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New Containerships in It for the Big Haul

World's largest cargo ships will be coming to the West Coast, and they will strain U.S. transport networks.

June 01, 2004|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Among the world's grand cargo ships, the Ningbo is truly super-sized.

When it arrives next week at the Port of Long Beach, the Ningbo will be the largest cargo ship ever to dock on the West Coast. Its reign will be short-lived: Shipping companies, busy cashing in on the international trade boom, keep one-upping one another by launching "the world's largest containership."

Already en route from China, the Ningbo, owned by Orient Overseas Container Line Ltd., can carry up to 4,030 standard-size, 40-foot-long shipping containers, or nearly 40% more than the average freighter. Industry experts say a ship the size of the Ningbo could generate up to $12 million in shipping fees per trip.

Everything about the vessel, save for its modest crew of 19, is oversize. One-fifth of a mile long, the Ningbo is wide enough at its beam to cover 11 freeway lanes and taller than a 15-story building. It is powered by a 93,000-horsepower engine and a 75-ton propeller.

Only three ports on the West Coast -- Los Angeles, Long Beach and Seattle -- can handle ships of this size. And with more on the way, the strain on overloaded railroad and trucking networks that carry cargo in and out of the ports will only increase.

"This is just the first wave," said Jim McKenna, chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Assn., which negotiates labor contracts and handles payroll for terminal operators and shipping lines at all West Coast ports.

The Ningbo's status as the largest containership on transpacific routes probably will end in July, when China Shipping Container Lines Co.'s slightly larger vessel, the Asia, with a capacity of 4,050 containers, will dock for the first time at the Port of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, South Korea's Samsung Heavy Industries is constructing eight ships that each are capable of carrying 4,750 containers. The shipping line Washington Marine Corp. plans to begin using them on routes between Asia and Europe by 2006.

This trend of jumbo ships dates to 1988, when the first freight ships too large to pass through the Panama Canal -- ones carrying up to 2,170 freight containers -- went into service. As the years passed, big cargo ships kept getting bigger.

The Ningbo is the sixth of an eventual fleet of 12 similar-size containerships being built by Samsung Heavy Industries for Orient Overseas Container Line, or OOCL, at a total price of about $1 billion. OOCL plans to use the Ningbo and her sister ships to replace older ships that have a maximum capacity of 2,750 containers each.

The Ningbo, named after China's fifth-largest seaport, will sail a regular route between China and the U.S. On the ship's maiden voyage, cargo will include electronic goods for Sony Corp. and toys for Mattel Inc., plus furniture, apparel and textiles.

When the Ningbo leaves Long Beach on a 12-day trip back to China, some containers will be empty, OOCL says. But the ship will be heavier going outbound because it will carry wastepaper from all over the U.S., along with hay from the Pacific Northwest, cotton from Tennessee, resins and scrap metal.

"You might love [smaller ships] for sentimental reasons like a fine old car, but in the long run, they are just too costly to operate," said M.K. Wong, director of marketing for Hong Kong-based OOCL.

Much like the latest tractor-trailer rigs on the nation's highways, new giant freight ships are much more efficient. They also burn fuel that emits less sulfur. A special hull, Wong said, allows the Ningbo to maintain a relatively high cruising speed of 25 knots.

This generation of larger ships not only carry significantly more cargo, but they also require only minimal cost increases to cover maintenance, fuel and crew expenses. As a result, these big ships can save $4 million per voyage or more, according to the American Assn. of Port Authorities.

Ships like the Ningbo rely on satellite navigation and can be operated from a single computer terminal. On any given day at sea, crew members might spot only a few colleagues during their shifts because computer terminals are scattered throughout the ship, including in the officers' cabins.

For all of the efficiency of these ships, their increasing size presents certain problems.

McKenna, the port labor negotiator, points out that ships as big as the Ningbo will require more labor on the docks.

"These ships will be in port three or four days instead of one or two."

In addition, the ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Seattle installed special cranes, at a cost of $5.5 million to $6.5 million each, with booms long enough to reach across the 17 or more rows of containers the ships haul.

Regional trade experts say the big ships also will place more pressure on the urban transportation networks around the ports.

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