The number of ships calling at the port of Baltimore increased by more than 10 percent in the first three months of this year, a further indication, port officials hope, of a reversal in a decade-long trend.
Baltimore registered 557 ship arrivals during the quarter, 53 more than in the same period a year ago, according to the Baltimore Maritime Exchange Inc., which tracks ship movements in the port. That increase followed a gain of 31 ships during the final quarter of 1991.
The upturn in two successive quarters adds to the evidence that Baltimore is beginning to recover some of the traffic it has lost in recent years.
"I think it's tremendously encouraging," said John T. Menzies III, chairman of the Terminal Corp., a warehousing, trucking and distribution company. "It helps support the gut feeling we've had that things are getting better."
Part of the increase in ship calls is the result of a boom in coal exports moving through the port. According to statistics compiled by John S. Connor Inc., ship agents and freight forwarders, coal exports more than doubled in the first quarter, reaching 2.6 million tons, up from 1.1 million tons in the first quarter last year.
That tonnage was carried in 36 colliers, 15 ships more than in the same quarter a year ago. That means coal ships accounted for less than one-third of the total increase in vessel calls registered in the port during the first quarter.
The remaining two-thirds of the increase apparently reflects the success the port has had in the past year in attracting new or expanded steamship line service to the port. During 1991, eight steamship lines began service in Baltimore, and five other lines added to their service.
The revenue of a number of port businesses -- tugboat operators, pilots, line handlers and ship repair companies -- is directly dependent on the number of vessels coming through the port.
In 1991 2,217 ships came to Baltimore, a little more than half the 4,214 ships that visited in 1979. Since 1979, the number of ship calls has fallen in every year but two -- 1984 and 1988. The decline was driven by an industrywide trend toward bigger ships. As the ships got bigger, fewer were needed to carry the same amount of cargo.
In recent years, Baltimore also was hurt by labor problems and intensified competition from Virginia.
Despite the gain in ship calls during the last quarter of 1991, the port ended the year down 76 ships from the year before. The port still managed to post a slight increase for the year in general cargo handled at state piers, the first such cargo gain in three years.