East Coast ports raced to attract mega ships. Now we’re stuck outside of DC

The $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal doubled its capacity in 2016, making it easier for the world’s largest freighters to sail to the US East Coast from Asia. Now one of those giant ships has been stuck near the US capital for more than a week.

The Evergreen Marine Corp. ship, Ever Forward, ran aground in the Chesapeake Bay after leaving the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal on March 13 and has not moved since, according to chart data compiled by Bloomberg. .

On Sunday, experts led by the US Coast Guard launched a dredging operation to raise the 334-metre (1,096ft) vessel, which was en route to the Virginia International Gateway terminal in Norfolk. So far, the Hong Kong-flagged vessel is not disrupting trade.

The Ever Forward was scheduled to call at four ports on the US east coast after leaving China on February 2. Although the carrier has operated the route for more than two decades, its US-bound megaships have only recently ventured beyond the West Coast. , said Sal Mercogliano, professor of maritime history at Campbell University in North Carolina.

These diversions accelerated as container ships increasingly turned to the East Coast during the second half of 2021. This is when supply chain disruptions peaked on major transpacific routes, including rumbles at the country’s busiest ports – Los Angeles and Long Beach, California.

“It’s part of the growing supply chain backlog,” Mercogliano said in an interview. “To catch up in LA and Long Beach, many more companies are using ships like Ever Forward to send their cargo directly to the East Coast.

After the expansion of the Panama Canal was completed, giant ships that did not fit the original waterway began sailing from Asia to the East Coast. In January, 283 of the world’s largest ships passed through the canal, up from 59 when the expansion concluded in July 2016.

The first ships Evergreen sent to the East Coast in the 2000s could only carry around 2,700 containers measured in 20ft equivalent units, just over a fifth of Ever Forward’s capacity. Now ships carrying 12,000 containers can easily navigate the waterway.

At the same time, American seaports conducted dredging operations to accommodate ships requiring deeper drafts. An example of this is Baltimore, the last port the Ever Forward called before running aground. Along with taller cranes and deeper platforms, the nation’s 10th-largest commercial gateway is working to dredge an additional 50-foot platform and expand a rail tunnel that will allow trains to carry twice as much containers. Ports from Florida to Texas have also started to request additional freight as a result of optimization efforts.

Meanwhile, trade via the west coast is still plagued with delays. The Port of Los Angeles doesn’t expect operations to return to normal until at least the second half of the year, executive director Gene Seroka said in an interview with Bloomberg Radio last week. Still, the number of ships heading to Los Angeles from Asia has fallen to 43 from more than 100 at the height of the crisis, he added.

“No one is doing a lap of honor yet,” Seroka said. “There is still a lot of work to do.”

Admittedly, we still don’t know what led the Ever Forward to run aground. What officials do know is that the accident may serve as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when ships don’t have enough room to avoid getting stuck.

“The lesson here is that it’s not just about bringing in bigger ships, it’s about the infrastructure,” said Nathan Strang, director of ocean trade lane management at the logistics firm. Flexport Inc.

But in the case of the Ever Forward, which caused deja vu for those who remember when another Evergreen ship got stuck at the Suez Canal for nearly a week last year, disrupting trade world for months, “it could just be bad luck”. Strange added.

About the photo: The container ship Ever Forward in the Chesapeake Bay after being grounded near Baltimore in Pasadena, Maryland on March 16.

Copyright 2022 Bloomberg.

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