After a visit by East Coast's largest container ship, Charleston ports officials ponder next step

Date: Friday, May 19, 2017
Source: The Post and Courier

Less than a week after the largest container ship to visit the East Coast made a stop in Charleston, the State Ports Authority has its sights set an even bigger visitor.

"Everyone has started to ask questions about the next size of ship," Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO, said Wednesday as he showed maritime agency's board members a photograph of the MSC Oscar — a Mediterranean Shipping Co. vessel that can carry up to 18,000 cargo boxes.

The COSCO Development, which visited the Port of Charleston's Wando Welch Terminal last weekend, currently is the biggest ship in the SPA's big-ship era, hauling a maximum of 13,000 containers. It soon could be displaced by a larger vessel, but Newsome is hedging his bets.

"I want to be very clear here because I don’t want to get myself in trouble — I’m not saying MSC will deploy this size ship here," Newsome said. "But I’m telling you we’re starting to get questions about it, and we’re starting to wrap our minds around that fact. We have to validate it, and I'm not saying this definitively, but we think we can handle a ship that size."

The SPA had no problem accommodating the Development, which arrived Saturday morning and left early Sunday night for its home port in Hong Kong. Hundreds of union workers and SPA employees moved 2,910 cargo boxes on and off the vessel — barely missing a single-ship record — using 155-foot-tall ship-to-shore cranes purchased specifically for the big ships that can now travel through the newly expanded Panama Canal.

While the Development cleared the Ravenel Bridge with plenty of room to spare, Newsome said it looked a lot closer to the spectators he stood with on the pier at Charleston's Waterfront Park as the ship navigated the harbor.

"They were really excited to see it, despite the fact that there were a few fears that we were going to knock the bridge down," he said. "There was probably 25 feet of clearance, so it was a bit of an optical illusion."

That gives Newsome confidence that an 18,000-container vessel could slip under the 200-foot-tall span.

"We have, depending on the tide here, 195 to 203 feet (of clearance) based on the air-gap sensor at the Ravenel Bridge," he said. "Most of these ships are low enough that, in our judgment, they will be able to come here."

There's still plenty of work to do, including detailed discussions with harbor pilots and multiple computer simulations showing how a container ship of that size — 1,300 feet long and 194 feet wide — would respond to various conditions in Charleston Harbor.

With a project to raise the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey — the entrance to the Port of New York —scheduled for completion in June, Newsome said it's only a matter of time before a shipping line tests one of the bigger vessels on an East Coast voyage.

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