NORFOLK, Va. - The future of Virginia's biggest ports teetered precariously on the deck of the Chinese ship Zhen Hua 1 recently as it dwarfed yachts and tugboats alike on its way toward Norfolk International Terminals.
Onboard, four of the world's largest and fastest container cranes stood fully assembled and upright as symbols of the port's commitment to grab a far larger share of global shipping business. The new Suez-class cranes will allow the port to unload gigantic cargo ships that even the nation's biggest ports cannot.
Buttressed by strong growth in Asian shipping in the wake of last year's West Coast workers lockout and increasing traffic at regional distribution centers, Virginia Port Authority officials call the cranes their gateway to the future.
The cranes, which stand 273 feet tall and cost about $5.6 million each, are called Suez-class, after that canal, because they are able to unload ships too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Cargo vessels commonly are measured by the number of 20-foot shipping containers they can fit side-by-side. Any ship wider than 13 containers is too large for the Panama Canal.
The new cranes are able to stretch 235 feet from the wharf, where they can unpack ships that are 26 containers across. The largest container ships currently at sea are only 17 containers wide. But the future promises massive ships as companies seek to reduce the cost of transporting their products around the globe. Since they wanted to buy new cranes anyway, port officials opted for models that could unload the biggest ships being dreamed up.
"New orders by shipping companies are all going for these larger ships," said Tom Boyd, spokesman for the world's largest shipping line, MaerskSealand, who says expanding vessels increase efficiency.
For port officials, the ability to service the coming ships is an investment in the future.
`A marketable tool'
"It's a marketable tool," said John G. Milliken, chairman of the port authority's Board of Commissioners. "We're able to handle the biggest ships on the drawing board."
By comparison, the East Coast's leading port, New York and New Jersey, and the nation's largest ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach, each have more total cranes than the port of Virginia but can handle only ships that are no more than 22 containers thick.
The $45 million contract for eight cranes will be completed next August when four more cranes arrive from Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Co., the world's largest container crane manufacturer. In 1999, the port bought three smaller Suez-class cranes from the Chinese company.
For Robert R. Merhige III, the port authority's deputy executive director and general counsel, bringing the behemoth cranes to Hampton Roads was a simple decision.
"Since they last 25 years, it's crazy not to get the biggest ones," he said.
The port will unload the cranes next weekend and test them in mid-September. The cranes will be operational at Norfolk's south terminal in late September, port officials say, and the installation will not hurt business.
The crane's speed and ability to lift more than 145,600 pounds at a time up from 112,000 pounds immediately will increase efficiency.
Faster than old models
"These cranes are faster and they can obviously unload a ship much quicker then the older cranes, which gives the terminals much more capacity," said Rudy Israel, manager of port redevelopment for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in Newark, N.J.
Shipping companies waste money when ships are forced to spend downtime in port, so the speed and strength of the new cranes should make the port a more attractive destination.
The cutting-edge cranes have the same basic setup as those currently operating at the port to make the transition to the new equipment easier for longshoremen.
"We're going to need the taller cranes with longer booms because these ships are huge," said Ed Brown, who oversees 1,800 local port workers as a vice president of the International Longshoreman's Association. "They're like big warehouses."
The Zhen Hua 1 departed Shanghai, China, on June 21. Good weather and calm seas cut a week off the nonstop journey that is purposely slow to keep the awkward ship balanced. For stability, the legs of the cranes are welded to the deck of the ship and the tops are connected using multiple cables.
Preparing for the modern deep-water cargo ships raises a contentious debate between the port authority and the Army Corps of Engineers. The port wants the main navigational channel dredged to 55 feet from 50 feet, but the corps said just weeks ago that it couldn't endorse the dredging in the foreseeable future.
"This is an ongoing dialogue between the port and the corps," Milliken said. "And the discussion goes on."
Kimball Payne is a reporter for the Newport News Daily Press, a Tribune Publishing newspaper in Virginia.