often, particularly in the winter months, bad weather can limit a port's operations. High winds, excessive rain, poor visibility or maybe all three can make it unsafe for cargo to be handled. In some cases, it can mean shutting the port completely for several days.

This means it’s impossible for a ship to dock there. So, rather than waiting around and disrupting the remainder of the schedule, a vessel may just skip the port call.

4. To keep freight rates higher

The shipping lines operate the same route schedules from week to week. If demand on a certain trade lane is softening, it can put downward pressure on freight rates.

Too much capacity on ships and not enough people shipping containers means prices are driven down.

This isn't great for the shipping lines because it eats into their margins. A journey for shipping lines has the same fixed costs, with the only variables being how much people are paying to get containers on the boat and how full the boat is.

Shipping lines have been known to use blank sailings to decrease or increase the supply of container space from a particular port. This has the impact of shortening supply and stabilising rates, sometimes even driving them up.

5. Port closed

Be it due to strike action, poor weather or a range of other issues, ports can sometimes close completely.

In this instance and often depending on the length of the closure, ships might have to skip the port in question.

6. Damaged ship

Ships can be damaged and require immediate maintenance to continue. In these instances, blank sailings will be imposed on all their remaining stops as they redirect to an available dockyard.

Collisions, bad weather or general wear and tear are the more common causes of damage.

How does blank sailing impact your business?

If your container was meant to board at the skipped port, it will generally remain on the quay until the next available ship comes along to take it to its destination. As the shipper you should be notified this has happened.

If your container was meant to disembark at the skipped port, this has larger consequences. It usually means it will now go ashore at the next port the vessel docks or come back to disembark at the right port later.

In this case the shipping lines will shoulder the additional cost of getting the container to the correct location. If the container disembarks at the wrong port, the shipping line will source a feeder vessel to get the cargo to the required destination as soon as possible. But it will be slower than initially expected and could have new documentation requirements to reflect a new arrival date/time.

Both consequences unfortunately mean delays for your business and with that comes additional costs.

Lead time will increase for the goods in question. Which can have a whole range of impacts, from interrupting manufacturing, to letting down customers with delayed delivery.

Blank sailings could have further costs as your road haulier could bill you for a wasted journey, if they go to pick up a container that hasn't arrived yet. Although this is unlikely if the blank sailing impacted your shipment before it boarded the vessel.

Unfortunately, you can’t chase the shipping lines for any compensation either. Accepting the risk of blank sailings is written into all their terms and conditions.

Can blank sailings benefit your business?

There’s no doubt, blank sailings are not great for shippers overall. They add disruption and potentially cost to supply chains.

But there are some unique circumstances in which blank sailing can be beneficial.

Primarily if the port or region which is skipped has nothing to do with your business.

For example, let’s say the Port of Dubai is skipped on the way from China to Belgium. If your goods were staying put in Dubai, then the likelihood is that void sailing that port has just cut a week off your lead time.

Furthermore, if the shipping lines are taking capacity away from a port, they are inevitably adding it elsewhere. So once again, if your supply chain operates through a port which is now receiving additional capacity, it is likely to put downward pressure on rates.

How do shipping lines get away with it?

Seems totally unfair, doesn’t it? That ships can set off a pre-determined journey and then just cancel a stop midway through.

However, most blank sailings take place for reasons outside the shipping lines’ control. Poor weather, strikes, and port closures are not their fault.

Globally, there are typically between 100 and 150 blank sailings a month. Apart from in exceptional circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic disruption, when numbers can be higher. With comfortably over 5000 merchant vessels in the world’s fleet, the chances are unlikely.

How can your business mitigate against blank sailings?

There are plenty of mitigations you can make to reduce the impacts of a blank sailing.

Working with a highly reputable freight and supply chain manager is a great place to start. At WTA we react quickly. Our dedicated operator for a shipment subjected to a void sailing will promptly inform the client, allowing them the most time to make contingency plans. We also complete any new documentation required to remove any hassle for the shipper, meaning there are no additional requirements for your business.

Other mitigations include considering the time of year you ship. Favouring the summer months for most international movements will mitigate against poor weather delays. Targeting quieter months will also help against congestion.

Utilising an end-to-end visibility tool is another way to mitigate against blank sailings. These allow you to keep permanent eyes on your cargo. Over time the data gathering in a visibility tool will reveal the routes, ports, and dates when blank sailings are more likely. Backed by the data, you can make informed changes to your supply chain to avoid them.

Our end-to-end visibility tool is the WTA Platform. It is giving businesses with even the most complex international supply chains complete clarity on their freight. Providing data points that they can use to make genuine cost savings and logistical enhancements. Turning their supply chain into more of a competitive advantage with every container.

For guidance on driving your supply chain forward with the use of data and visibility, contact me below.


For guidance on driving your supply chain forward with the use of data and visibility, contact us below.