Get ready, U.S. East Coast ports, the big ships are coming, warns James Newsome, head of the South Carolina State Ports Authority.
Terminals with the right infrastructure and market attributes need to prepare for the arrival of super-sized containerships, because the Panama Canal's expansion in 2014 will not lead, as many port experts predict, to the proliferation of transshipment hubs in the Caribbean, Newsome said Monday.
A widespread belief among maritime analysts is that only a small percentage of the 10,000- to 14,000-TEU vessels now entering liner service will call at East Coast ports from Asia, with most shipments being ferried on 4,500- to 8,000-TEU vessels to the mainland from connecting ports like Kingston, Jamaica, with deep harbors. Many ports have navigation channels of 42 feet or more, which is sufficient to handle these ship sizes, industry officials say.
Load centering, they argue, allows carriers to serve multiple ports by using large vessels for economies of scale across the ocean and transferring shipments to smaller vessels, thereby saving many ports from having to make massive infrastructure investments.
However, Newsome challenged the notion that carriers don't want to bring their megaships to the East Coast. In a conference call with American Shipper's
editorial team, he pointed out transshipment adds cost to freight transportation because of the extra handling required.
'Nobody can really afford transshipment, unless you're in Freeport. So I expect direct calls,' the port director said. 'Every line I know is investigating harbor capabilities to handle those ships and they don't want to handle them 50 percent full. They want to be reliable schedule wise. And with the expense of bunker fuel they need to be on time and not be half-full when they leave.'
Port Freeport, Bahamas, is a hub for Mediterranean Shipping Co., the world's second-largest carrier, and has the advantage of low fees, efficient operations and proximity to the United States.
'You don't want to blunt the big-ship economics by spending money on transshipment' and reducing transit time, said Newsome, who knows the carrier business from his days as an executive at Hapag-Lloyd.
Transshipment will mostly take place in certain ports to consolidate trade between North and South America, with some amalgamation of east/west trade possible on those feeder routes, he predicted.
Other ports, besides Kingston, trying to position themselves as transshipment centers include Rio Haina and Caucedo in the Dominican Republic; Port of Spain, Trinidad; and Manzanillo and Colon in Panama. Water depth, location, port productivity and other issues could limit the ability of some ports to become container hubs.
The Port of Charleston has the deepest harbor in the U.S. Southeast, for the moment, and aims to get deeper if it can obtain federal funding to dredge the channel to the sea.
Charleston's harbor has a 50-foot depth at high tide, around which it can handle ships with a 48-foot draft. This allows it handle almost 9,000-TEU vessels on a restricted basis. Newsome said the fourth-largest container port on the East Coast needs a 50-foot channel to be on par with the ports of New York-New Jersey; Norfolk, Va.; and Miami. ' Eric Kulisch