Optimism is washing over the maritime industry after a long drought, propelled by several months of double-digit growth and a new service linking the Port of Charleston and Asia.
While no one is predicting cargo volume will immediately snap back to pre-recession levels, the latest developments suggest the port is starting to regain some of the business it lost as the global downturn choked off demand for goods and commodities.
Against this slow-rising tide, the State Ports Authority this week welcomed the biggest container vessel to ever tie up to its docks, providing an oversized glimpse into how the industry is changing.
The agency on Tuesday reported its third consecutive year-over-year monthly gain in containerized freight, which was up more than 24 percent in March compared to the same period of 2009. Cargo volume last month was 11.3 percent higher than in February.
"They're both on the right track," said Jim Newsome, president and chief executive officer of the SPA.
The agency attributed the recent rise in container traffic to the restocking of inventories by recession-ravaged businesses, higher export demand from places like Asia and the port's efforts to attract more business.
"We've got some good momentum, no question," said Paul McClintock, the SPA's top sales executive.
But McClintock also cautioned that the recent robust gains are not sustainable, saying most experts are calling for growth at most U.S. ports to level off and to average between 3 percent and 6 percent for all of 2010.
Charleston could do better than most of its peers, though, if for no other reason than its cargo numbers fell further and faster during the recession.
Over the past three months, business on the local waterfront is up 10 percent. But even with the latest increases, container volume remains down significantly. It's off about 18 percent since the SPA's fiscal year began July 1 compared to the year-earlier period.
On the upside, the agency said it has started replacing some of the business it has lost. In the past year, about 10 ship services have pulled out of Charleston, but four have been added.
The latest, announced Tuesday, is expected to bolster trade between South Carolina and some keys markets in Asia.
Charleston will be the last weekly outbound U.S. call -- and the only one among the nation's South Atlantic ports -- on CSAV's new America Express Service. The deal with the
Chilean line will link the region directly to markets in northern China and South Korea.
The first Charleston call from the company's America Express Service is set for June 24 at the Wando Welch Terminal, where this week another vessel showed where the global port business is heading.
On Monday, Mediterranean Shipping Co.'s 1,094-foot-long Northern Juvenile became the largest container ship to ever call on Charleston.
It can carry the equivalent of 8,444 20-foot-long containers, including 17 across its breadth.
The Northern Juvenile left Charleston about 2 a.m. Tuesday, taking the place of the slightly smaller MSC Rita in the SPA's record books.
The significance of these arrivals is that they show that the area's commercial waterways are deep enough to accommodate the growing wave of "mega-ships" entering the trade. That will become a critical attribute when the widening of the Panama Canal is completed in about four years, SPA officials said.
Also, as the maritime industry recovers from the recession, the large but highly efficient container ships will likely replace many of the smaller vessels now in use, officials said.
McClintock noted that the SPA is now targeting shippers of heavy commodities, such as grains and forest products, to capitalize on what it views as its primary competitive asset.
"We got the deeper water," he said.
Reach John McDermott at 937-5572 or firstname.lastname@example.org.