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Charleston port preparing to host its latest biggest mega-ship

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CMA CGM Marco Polo

The CMA CGM Marco Polo container ship, capable of carrying 16,022 20-foot cargo boxes, will be the biggest ship to visit the Port of Charleston when it docks in May. CMA CGM/Provided

In a maritime industry where size increasingly matters, the Port of Charleston is getting ready to take things up a notch.

The CMA CGM Marco Polo is scheduled to call on the port in May, eclipsing the French line's Brazil vessel as the largest container ship to visit Charleston and the entire East Coast.

The Marco Polo can carry up to the equivalent of 16,022 20-foot long containers measured. The Brazil, which first visited the port in September, can hold 15,072.

The Marco Polo, named for the famed 13th Century explorer and inspiration for a popular swimming pool game, is roughly 100 feet longer and 10 feet wider than the Brazil.

It will be a part of the Columbus Loop service, which originates in China and also stops at ports in New York, Norfolk, Va., and Savannah. The Brazil and another similar-sized ship are also also a part of that service, which travels via the Suez Canal and is part of the Ocean Alliance of cargo vessels.

When it made its debut in 2012, the Marco Polo was the largest container vessel in the world. It has since been overtaken by ships able to carry 20,000 or more cargo boxes. Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, has said one of those bigger ships — able to haul 18,000 or more 20-foot containers — will eventually call on the maritime agency's new Leatherman Terminal, scheduled to open this month.

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Among the Marco Polo's superlatives:

  • It is longer than five Airbus A380 aircraft placed nose to tail;
  • It has a 21-knot thrust equivalent to 10 jet engines;
  • It produces enough power for a town of 16,000 residents; and
  • It can fit an aircraft carrier in its hull.

The Marco Polo's specific arrival date hasn't been set, and port officials will provide further details when its dock time is confirmed. 

The SPA has invested $1.7 billion in upgrades to Charleston's port — including taller ship-to-shore cranes, a refurbished wharf at Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant and the new Leatherman Terminal — to accommodate the bigger and heavier container ships that haul cargo around the world. That's in addition to $558 million the state and federal governments are spending to deepen Charleston Harbor to 52 feet so those vessels can visit at any time, regardless of tide.

Newsome said the deployment of ultra-large container ships has been the dominant theme of the industry in recent years. He noted that the biggest vessel to visit South Carolina 20 years ago or so had about a quarter of the cargo capacity that the modern-day mega-carriers have.

"Every aspect of a port changed with the need to handle those ships efficiently. ... We couldn't have done it if we hadn't invested in the new terminal and at Wando," he told legislators during a Senate Transportation Committee hearing this week. 

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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