Closed canal hurts port

Ships are diverted to avoid C&D Canal, salvage operations

Long closure feared

Sinking of tug likely to shut vital shortcut for rest of the week

February 27, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

The tugboat accident that claimed a captain and three deckhands and closed the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal early Monday is costing some ship operators more time and money as they divert ships to and from the port of Baltimore via the Chesapeake Bay and Cape Henry.

Industry sources said the impact on the port should be minimal as long as the canal is reopened within several days. But with the canal expected to be closed at least through this week, the cost could quickly climb for certain carriers.

"The impact the closing has directly on the port is automatically noticeable because there are a lot of ships that use the canal and the additional mileage, time and cost of going down to Cape Henry and up the Chesapeake Bay is significant," said Kate Philips, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the port's public marine terminals.

The C&D Canal was closed Monday morning after a bulk freighter collided with two tugboats towing dredging barges and equipment up the Elk River, which connects to the western end of the canal.

One tug, the Swift, sank quickly and an equipment barge was partially submerged, prompting Coast Guard officials to close the waterway until the tugboat and other equipment can be recovered. The Swift's captain and three deckhands went down with the tug.

The canal acts as a vital shortcut to the port of Baltimore to and from the north. A canal transit can shave six to 10 hours off an average trip, depending on the type of vessel and weather conditions. Port Administration studies have found that a ship operator saves about $7,000 in operating costs by using the canal.

An average of two to three commercial cargo ships use the canal daily, though it also is used frequently by barges, tugboats and other types of smaller commercial vessels.

Coast Guard officials knew of only one ship that was scheduled to use the canal yesterday. But the actual number could be higher, because most ships make alternative arrangements on the fly without notifying transportation officials.

Port officials weren't sure how many ships already have been diverted. Several major carriers contacted yesterday said they have yet to be affected, but some could be forced to divert ships later this week if the canal isn't reopened.

"It hasn't affected any of our ships yet," said Tom Witkowski, operations manager for Hual North America Inc.

The shipping line has a vessel scheduled to depart tomorrow for Amsterdam. If the canal is still closed, as expected, the ship will simply use the port's main channel down the Chesapeake Bay, Wit- kowski said. "For us, that ship can go either way."

But if future arrivals are diverted, the shipping line will likely incur some loss as a result. "You're talking extra fuel, extra costs and extra time," he said.

Scandinavian shipping line Wallenius Wilhelmsen, one of the port's largest customers, isn't expecting another ship until this weekend.

"We're just waiting to hear from the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers," said Eric Carlson, an operations manager for the shipping line.

China Ocean Shipping Co. and Atlantic Container Line also weren't expecting any problems for the rest of this week.

But the closure is having a bigger impact on tug and barge companies that make heavy use of the C&D Canal.

"It affects us quite a bit as a matter of fact," said Tom Gaither, general manager of Vane Brothers Co., which hauls jet fuel and other petroleum products to and from Baltimore; Norfolk, Va.; Philadelphia and other locations.

With the canal closed, the company is forced to send some of its shipments out on the Atlantic Ocean, a sometimes treacherous journey for smaller barges. With high winds expected this week, some shipments may have to be postponed.

Though the closing may be costly and inconvenient, Gaither said the tight-knit port community isn't focused solely on economics right now.

"It's just a real unfortunate incident for which we feel deeply saddened for our brothers in the industry," said Gaither, referring to the missing four men.

Except for occasional fog or ice, canal closings are rare and usually last a few hours. Monday was just the second time in at least the past 15 years that the canal has been closed for several days, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the canal.

The other incident occurred in May, when a tugboat towing a Domino Sugar barge was pulled under by a towing line, killing one crew member and closing the canal for about a week.

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