Blank Sailings: What They Are and How You Can Tackle Them

30 October 2023
by Sam Cullen

As the shipping freight industry reacts to lower demands, blank sailings could become more frequent. But what is a blank sailing, how does it impact importers, and what can you do to prevent them?

In this article, we answer all these questions and show you how working with an experienced freight forwarder puts you in the best position to mitigate the impact of blank sailings.

What Is a Blank Sailing?

A blank sailing (also called a cancelled sailing) is when a carrier cancels one part or the entire journey of a shipping vessel.

For example, a carrier may run three weekly ships from Shenzhen to Tilbury. If there is not enough demand to run all three ships to capacity, the carrier may cancel the third ship and only send two lines instead. Naturally, this can be a significant problem if your goods were meant to be on that third sailing. Blank sailings can significantly impact both the businesses involved and global markets as a whole. In extreme cases, blank sailings can lead to shortages of particular goods.

Blank sailings can be hard to rectify, too. Carriers will often inform importers about blank sailings at late notice, leaving them scrambling to find another vessel with space to take on their goods. This doesn't always happen quickly, and it can lead to long delays.

Why Do Blank Sailings Happen?

There’s no shortage of reasons why blank sailings occur. Here are some of the most common:

Low Demand

The most common reason blank sailings happen is when demand for space on vessels is lower than normal. The economics of sea freight mean it might not be economically viable to sail a vessel if demand is low. In fact, this is one of the reasons blank sailings are more common after Chinese holidays like Chinese New Year and Golden Week when factories are closed.

Low Rates

Shipping carriers will also cancel sailings to secure higher freight rates. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. When there are fewer sailings, the demand for space on those ships will increase. Stronger demand means carriers can charge higher rates.

This is the opposite of the reason above. Rather than cancelling freights because there isn’t enough demand, carriers will artificially inflate demand to charge higher rates.

Port Congestion

Port congestion is an interesting cause of blank sailings both because it is usually outside the carrier’s control and because it means only one section of the sailing is cancelled, not the entire thing.

Port congestion can be caused by a variety of reasons, such as strikes, too many ships in the port and poor infrastructure. When ports are congested to the point ships have to wait days to enter, carriers may choose to remove ports from their sailing schedule in order to stay on time.

Mechanical Issues

In some cases, ships can’t physically leave the port. Mechanical problems and other engineering issues will often require urgent repairs that can only be carried out at specific locations. If these issues appear at late notice then carriers may be forced to cancel a sailing.

Poor Weather

There isn’t much carriers can do about the weather, and in some cases, weather conditions can be so extreme that they are forced to cancel entire sailings. It’s simply not worth putting the vessel or the lives of the crew at risk to meet a sailing schedule. Storms can also damage port infrastructure, making it impossible for ships to dock or crews to unload goods.

Inflexible Sailing Schedules

Carriers may be forced to cancel calls at particular ports when sailing schedules are too tight. Most ships have strict timelines and a very short window to complete the journey between two ports. If one ship is delayed, it may miss a port to remain on schedule — leading to a blank sailing for any importer looking to send goods at that port.

Just one delay can cause a domino effect that disrupts the sailing schedules of other ships under the same carrier. In extreme cases, this can cause carriers to pre-emptively cancel sailings to remain on schedule as much as possible.

The Impact of Blank Sailings

Blank sailings impact everyone in the industry, from carriers to ports to import-exporters.

The impact on importers can be huge. If your shipment contains perishable goods like flowers, then any delay can result in the shipment becoming completely worthless by the time it arrives. But even businesses shipping non-perishable goods can be impacted by blank sailings. A disruption early in the supply chain can have a knock-on effect that can result in a shortage of goods, a loss in revenue and reputational damage.

While carriers may create blank sailings on purpose in order to maximise rates and retain the profitability of sailings, they can also suffer financial and reputational damage as a result. Where possible, freight forwarders will always work with the most reliable and flexible carrier. Blank sailings can act as black marks against carriers and cause freight forwarders to look for alternatives in the future.

Even ports can be impacted by blank sailings. A cancelled sailing will affect the amount of work on offer for port personnel, it can disrupt the timing of sailings (which could cause further blank sailings) and threaten the financial viability of ports.

How to Negate the Impact of Blank Sailings

In some cases, blank sailings will be unavoidable. There’s simply nothing you or your freight forwarder can do if a carrier cancels a sailing at the last minute. But there are ways you can mitigate the impact of a blank sailing and reduce its impact on your business.

Implement a Rigorous Tracking Protocol

Tracking your shipments makes it much easier to identify delays and plan accordingly. Routes between the Far East and Europe, the UK and the USA are notoriously congested, and a comprehensive tracking solution will help you identify where your shipment is being held up.

This is one of the reasons our clients love Horizon’s shipment tracking functionality. The platform’s dashboard provides a complete overview of all your shipments, letting you see the route and status at a glance. When issues occur, it’s easy for you or a member of our team to make alternative arrangements and keep delays to a minimum.

Plan Voyages With Delays in Mind

If you always have the prospect of delays in mind when booking sea freight, you can go some way to reduce the likelihood of a blank sailing occurring. Working with carriers that have a high reputation is an obvious example. But you can also ship goods during off-peak times, where less congestion means less chance of a delay.

Creating a contingency plan can also minimise the impact of disruption. Identifying fallback options before you set sail can make it faster to switch your goods to another vessel or find an entirely different method of transport. Accounting for the potential cost of these measures can also make the pill easier to swallow from a financial perspective.

Work With an Experienced Freight Forwarder

There’s no substitute for the experience and network of an established freight forwarder. These providers have exceptional relations with a range of carriers, which enable them to identify potential blank sailings before they happen and quickly pivot to find a backup carrier if they do occur.

Freight forwarders, like DG International, can also advise on alternative transport routes and mitigate the risk of blank sailings occurring by working with trusted carriers on well-established shipping routes.

For more information about how DG International can help you ship from the Far East to Europe or to get a quote, speak to a member of our team today.

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