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Pilots aim to show they’re ready for post-Panamax era

Apr 2, 2014 04:58 PM
MSC Rania sits under Baltimore’s new large cranes.

Courtesy Capt. Bill Band

MSC Rania sits under Baltimore’s new large cranes.

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Just after midnight, as the pilot boat pounded through waves generated by 20-knot winds sweeping up Chesapeake Bay, the dark outline of the huge containership became visible through the spray.

This was Mediterranean Shipping Co.’s Rania, a 1,090-foot-long, 142-foot-wide containership on its way up the bay from Norfolk, Va., to Baltimore.

As a post-Panamax vessel, Rania represents the dawn of a new era for U.S. ports on the East and Gulf coasts. Until recently, none of those ports could handle a ship like Rania. They didn’t have cranes big enough to reach all the way across a ship this wide. Or they didn’t have channels deep enough to admit a ship drawing close to 50 feet. Or bridges over the approaches were too low to permit such a vessel to pass safely underneath.

Will Van Dorp

The ports of New York and New Jersey are spending over $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge.

All this is changing as a result of the reconfiguration of the Panama Canal. Since the canal opened in 1914, its locks have restricted the size of ships that could fit through — the biggest would be 970 feet in length with a beam of 106 feet and a draft of just over 41 feet. The Panama Canal Authority is in the midst of a $5 billion-plus project to build a new set of locks that will permit the passage of much larger vessels. The new locks, expected to open in 2015, will be 1,400 feet long and 180 feet wide and have a water depth of 60 feet.

That means that many vessels that now unload their cargoes at West Coast ports for transshipment to Eastern markets by rail will have an all-water-route option to the East. Ports like Baltimore, Norfolk, New York, Savannah, Charleston, Miami and New Orleans are all preparing for what they hope will be a bonanza of Far East cargo carried by post-Panamax vessels.

The pilot boat approaching Rania belongs to the Association of Maryland Pilots. Venturing out onto the Chesapeake from the pilots’ mid-bay station, the boat was taking me and my guide, Capt. Eric A. Nielsen, president of the pilots’ group, to observe how the Port of Baltimore is getting ready to handle this new generation of large containerships.

As we approached the northbound ship from the port side at a point about 60 miles south of Baltimore, Rania turned slightly to starboard to create a relatively calm patch of water in the ship’s lee. Once up the short ladder leading to a hatch in the hull, we were accompanied to the bridge. There I was introduced to Capt. Nick Watts, the Maryland pilot who was guiding the ship on the 150-mile transit from Norfolk to Baltimore.

Piloting very large vessels is not a new experience for Watts or the other Maryland pilots. Baltimore has long been an important coal port. During the late 1980s, the system of dredged channels leading to the port was deepened to 50 feet to accommodate the big bulk carriers that were becoming common at that time.

Watts, who became a senior pilot with an unlimited license in early 2013 and has been with the Maryland pilots for six years, noted that a big containership like Rania handles very differently than a big collier. “This ship can do up to 20 knots,” he observed. “It handles a lot better than a bulk carrier.”

Rania can draw as much as 49 feet, but on this transit of the bay its draft was 39.6 feet, well short of the 47.5 feet that is the maximum the pilots will permit in the channel system. The ship was now about 30 miles south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (actually two parallel suspension bridges) spanning the bay just east of Annapolis. This section of the bay has naturally deep water, so ships are not confined to a narrow channel.

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