Maersk move a boon for Charleston City stands to see more containerships

Maersk Line is one of the Port of Charleston’s biggest customers.

The Port of Charleston stands to gain more, and even larger, containerships in coming months, officials say.

That’s because Maersk Line, the world’s largest container shipper, recently announced plans to use the Suez Canal instead of the Panama Canal for its Asia-to-U.S. East Coast routes.

Jim Newsome, chief executive officer of the State Ports Authority, hinted that Charleston is poised to gain more business from that decision.

Newsome stopped short of citing exact details, but said Maersk is shaking up the highly competitive maritime industry.

“Not all lines have enough big ships to make that happen this year, but Maersk’s leadership in this respect will create a compelling challenge for the rest of the industry,” Newsome said Thursday.

Newsome added that shipping companies will not wait for the completion of the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2015 to send larger vessels to the East Coast.

“Small ships on the Asia/U.S. trade are not economical,” Newsome said in an e-mail.

Bloomberg News reported this week that Maersk plans to bypass the Panama Canal due to rising costs, saying fees for using the Central America shortcut have tripled in the past five years to $450,000 per passage for a vessel carrying 4,500 containers.

Allison Skipper, a spokeswoman for SPA, said the Port of Charleston “plans to see larger Maersk ships starting in April.”

One of the first will be Axel Maersk, which is scheduled to be in Charleston on April 3. The 1,155-foot-long ship would be the longest container hauler to call on Charleston, eclipsing the 1,105-foot-long MSC Chicago, which docked in the region earlier this year.

The Chicago technically is smaller than the MSC Sindy, which called on Charleston in August 2011. While the Sindy is about the same length as the Chicago, it is configured to hold the equivalent of 9,580 20-foot-long shipping containers, or about 380 more than MSC Chicago and 270 more than Axel Maersk.

The emergence of larger vessels has prompted a lot jockeying by U.S. ports looking to dredge their harbors to accommodate the behemoths and win more business for the Asia trade.

The SPA has been touting its ability to accommodate larger vessels. Charleston’s shipping channel is 45 feet deep, but the goal is to take it to 50 feet. It can receive big ships that draft 48 feet and carry the equivalent of more than 9,500 20-foot shipping containers when the tide is high enough.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.