In the days of wooden ships, captains would always place someone up in the crow’s nest. Having that person on the lookout for approaching hazards was the difference between life and death.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and you can apply the same idea to global shipping. Whether the forecast for the market is fair weather or foul, freight forwarders still need to keep a lookout.

In volatile times, you can see why. If there is a disruption – be that due to savage storms, port blockages or ships stuck in canals – companies need to know exactly what is happening. Often, their livelihood depends on it.

But perhaps what’s not as appreciated, is that even in more sedate periods, in periods of fair sailing, you still need someone up in that crow’s nest watching what’s happening. There are many reasons why this is vital, but here are five of the main advantages:

Blanks or void sailings

After several years of disruption in global shipping, it is forecast that the market will calm down and return to some form of normality by 2024. But even if it does, it doesn’t mean you can take your eyes off what’s happening.

One major reason for this is because of what we call blanks or void sailings. This happens when global demand temporarily falls and carriers simply pull a sailing. This can often happen at very short notice, sometimes a week beforehand.

As carriers have the right to move your shipments to another vessel without giving you notice, freight forwarding teams need to be paying attention. If no one is watching what’s going on, companies could easily lose sight of what vessel their cargo is on and when it will arrive at port – which can have untold consequences for the business.

Avoiding global congestion

Congestion at ports is not uncommon. It can be caused by increased demand, a change in regulations (see the Port of Dover since Brexit as an example of that), a local dispute or those void sailings mentioned above. Blanks have major knock-on effects for subsequent sailings, which consequently become very busy.

If you have someone watching out for these incidents, however, you can take action to avoid hold-ups. If there is congestion – and shipments have not already been sent to port – alternative sailings can be found. However, you will need to understand the implications of any change before taking a decision – which leads us to reasons 3 & 4.

Speed of transit

If congestion is a problem, and speed of transit is important, you can change carrier or shipping route and come in via a different port. But you really do need the support of an expert to source those alternatives and explain the full impact of the change.

Felixstowe is generally the best port of arrival into the UK if speed is an issue, as it offers the fastest route from China to the UK. But, if you wanted to change carriers and come in via Southampton instead, you would need to ask a few questions first. What will be the impact on road haulage? What would be the cost of the change?

End-to-end cost

Maintaining visibility over the cost might be the biggest reason why it is good to have someone in the crow’s nest offering advice. For example, it might be that Felixstowe is quick but, depending on the end destination, it might not be the cheapest. If your shipment is going to the North of England or Scotland, it might be better to come in via a smaller, ‘‘feeder port’’ which might cost more on the ocean freight, but less on the final mile delivery. 

Another important point when it comes to the end-to-end cost is storage at the port. If you don’t have full visibility over your shipment, or know how much ‘‘free time’’ you have with each carrier on arrival, you can easily end up having to pay hefty storage costs. 

Managing expectations

For many businesses, maintaining visibility of a shipment is vital, if for no other reason than managing customer expectations. Delays happen all the time and, as said above, carriers have the right to move your container to another vessel for any reason (not just because of blank sailings) and there is little that can be done about this.

However, if you know what is happening, because your freight forwarder is watching what’s going on, you can start to mitigate the impact. For instance, we recently warned a customer, based in Stourbridge, that their shipment of warehouse equipment was delayed because it was onboard a vessel that encountered stormy weather conditions. This was bad news as they needed to pitch their product to a potential customer. Knowing she would not have it in advance, however, gave her time to source a demonstration model and continue with the meeting.       

We’ve seen a trend in recent years where freight forwarders are providing more automated offerings to customers. But you cannot rely on automation alone. You still need someone in the crow’s nest, who is always there to let everyone know what’s going on and what needs to happen.

The reality is that businesses need both – automation and proactive customer service. Automation helps us to improve productivity and increase efficiency. But without someone in the lookout position, watching out for all the above reasons, businesses lose access to expert advice. And when things go sideways, as they often do, they will be left to flounder.