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Arrival of largest container ship ever on East Coast portends things to come for Port of Virginia
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Arrival of largest container ship ever on East Coast portends things to come for Port of Virginia

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More than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted shipping of products worldwide, the arrival on May 23 of the largest seagoing container vessel ever in Virginia signals a new era for the Port of Virginia.

Port officials trumpeted the arrival of the CMA CGM Marco Polo in Portsmouth as the culmination of years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in the port to upgrade its capacity.

“What we expect is that this is just a continuation of a trend,” said Stephen A. Edwards, who became the CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority in January.

The Marco Polo vessel is owned by the international shipping and logistics company CMA CGM. The ship has a capacity of 16,022 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, which is roughly equivalent to 8,000 40-foot truck trailers of goods. TEUs is the unit of the capacity of a container ship.

The ship is three-and-a-half football fields long. It would be roughly the height of the Eiffel Tower if it was stood on its end.

“We think about it in terms of our customers,” said Ed Aldridge, president of CMA CGM America. “Every one of those containers is a customer we focus on. There are over 10,000 customers on that ship.”

The Marco Polo vessel is the largest container ship ever to call on the East Coast. In addition to Hampton Roads, it made stops at the ports in New Jersey; Charleston, S.C.; and Savannah, Ga.

The ship’s arrival underscores both the surging volume handled by ports nationwide as COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease, as well as the billions of dollars spent by port systems to accommodate these larger ships.

The Port of Virginia has spent about $800 million in upgrades, including installing new cranes capable of loading or unloading larger vessels.

Still ahead is a $350 million dredging project to deepen the port from 50 to 55 feet.

“To put that in perspective, 50 feet is the same as New York and Charleston [harbors],” Edwards said. “By going to 55 feet, that will make us the deepest on the East Coast. That gives advantages to us at the Port of Virginia.”

“If we are trading with China, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and South Asia, it really means we are going to have wide geographic coverage to importers and exporters,” Edwards said.

The ship’s arrival at the Port of Virginia eclipses a record set in April by a container vessel with the capacity to handle 15,072 TEUs.

“In a couple of years, we will see 18,000 TEUs and ultimately ships of 20,000 TEUs size,” Edwards said.

The Port of Virginia and other East Coast ports spent money to deepen the channels and other improvements to allow for bigger vessels — most spurred by the expansion of the Panama Canal that allowed larger ships to pass through.

The Los Angeles port has been able to accommodate ships that can carry the equivalent of 23,000 20-foot containers, but the East Coast ports still can’t handle boats that big.

The pandemic led to a backup of ships at some ports, but Edwards said the Port of Virginia has seen smooth operations.

Container volume at U.S. ports lagged a year ago during the height of the pandemic as manufacturing slowed, though the demand for goods remained fairly strong as travel and leisure dollars were shifted to home improvement projects and online purchases.

Since then, volume has come roaring back. Beginning last August, monthly container volume for the 10 busiest U.S. ports has surpassed 2019 levels, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Port of Virginia is the nation’s fifth-largest port.

“There is unprecedented consumer demand,” said Aldridge with CMA CGM America. “It has put pressure across the entire supply chain. We have ships that are over-subscribed.

“The situation is improving,” he said. “During these difficult times, we as a company have done some outstanding things to support our valuable customers here in the U.S. We have upsized our vessels.

“We have purchased a couple of hundred thousand containers,” he said. “We are working closely with vendors to push and pull cargo through the supply chain. We have also purchased airplanes, and we now provide solutions for our customers via air.”

jblackwell@timesdispatch.com

(804) 775-8123

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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