Orient Overseas Container Line, a large Hong Kong-based steamship company that stopped making direct ship calls to Baltimore several years ago, is seriously considering returning to the port.
"I've been told it's a real possibility," Edwin F. Hale Sr., the owner of Baltimore-based trucking and barge companies, said yesterday. "They like the Baltimore market."
OOCL used to provide direct service to Baltimore as part of its northern European service. However, the line dropped Baltimore, in part because it began using ships on the route that could not fit under bridges that cross the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
The canal is an important shortcut for ships traveling between Baltimore and ports to the north. The restriction on ship size in the canal is still an issue, according to Mr. Hale.
Capt. Michael R. Watson, the president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, confirmed that he has discussed both operational and cost issues with OOCL.
It is the job of pilots to guide ocean-going ships coming to Baltimore by way of the canal. The pilots also direct ships taking the longaer southerly rout from Baltimore to the mouth of the Chesapeake.
Captain Watson said that he has discussed with OOCL just which of its ships can safely use the C&D; canal. "OOCL has always been interested in using the canal. I have worked with them and continue to do so," he said.
The pilots are seeking a rate increase that would raise their fees by about 10 percent in each of the next few years.
That request has yet to be approved by the state, but Captain Watson said that he has offered OOCL discounts on any new business the line brings to the port. That discount would lower the line's pilot costs to about 10 percent below current levels for one year.
The question of price rather than the canal seems to be the paramount issue at this point. OOCL has approached stevedores, tug companies and the Maryland Port Administration for price quotes.
The MPA has been trying to develop a package of prices that would appeal to OOCL, according to Thomas T. Koch, a member of the MPA's board of directors.
"We have certainly done some numbers for them," he said. "I do know they have us going through the hoops."
Further complicating the negotiations is the fact that the MPA is now between port directors.