Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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Largest-ever box ship to call North America makes West Coast stops

The biggest containership to ever call on North American ports did just that this past week as the 12,562-TEU MSC Fabiola made scheduled stops at the ports of Long Beach and Oakland.

The MSC Fabiola is part of Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company's Pearl River Delta Express Service that is jointly operated with French carrier, CMA CGM and utilizes six vessels with weekly calls at Long Beach, Oakland, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Chiwan, Hong Kong, and Yantian.

Built in South Korea in 2010 by MSC, the world's second largest container carrier, the Fabiola is one of only 71 vessels with capacity of 12,500 TEUs or more, and to date it is the only such ship to make regular port calls in the United States, as these mega-ships are used more frequently in the Asia-Europe tradelane.

"Few [North American] ports can handle these giant ships," said Christopher Lytle, the new executive director at the Port of Long Beach.

The Fabiola is the first of what the Port of Long Beach anticipates to be a string of larger containerships to be deployed in the world's biggest tradelane, the trans-Pacific. Currently, the top end of containership size that typically sails between the U.S. and Asia are at about 8,000 TEUs.

The major West Coast container ports like Long Beach and Oakland feature, on average, deeper shipping drafts than their Eastern counterparts.

However, once the widened Panama Canal is scheduled to open for post-Panamax traffic in a few years, bigger ships from Asia will be able to pass through to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Another MSC box ship, the 9,200-TEU MSC Roma, which requires 48.5 feet of water, made recent calls at East Coast ports via the Suez Canal from Asia.

The vessel stopped at the ports of Virginia, New York-New Jersey, Baltimore, Charleston, S.C and Savannah, Georgia.

A ship the size of the Fabiola would present a more serious challenge to many channel and harbor drafts along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf.

Virginia is currently the only East Coast port with 50-foot channels and 50-foot berths, while Baltimore sports a 50-foot channel with a 50-foot berth on the way. New York-New Jersey is slated to open up a 50-foot-deep channel by the end of this year.

The Fabiola's fully loaded draft is just over 50 feet.

Speaking at Cargo Business News' Northwest Intermodal Conference in Portland last year, Rodolfo Sabonge, the vice president of market research and analysis for the Panama Canal Authority, said it was his belief that although 12,000-TEU-and-up ship sizes will be able to fit through the Canal, he wasn't sure they would be ideal candidates, and speculated 6,000-8,000-TEU vessels could be the more likely size shipping eastward and back.

Sabonge said ship size transporting through the Canal will ultimately be up to the ocean carrier.

"The carrier will deploy the vessel with the highest profitability and economy of scale," he said.

The promise of more, larger ships arriving from Asia has had East and Gulf Coast ports engaged in a widely reported scramble to dig their respective drafts deeper in order to compete with their intermodal port rivals on the West Coast that, for the most part, feature 50-foot minimum shipping drafts.

Meanwhile, ports on the West Coast don't appear to be resting on their deep draft laurels as the ante looks to get upped when the Panama Canal does open for bigger ship business.

For example, the Port of Long Beach is investing $4.5 billion over the next decade to update its cargo-handling infrastructure, including the construction of its Middle Harbor Terminal project and raising the span of the Gerald Desmond Bridge so larger, taller ships can pass safely beneath it.

Port of Oakland Board of Port Commissioners President Pamela Calloway said: "We invest in our terminals, navigation channels, and landside infrastructure to welcome these ships because…they are also where the industry is headed and where we must head to continue to compete."

"Bigger ships mean more boxes; and more boxes mean more jobs," said Port of Oakland Executive Director Omar Benjamin.



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