The ship tied up at Berth 5 in the Dundalk Marine Terminal yesterday was as common a site as visitors to the port of Baltimore are likely to see. It was a car-carrier -- a big block of steel that hauls automobiles around the Atlantic. Hundreds call in Baltimore every year.
But state and federal officials threw a party for this particular car carrier, not because of its cargo but because of the red, white and blue flag flying on its stern.
The vessel Tanabata was a freshly flagged American merchant ship -- such a rarity in these days of foreign-flagged shipping that even a few of the assembled dignitaries had never seen one.
"The American flag has been disappearing from the high seas faster than most of us care to think about," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and federal maritime official who spoke at a ceremony commemorating the Tanabata's maiden voyage as an American-flagged ship.
"This is really good to see."
The Tanabata is operated by a newly formed shipping line called American Roll-On Roll-Off Carrier, or ARC. The new line is a subsidiary of Wallenius-Wilhelmsen Lines, a Scandinavian company that operates the world's largest fleet of car-carrying ships and is one of the port of Baltimore's biggest customers.
As an American-flagged shipping line, ARC has two advantages over foreign competitors: It can carry cargo for the U.S. military and is eligible for up to $2.1 million in annual federal subsidies aimed at defraying the cost of hiring American seamen.
But those advantages aren't enough for most shipping companies, which typically flag their ships in countries whose labor laws and tax codes are less costly.
The American merchant fleet had as many as 3,500 ships in the early 1950s, but has been in decline ever since.
Discounting vessels owned by the federal government or sailing in the Great Lakes, the U.S. merchant fleet today consists of about 280 ships.
That ranks the U.S. fleet 25th in the world, behind countries that include Italy, Belize, Denmark and Antigua. Panama has the world's largest ship registry, with 4,485 vessels at the beginning of the year. Liberia is next, with 1,644.
China and Russia each claim about 1,500 ships apiece. So do Malta, Cyprus and the Bahamas.
The Tanabata can carry 5,800 automobiles, or a proportionate number of buses, trucks or construction vehicles.
The U.S. flag gives the federal government the right to use it in emergencies. It can carry 300 M-1 tanks and 500 Humvees simultaneously.
The ship had been flagged in the Norwegian ship registry since it was built in 1994. It was reflagged Nov. 3 in Europe, Wallenius-Wilhelmsen officials having determined that the federal subsidy and military cargo would make up for the increased cost of hiring American labor.
Federal Maritime Administrator Clyde Hart Jr., who attended the ceremony yesterday, said it was the first new merchant ship to join the U.S. fleet since he took office over a year ago.
"It made sense," said Anthony M. Ryan, vice president and general manager of ARC, which already has three other ships in the American fleet. "There's a lot of military stuff -- about 15 to 20 percent of the cargo -- and Baltimore's a good port for the business."