Giant ship delivers message to Atlantic ports Regina Maersk requires deep harbor channels and modern docks

August 06, 1998|By NEWS YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ABOARD THE REGINA MAERSK - After more than a century as the dominant seaport on the East Coast, New York Harbor has seen a lot of ships come and go - but never anything quite like this one, the vanguard of a new fleet of cargo "superships," with a hull as long as the Chrysler Building is tall.

In the first visit to the United States by a cargo ship this big, with its horns blasting louder than a jet's roar, the Regina Maersk made a celebratory pause in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, as fountains of water sprayed from a fireboat, and a fleet of tugs, pleasure craft, police boats and helicopters flitted about at the end of July.

The arrival was carefully choreographed, because the purpose of the visit by the giant Danish vessel was only partly to unload 492 truck-size containers of toys, Christmas decorations, furniture and clothing at Port Newark, N.J.

According to its owner, Maersk Inc., it was also here to send a strong message to New York and New Jersey, which share the $20 billion-a-year bounty from harbor commerce, and to harbor officials and politicians at several other ports along the Eastern seaboard.

The message delivered by the ship, which had to lower its radio mast to slip under the 151-foot-high arc of the Bayonne Bridge connecting New Jersey with Staten Island, was that the vessels that will ply major global trade routes from now on are going to be very, very big, and that any port that wants to dominate maritime commerce in the 21st century has to be sure its channels are deep enough and its docks modern enough to accommodate them.

The Regina Maersk, 1,043 feet long, is the first of a new generation of enormous cargo vessels that marine analysts say should soon transform marine trade into something resembling the modern airport system, with hubs served by the largest ships and spokes reached by smaller craft.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bistate agency that manages harbor trade, is engaged in an intense competition with about half a dozen other harbors to become the hub for the East Coast.

For New York Harbor, in particular, which has notoriously narrow, shallow channels leading to its main cargo docks in Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, N.J., the arrival of the ship intensified the pressure on officials to obtain adequate federal money to deepen major channels.

The toughest task is to blast the shelf of bedrock underlying the Kill Van Kull, the narrowest, shallowest bottleneck in the harbor - which also happens to be the gateway to the New Jersey piers. Even after nearly a decade of dredging and blasting, the channel is still only 40 feet deep on an average low tide.

When fully loaded, the Regina Maersk and a growing fleet of similarly sized vessels ride more than 47 feet deep in the water. Even on a high tide, negotiating the tight turns into Newark Bay on a ship that deep and long could be a navigator's nightmare.

On Wednesday, to be sure there were no mistakes, the ship had two seasoned New York Harbor pilots quietly instructing the Danish helmsman on every tweak of the wheel.

A digital meter indicating how much water lay beneath the keel displayed a string of nerve-racking numbers, showing the gap between the ship and harbor bottom often at less than 10 feet.

The Regina Maersk was launched two years ago by Maersk Line, the largest container shipping company in the world, as the first in a fleet of more than a dozen ships, some even a bit larger, that are designed to haul enormous loads of consumer goods from Asia to Europe and North America.

The previous generation of large container ships could carry about 4,000 truck-size containers in their holds and lashed on deck. The Regina Maersk carries 6,000 of the aluminum boxes, which have become the standard means of shipping almost all manufactured goods around the world.

Port Authority officials and representatives of harbor businesses and unions stared up at the slab-sided blue craft from two charter boats that circled like herding dogs around a stray bull, and many said the message sent by Maersk was received loud and clear.

"The future is here today," Lillian Borrone, the director of port operations for the Port Authority, said in a telephone interview.

She said the Port Authority was prepared to spend its 35 percent share of the $623 million cost of deepening the harbor channels and to press Congress and the Clinton administration to provide the rest.

So far, $35 million has been authorized by Congress to be spent in the 1999 fiscal year on deepening the major channels in the harbor, said Peter Shugert, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for keeping major navigation channels clear.

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