The largest cargo ship ever to visit U.S. East Coast ports is making high-profile stops lately in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, but it won’t be visiting North Carolina.
The OOCL France, which can carry up to 13,926 cargo containers and is 1,202 feet long, is part of an alliance that doesn’t come to North Carolina. Even so, the Port of Wilmington isn’t large enough to accommodate the massive ship.
Another huge ship, the COSCO Development, stopped in May at Norfolk, Savannah and Charleston – but not Wilmington as well.
Although these ships are drawing attention in recent weeks, being passed over isn’t hurting the state, said Paul Cozza, executive director of North Carolina Ports.
“It’s great to see that they’re coming on the East Coast, but these aren’t the predominant vessels coming out,” Cozza said. “When you have a 13,000-container ship dropping off a few thousand containers in an already congested port it leads to more congestion. Here in North Carolina, we have less congestion.”
Ports have been forced to keep up with the times after the locks on the Panama Canal were expanded last year to accommodate larger ships holding up to 13,000 cargo containers. Wilmington, which is served by other major container alliances, provides a link to Charlotte through CSX rail transportation services.
The North Carolina State Ports Authority widened the Cape Fear River in Wilmington to handle cargo ships with 10,000 containers. Before the expansion, the port could accommodate only ships with up to 4,500 containers.
“It’s been like day and night,” Cozza said. “It’s kept us extremely competitive as the different shipping companies have upgraded. It’s improved our services, allowing us to accommodate larger vessels and more services.”
A berth reconstruction and new cranes will allow the Port of Wilmington to handle larger 13,000-container ships by early next year, Ports Authority spokesman Cliff Pyron said. The state’s business will also benefit from a new CSX direct rail service from Wilmington to Charlotte, the Queen City Express, opening in the end of July, Cozza said.
“North Carolina is positioned extremely well,” Cozza said. “There are lots of benefits to the direct rail, like overnight shipping.”
Accommodating larger ships has helped Charleston’s efficiency and growth because fewer ships can carry the same amount of cargo, said Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority.
The Ports Authority is spending more than $1.5 billion on infrastructure to keep these ships coming to Charleston, according to the Post and Courier. The port is linked to Charlotte by one of Norfolk Southern’s rail lines.
Investments to boost the port’s capacities help keep it competitive and attract businesses to the state, Newsome said.
“The port is seen in South Carolina as the most important strategic asset the state has, and it’s treated as such by the legislature and the governor,” Newsome said.
A $530 million project will deepen the Charleston Harbor to 52 feet by 2019, which would make it the deepest navigation channel on the East Coast. Wilmington’s port is 42 feet deep, but the North Carolina Ports Authority is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to look into deepening the harbor, Cozza said.
“Nothing happens quickly in shipping,” Newsome said. “If you want to deepen a harbor it takes six to seven years to study it and deepen it. It’s hard to catch up.”
Taylor Blatchford: 704-358-5354; @blatchfordtr