At the bottom of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the port of Baltimore's backdoor to the Northeast, is five feet of mud that two of the port's biggest customers say is costing them money.
Dredge away that five feet -- make the canal and its connecting channels 40 feet deep instead of 35 -- and the state will keep China Ocean Shipping Co. and Evergreen Line happy. More of their ships will be able to use the canal, sailing north out of the Chesapeake Bay instead of the time-consuming trip south to the bay's mouth.
For port officials, that's reason enough to spend $83 million dredging a 40-foot-deep swath from Baltimore harbor to the Delaware Bay. Every ship that wants to use the canal but can't is another potential loss to deep-water ports like Norfolk.
"Dredging is like our license to compete," former port Director Tay Yoshitani said before his departure last month. "The depth has to be there before we can talk seriously about marketing ourselves."
The canal connects the northern Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware Bay via the Elk River, shaving 150 nautical miles off a trip to or from New York.
But as Baltimore struggles to conform to the shipping trade's modern trends toward larger, heavier vessels, there are no guarantees that deeper channels will mean more business for the port.
Some steamship lines say they can't fit through the canal because of the bridges over it, not the depth of the water in it.
Other companies say they won't use the canal regularly at any depth because of the fees it costs them.
"That might be the single most important issue affecting this project," said Kevin Horn, a maritime consultant for Louis Berger International Inc. in Washington. An average 3,000-container vessel will pay $3,137 in extra pilot's fees to use the canal, he said.
Still, ships carrying the kind of cargo that Baltimore's public ports are seeking most vigorously -- automobiles -- usually don't have a problem with depth because cars are comparatively light. And the container cargo trade is evolving toward ships so massive they could never use the C&D;, the shallowest channel in any major East Coast port.
"How much money should we spend to get a little more traffic through the canal?" asked U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican. "We want the port to be viable and prosperous, but we don't want them to spend huge amounts of && money on infrastructure that won't be used."
A group working with the Army Corps of Engineers to study the economic benefit of deepening the canal expects to complete its report next month. Its conclusion could determine whether the future of commercial shipping has already passed the C&D; Canal by.
The Brewerton and Fort McHenry channels leading up the Patapsco River into Baltimore harbor are maintained at 50 feet, as are the channels leading south of the river to the Atlantic Ocean. When approached from the south, that makes Baltimore's port among the deepest ports on the East Coast -- deeper than New York, where plans to dredge down to 45 feet will require blasting into bedrock.
As such, Baltimore is trying to lure two of the world's largest steamship lines, Maersk Inc. and Sea Land Service Inc., to build a megaport here that would handle some 500,000 cargo containers a year -- more than doubling the amount of container cargo handled here. The companies want to cut their unit costs by sailing huge 1,100-foot "megaships" and calling at just one East Coast port. They expect to choose a location later this year.
The state's Seagirt Marine Terminal was constructed in anticipation of larger vessels, and was equiped with cranes that can reach 135 feet off the pier -- enough reach to load and unload megaships. Depth at the piers might need to be improved, but Baltimore is otherwise a viable option for the big-ship market.
"The big ships will never use the canal. It doesn't enter into our planning," said Ron Signorino, director of regulatory affairs for Maersk, whose 1,000-foot Regina Maersk is touring American ports. "But up the bay, your approaches in Baltimore are pretty much satisfactory now. Maybe when you plug the tides into the (( consideration things get close, but the depth is there."
While massive vessels are gradually joining the commercial fleet, however, typical merchant ships conform to a design limitation known in the maritime trade as "panamax" -- the maximum size of a ship that can fit through the Panama Canal. While new, larger ships can't sail in the northern bay, most panamax ships can.
Because of the dimensions of the Panama Canal's locks, it cannot accommodate any ship longer than 950 feet and wider than 106 feet. The C&D; Canal has no locks and is 450 feet wide, but the Panama Canal is 4 1/2 feet deeper.
And in commercial shipping, that 4 1/2 feet of draft can make the difference between losing money and making a profit.
When depth at the Consolidated Coal Co. piers in Canton was increased six inches two years ago, the difference meant the company could load an extra 1,500 to 2,000 tons of coal on large ships. The increase in fuel cost for the ships was negligible, company officials said, while the increased efficiency saved them tens of thousands of dollars.
"That extra six inches equates to about 2 percent additional cargo," said Gary Dadisman, general manager of Consolidated Coal. "And that goes right toward the profit margin, which is tight anyway."
Container vessels trying to sail as full as possible sometimes have to shift cargo and ballast to get both ends high enough to fit through the C&D; Canal. Ships typically approach Baltimore without a full load, but the draft in the C&D; can still be a problem, particularly if the ships want to take on ballast to fit under the 135-foot bridges over the channel.
Lines that operate vessels built with the more commodious European ports in mind might have clearances of 150 feet or more off the water line. And large automobile carriers would have to lower their stern ramps to fit beneath the canal's bridges.
"For the large international container vessels, 35 feet of depth is not going to cut it," said Chris Koch, a spokesman for Sea-Land Services Inc. in Charlotte, N.C.
Sea-Land stopped calling on Baltimore about four years ago primarily because of the port's distance from the ocean, not because of worries about channel depths, Koch said.
But given the trend toward ships that are as long, wide and deep-drawing as possible, depth has become an increasing concern throughout the East Coast. For instance, many Sea-Land vessels calling on New York stop first in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to lighten their load so they can fit through New York's 40-foot-deep channels, Koch said.
Still, some shipping lines say they will avoid the C&D; Canal whenever possible because the fees paid to the professional pilots who guide them through the bay can cost 35 percent more -- which means several thousand dollars, depending on the size of the ship. Most commercial ships are required to pay a state-certified pilot to navigate the Chesapeake Bay, but ships that use the canal must pay two -- one from Maryland and one from Delaware.
"If it didn't cost more, we would use it every time," said Capt. Hisami Yokomizo, marine superintendent for "K" Line America Inc., which ships automobiles to Baltimore.
Said Eric Carlson, manager of cargo handling for Wilhelmsen Lines, a carrier of machinery and break-bulk cargo: "The canal, on average, will gain you about four hours of time, and that's money. But if it's eaten up by extra pilotage fees, why bother?"
Wilhelmsen sends all its larger vessels south through the mouth of the bay and sends its smaller ones through the canal only when they are behind schedule, Carlson said.
The Maryland Port Administration considers the C&D; Canal Baltimore's best solution to its geographic disadvantage -- the city is 12 hours from the Atlantic Ocean. Time is crucial to many ships in the Atlantic trade, particularly those that offer liner services promising to be in port the same time each week. They also must meet longshoremen at the piers, and can be penalized with higher labor costs if they are late.
Efforts to increase the depth of the C&D; Canal have been underway since 1988, and were slowed recently when Gilchrest and others persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct its new economic and environmental studies.
The shipping industry employs some 18,000 people in Maryland, and port officials say a harbor with a 35-foot-deep approach -- even if it's only an alternative approach will never be taken seriously by steamship lines.
But Gilchrest said the government also needs to consider whether the $83 million for dredging could preserve more jobs if spent on something else. The state will pay $30 million of the cost, the federal government the rest. Engineers also are considering a plan to dredge a narrower channel, reducing the cost to about $50 million.
"What is America's policy nationwide for dredging, and what is driving the decisions?" said Gilchrest. "Is it the ports? Is it the foreign steamship owners? Or is it the interests of the taxpayers? And at what point do we say we're not going to spend any more money on this unending process?"
Pub Date: 9/27/98