At the bottom of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the port of Baltimore's backdoor to the Northeast, is five feet of mud that two of the port's biggest customers say is costing them money.
Dredge away that five feet -- make the canal and its connecting channels 40 feet deep instead of 35 -- and the state will keep China Ocean Shipping Co. and Evergreen Line happy. More of their ships will be able to use the canal, sailing north out of the Chesapeake Bay instead of the time-consuming trip south to the bay's mouth.
For port officials, that's reason enough to spend $83 million dredging a 40-foot-deep swath from Baltimore harbor to the Delaware Bay. Every ship that wants to use the canal but can't is another potential loss to deep-water ports like Norfolk.
"Dredging is like our license to compete," former port Director Tay Yoshitani said before his departure last month. "The depth has to be there before we can talk seriously about marketing ourselves."
The canal connects the northern Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware Bay via the Elk River, shaving 150 nautical miles off a trip to or from New York.
But as Baltimore struggles to conform to the shipping trade's modern trends toward larger, heavier vessels, there are no guarantees that deeper channels will mean more business for the port.
Some steamship lines say they can't fit through the canal because of the bridges over it, not the depth of the water in it.
Other companies say they won't use the canal regularly at any depth because of the fees it costs them.
"That might be the single most important issue affecting this project," said Kevin Horn, a maritime consultant for Louis Berger International Inc. in Washington. An average 3,000-container vessel will pay $3,137 in extra pilot's fees to use the canal, he said.
Still, ships carrying the kind of cargo that Baltimore's public ports are seeking most vigorously -- automobiles -- usually don't have a problem with depth because cars are comparatively light. And the container cargo trade is evolving toward ships so massive they could never use the C&D, the shallowest channel in any major East Coast port.
"How much money should we spend to get a little more traffic through the canal?" asked U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican. "We want the port to be viable and prosperous, but we don't want them to spend huge amounts of && money on infrastructure that won't be used."
A group working with the Army Corps of Engineers to study the economic benefit of deepening the canal expects to complete its report next month. Its conclusion could determine whether the future of commercial shipping has already passed the C&D Canal by.
The Brewerton and Fort McHenry channels leading up the Patapsco River into Baltimore harbor are maintained at 50 feet, as are the channels leading south of the river to the Atlantic Ocean. When approached from the south, that makes Baltimore's port among the deepest ports on the East Coast -- deeper than New York, where plans to dredge down to 45 feet will require blasting into bedrock.
As such, Baltimore is trying to lure two of the world's largest steamship lines, Maersk Inc. and Sea Land Service Inc., to build a megaport here that would handle some 500,000 cargo containers a year -- more than doubling the amount of container cargo handled here. The companies want to cut their unit costs by sailing huge 1,100-foot "megaships" and calling at just one East Coast port. They expect to choose a location later this year.
The state's Seagirt Marine Terminal was constructed in anticipation of larger vessels, and was equiped with cranes that can reach 135 feet off the pier -- enough reach to load and unload megaships. Depth at the piers might need to be improved, but Baltimore is otherwise a viable option for the big-ship market.
"The big ships will never use the canal. It doesn't enter into our planning," said Ron Signorino, director of regulatory affairs for Maersk, whose 1,000-foot Regina Maersk is touring American ports. "But up the bay, your approaches in Baltimore are pretty much satisfactory now. Maybe when you plug the tides into the (( consideration things get close, but the depth is there."
While massive vessels are gradually joining the commercial fleet, however, typical merchant ships conform to a design limitation known in the maritime trade as "panamax" -- the maximum size of a ship that can fit through the Panama Canal. While new, larger ships can't sail in the northern bay, most panamax ships can.
Because of the dimensions of the Panama Canal's locks, it cannot accommodate any ship longer than 950 feet and wider than 106 feet. The C&D Canal has no locks and is 450 feet wide, but the Panama Canal is 4 1/2 feet deeper.
And in commercial shipping, that 4 1/2 feet of draft can make the difference between losing money and making a profit.