Port of Baltimore welcomes first container ship via new Panama Canal

The Port of Baltimore will receive its first container ship through the new, expanded Panama Canal Tuesday.

Longshoremen operating colossal cranes in the port of Baltimore on Tuesday began unloading more than 2,000 shipping containers full of clothes, shoes and other Asian cargo that arrived aboard a massive vessel via the newly expanded Panama Canal.

A few hundred feet below, officials on the dock hailed the arrival of the Ever Lambent, a 1,095-foot Taiwanese cargo ship that can carry more than 4,200 40-foot shipping containers, as a harbinger of the state-owned port's viability for years to come.

The larger canal is expected to bring larger ships and buoy the Baltimore port's container traffic, which has lagged behind its rivals in New York and Norfolk, Va.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called the day "a 30-year overnight success," after a long lobbying effort for hundreds of millions of federal dollars to ready the port for the ships, which need a 50-foot-deep channel to call.

"I have worked with six governors to get this port job done here," the Maryland Democrat said. "When I started in Congress, we heard, 'Dredge or die.' The port was sputtering 30 years ago. You couldn't get the ships in. And were we just going to be a barge port that would be an adjunct to Philadelphia, or maybe some crumbs from Norfolk? We said, 'No, we're going to dredge.'"

The Ever Lambent is one of a new class from Evergreen Line, a Taiwanese shipping company that has been sending cargo on smaller ships to Baltimore for decades. The new ships, which travel between Asia and the East Coast, were designed with double the capacity of older ones.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Peter K. Rahn couldn't believe the sheer size of the ship — nearly four football fields long. "I can't help but look at this and think of 'Star Wars,'" he said.

The ship will unload 2,350 containers in Baltimore before heading north to New York, said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.

Roy Amalfitano, president at Evergreen Shipping Agency (America) Corp., credited the port's efficiency as a major factor in its ability to attract shipping business. Longshoremen in Baltimore can move 75 containers on and off a ship per hour, consistently ranked among the best in the nation.

The Ever Lambent has almost 10 times the capacity of the first Evergreen vessel to call in Baltimore, Amalfitano said. Containers typically come in standard 20- and 40-foot sizes, so they are measured in so-called 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs.

"It was 42 years ago — almost to the day — that the first Evergreen Line container ship, an 850-TEU vessel named Ever Spring, made her maiden voyage here, commencing a long-term commitment to this harbor and our customers who use the port of Baltimore facilities," he said. "It had been carried on continuously."

Despite the ship's gargantuan size, newer technology has made the Ever Lambent easier to steer than the smaller ships, Capt. Der-Tsair Shu said.

"With equipment becoming more improved, handling is easier than the old," he said.

Shu, who has been a seaman for nearly 28 years, said his crew was excited to pass through the new, wider Panama Canal locks.

Bayard Hogans is general manager for Ports America Chesapeake in Baltimore, which signed a deal with the state in 2009 to provide the four, 400-foot cranes and dredging in exchange for running Seagirt Marine Terminal.

"Today is a culmination in vision and commitment from all port partners," Hogans said.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, touted the port's economic impact and called it fitting that the Ever Lambent's hull is green.

"As the largest container ship coming from Panama, it marks a new era that will keep Baltimore steaming ahead to the forefront of international commerce," Ruppersberger said. "That means more green for the port of Baltimore, more green for the state of Maryland and more green in the pockets of our citizens."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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