About two weeks from now, a cargo ship 21/2 football fields long will squeeze under the Key Bridge and deliver the future of the port of Baltimore.
On its deck are four massive cranes built in China that state officials and the maritime industry hope will turn the already bustling Seagirt Marine Terminal into a conduit for mountains of goods delivered by the world's largest ships.
Baltimore will join Norfolk, Va., as the only East Coast ports with 50-foot-deep berths and cranes able to accommodate vessels up to 1,200 feet long, which will begin using a widened Panama Canal in 2014. The berth and cranes are part of a 50-year, public-private partnership formed in 2010 between the state and Ports America Chesapeake.
Port officials are watching the calendar and keeping tabs on the vessel delivering the goods that will deliver the goods.
The cranes were erected and tested at Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Co. Ltd., known as ZPMC, before they were loaded onto the ship, the Zhen Hua 13, said Richard Scher, spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration. The vessel left Shanghai on April 14, made its way around the Cape of Good Hope and now is in the South Atlantic Ocean near the equator.
If the schedule holds — and that's a big if when the traveling distance in question is nearly 20,000 miles — the cranes will arrive on June 12, one day ahead of the tall ships sailing into the Inner Harbor for the weeklong commemoration of the War of 1812.
"They're going to time their transit so that they're not going to cross paths with any other traffic in the narrow areas of the bay," said Coast Guard Commander Kelly Post of the cranes. "Timing is definitely not the greatest. I don't see them coming up the channel the same time as the tall ships. They'll have to wait. I can't see making the tall ships wait."
But the Coast Guard and Chesapeake Bay pilots won't make any decisions until the cranes are much closer to Cape Henry, Va., at the mouth of the bay, she said.
Clearance at the Bay Bridge, which is 186 feet at high tide, isn't expected to be an issue, but the height of the vessel and its cargo will be verified, Post said. The Zhen Hua 13 will pass below the bridge at low tide to allow more clearance, she added.
"I do not have the exact measurements but the cranes may be as high as 185 feet," Post said, adding: "They're huge. It's definitely going to be a sight to see."
Once the ship is secured at Seagirt, the $40 million cargo will be offloaded on a railroad track, assembled and tested. Officials hope the cranes will be operational by the end of summer.
Scher said the dimensions of the new cranes are impressive.
Each weighs 1,706 tons. The booms can clear a 14-story building and extend 206 feet from the edge of the wharf to the opposite side of a docked ship — a reach 22 containers wide. Seagirt's seven current cranes can reach only 18 containers across.
Each crane can lift up to 187,340 pounds — more than an empty space shuttle. They run on electricity rather than diesel power.
James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, praised Gov. O'Malley's administration for its role in establishing the public-private partnership and ushering in a new era.
"With the arrival of these supersized cranes, the Port of Baltimore is primed for a new day in its container business ... one that will soon bring larger ships, more cargo, and more employment and economic benefit to this port," White said.