Shipowners received clearance yesterday to begin taking advantage of the port of Baltimore's new deeper channel system, the result of a four-year $227 million federal and state dredging project.
"As of today it's a go," said C. Richard Foster, vice president of John S. Connor Inc., steamship agents, after receiving the go-ahead from the Association of Maryland Pilots.
Under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers, the 57 miles of channels connecting Baltimore with the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay have been deepened by eight feet from the current depth of 42 feet to the new limit of 50 feet.
For safety reasons, however, ships will not make maximum use of the increased depth because of restrictions imposed by the pilots association.
The pilots, who guide ships during the 200-mile bay voyage between Baltimore and the mouth of the bay, have decided to restrict ships to those with a 45-foot depth. That limit will be gradually increased as the pilots gain experience operating in the new channel system, according to Michael R. Watson, president of the pilots association.
When the channels were 42 feet, pilots permitted ships to be loaded to a depth of 41 feet, allowing 1 foot of clearance. Thus, the 45-foot limit will permit owners to fill their ships until they sit four feet deeper in the water than before.
That should still mean a substantial increase in the amount of cargo a ship can load or discharge in Baltimore. Mr. Foster estimated that four feet of depth would allow ships to carry an additional 8,000 to 13,000 tons of cargo. That represents about a 10 to 15 percent increase over the current load limits.
The primary beneficiary of the deeper channel system will be the large bulk ships that carry commodities such as coal, grain and iron ore. Containerships, auto carriers and other general cargo ships generally do not need channels deeper than 40 feet.
"This is going to be an important step for the port of Baltimore," said Jeffrey A. McKee, the Corps of Engineers' manager of the dredging project. He said it should help Baltimore compete more effectively with Norfolk, Va., for coal shipments.
Norfolk has had a 50-foot channel to its coal piers for about two years.
It was not clear yesterday which ship would be the first to take advantage of the deeper channels leading to Baltimore. Steamship agents in Baltimore have notified shipowners that vessels can now be loaded four feet deeper, but it may be two weeks or more before coal contracts and ship schedules can be rearranged.
Donald W. Carroll Jr., a vice president of T. Parker Host of Maryland Inc., ship agents, said that although the owners of a coal ship due in Baltimore next week have been advised of the new rules, they have not yet said they want to increase the load. And that might not be possible, even if the owners wanted to. "I really don't know if the coal suppliers have enough product [on hand] to take her up to 45 feet," he said.