Giant cranes arrive in port, marking new era for cargo handling

The future of the port of Baltimore eased through the morning haze Wednesday, limboed under the Bay Bridge with room to spare, ducked under the Key Bridge and arrived dockside at Seagirt Marine Terminal just in time for dinner.

Fourteen stories tall and already emblazoned with Maryland's colors, four cranes capable of handling the world's largest cargo ships looked almost ready to go to work.

"This is a big day for us. We're on schedule and under budget," said Mark Montgomery, president of Ports America Chesapeake as he watched the Zhen Hua 13 ease into Berth 4 at Seagirt. "It's a new era for the port, for Maryland and for Baltimore."

Ports America entered into a 50-year partnership with the state in 2010 and set about preparing Seagirt for the arrival of massive cargo ships that will use the widened Panama Canal beginning in early 2015.

The berth was deepened to 50 feet and the so-called super-post-Panamax cranes were ordered from China for $40 million. Only Norfolk, Va., has the same capability on the East Coast.

"It certainly is the future," said James White, the Maryland Port Administration's executive director, as he snapped photos like a happy tourist. "Either you have big cranes, or you're out of business."

The cranes spent two months at sea, traveling from Shanghai, around the tip of Africa, across the South Atlantic and up the Chesapeake Bay. The low-slung Zhen Hua had to skirt huge storms in the South Atlantic that could have swamped it and its 6,824-ton cargo.

Wednesday's first challenge was the Bay Bridge, where the Coast Guard and bay pilots estimated the ship would have about 5 or 6 feet of clearance at low tide. Two tugboats growled as they slowed the ship and everyone eyeballed the situation.

Traffic on the bridge was held in both directions for 36 minutes as the ship inched under the twin spans with slightly less than 10 feet to spare.

An hour behind schedule, the Zhen Hua picked up speed and made it under the Key Bridge at the height of rush hour. Traffic was stopped there, too. Tugboats approached, turned the ship around and backed it into the berth.

Even in their unassembled state, the new cranes assumed alpha status on the dock, attracting gawkers and making seven nearby cranes look tiny and dated.

Montgomery said it would take about a week to transfer the cranes to a set of tracks and roll them off the ship. They will be moved into place and the booms and operator's cabin will be raised. By September, they'll be ready to lift containers.

The booms will be able to extend 206 feet from the edge of the wharf to the opposite side of a docked ship — a reach 22 containers wide, six more than the current cranes' capability. Each crane can lift up to 187,340 pounds, more than an empty space shuttle.

"This was a huge undertaking, but Ports America believes in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic market," Montgomery said.

The port doesn't expect business to "go up double digits in the first year," White said. "We want to ramp up over two or three years."

The cranes and the expanded Panama Canal help make Baltimore more competitive with West Coast ports for cargo headed to the eastern United States, White said. Bringing goods east by rail from western ports costs $2,000 a container, he said, versus $150 to bring them through the canal and truck them from Baltimore.

"It's a huge savings," he said. "That's going to bring us a lot of freight."

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