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With more big ships on the way, Port of Charleston invests in new cranes to serve them

October 30, 2017 GMT

With the number of large container ships visiting Charleston expected to quadruple by next spring, the State Ports Authority’s board of directors on Monday approved a $69.5 million contract to buy more cranes capable of moving cargo to and from the mega-vessels.

The deal — the largest crane purchase in SPA history — will bring five super post-Panamax cranes to the Hugh Leatherman Terminal, under construction on the former Navy Base in North Charleston, and one to the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.

“The contract approved today is an important part of our overall investment in infrastructure and capacity to ensure the port is well-positioned for the future,” said Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO.

The investment comes as Newsome said he expects the number of visits from so-called neo-Panamax container ships — those capable of carrying more than about 14,000 cargo boxes — will jump to four per week by next May from the current single weekly visit at the port.

“Based on our assessment in talking with ocean carriers, we’re thinking we’re going to have four strings of 13,000 to 14,000 (container ships by May,” Newsome said, adding they will replace some of the smaller ships now calling at the Port of Charleston.

“It’s a new world we’re living in,” he said.

Last year’s expansion of the Panama Canal made visits by such large vessels more economical for shipping lines, although Newsome said “they’re coming faster to the East Coast than we thought they would.”

The port had its first visit from a neo-Panamax vessel in May and in September hosted its largest container ship to date — the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt, capable of carrying 14,855 boxes.

To date, all of the visits have come from vessels that belong to the Ocean Alliance, one of three affiliations formed by the world’s largest shipping lines. Newsome said he expects all three groups will be represented when the number of big-ship visits increases next spring, with one of the alliances bringing two ships per week.

The new cranes — to be built in China by Shanghai Zenhua Heavy Industries Ltd., also known as ZPMC — are scheduled to arrive in late 2019 as the port nears completion of an estimated $529 million project to deepen Charleston Harbor to 52 feet, giving it the East Coast’s deepest navigation channel. They also will be here in time for the 2020 opening of the $762 million Leatherman terminal, which will double the port’s container capacity.

A program to strengthen the wharf at Wando Welch will wrap up in March, giving the terminal more room to handle the big ships. Only two of three berths have been available while the roughly two-year renovation project has taken place. A pair of previously ordered super post-Panamax cranes will arrive at Wando Welch in February, joining two that are already there, and the SPA is raising the height on five more cranes at the terminal.

“It’s all happening just in the nick of time,” Newsome said.

The Leatherman terminal cranes will have a height of 169 feet while the Wando Welch crane will be 155 feet tall, able to move cargo boxes stacked as high as nine on top each other.

Visits from neo-Paamax vessels have helped the SPA set containerized cargo records during eight of the first nine months this year. The maritime agency recorded 10 percent year-over-year growth in September and 4 percent growth during the first three months of the fiscal year, which started July 1.