Even though the shortest route for ships sailing between Baltimore and New York is via the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, many steamship lines don't use the canal. Their reason is simple: fear.
Wilhemsen Lines, for example, has ships that sail from Norfolk, Va., up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore and then to New York. Though vessels much larger than the Wilhemsen ships routinely use the canal, Wilhemsen sends its ships 150 miles back down the bay to its mouth, where they head out to the Atlantic, then turn north.
"We found it too risky," Hans J. Hjelde, president of Baltimore-based Wilhemsen Lines (USA) Inc., said of the canal route.
Wilhemsen's wariness is widely shared. Port officials surveying Baltimore-bound ships were startled to learn last fall how many other operators seem concerned about the risk of groundings or collisions in the canal and its approaches.
"Forty-one percent of the vessels coming in through Cape Henry could have used the C&D and didn't," said Frank Hamons, manager of harbor development for the Maryland Port Administration.
That left port officials worried that the difficulty of safely navigating the canal has raised operating costs for many of the steamship lines that come to Baltimore. And they suspect that the canal could be keeping other lines from making direct ship calls to Baltimore.
"Nothing is more important to Baltimore than solving the problems of that canal," said Martin H. Miller Sr., of the state port commission. If the biggest ships coming to Baltimore can comfortably use the canal, then Baltimore can compete, Mr.Miller said. But Baltimore will have trouble as long as ship captains have reason to avoid the canal. "We must take those reasons away," he said.
Lines that do use the canal save thousands of dollars in fuel costs because the route cuts more than 100 miles off each voyage. The hours saved by the more direct route are also crucial for ships because of their tight schedules and high operating costs, as much as $50,000 a day for a large containership.
Although the budget crisis has crimped state spending, port officials concluded that some relatively simple, inexpensive measures could help make steamship lines more confident about the canal. Most of the work could be done within the current budget of the state and other agencies responsible for shipping.
With the bay pilots, the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, the MPA began developing a two-year plan last November that should attract more ships to the canal, save time and money for the steamship lines and increase business for the port.
"Those things we can address right now, that's what we're doing," Mr. Hamons said. "Individually these are all small projects," but taken together they could greatly improve the way lines regard the canal, he said.
The program includes:
* Allowing ship captains to get clearance three hours before they reach the canal, up from one hour.
* Smoothing several sharp turns in the channels.
* Reducing the distance between buoys to improve the marking of the channel system.
* Establishing an emergency turnaround area and anchorage just west of the entrance of the canal.
* Widening part of the Brewerton Extension Channel to 600 feet.
The canal's limitations are not a new issue. Six years ago the Army Corps of Engineers spent $30 million dredging the canal and the Brewerton Extension Channel, part of the channel system leading to Baltimore. In 1990 more dredging was done.
Ships that use the canal save thousands in fuel costs. But even more important, in an era of tight schedules, is the time they save.
One of the main reasons steamship lines have dropped Baltimore in favor of Hampton Roads, Va., in recent years, is because many of them concluded they could not afford the time it takes to bring their ships all the way up the bay to Baltimore.
What Baltimore does offer is proximity to the Baltimore-Washington area and good rail and truck connections to the nation's industrial heartland. Lines have to decide whether the business they do in Baltimore warrants the extra time and expense. The canal route makes it easier for a steamship line to justify making Baltimore a port of call. For a line weighing coming to Baltimore or serving the same markets from Hampton Roads, the reliability and safety of the canal could be the deciding factor.
The long-term limitations of the canal remain a concern.
The Corps of Engineers is conducting a $4.4 million study of the canal, with the state paying half the cost. The study is due for completion in 1995, but any action on its findings could take many more years. Given the importance of the canal, port officials felt they could not wait that long to try to resolve some of the steamship lines' concerns.
The people most familiar with the difficulties of the canal are the bay pilots. They have the job of taking ships safely through the canal and the system of dredged channels connecting it to Baltimore.
Capt. Michael R. Watson, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, said the straightening of turns, the additional buoys and the improvements to navigational aides will help make the route safer.
The system for giving ships earlier clearance also will go a long way to eliminate one of the most serious problems facing a ship using the canal: the threat of being denied entry just before reaching the canal. Since a ship's rudder works effectively only when a ship is in motion, a pilot forced to come to a halt in the narrow and shallow upper reaches of the bay might have a hard time keeping the ship safely within the confines of the channel.
The pilots already have begun to test the system giving ships earlier notice that they are cleared to enter the canal.
"It's going to work; I'm very confident," Captain Watson said. "When all of this stuff is in place, steamship operators are going to be much more confident they can use the canal without a delay."