The COSCO Development was at the Port of Charleston for less than two days, but its visit last weekend is a lasting reminder that big container ships — and the millions of dollars in infrastructure needed to accommodate them — are now business as usual.
The Development's visit "marks a new era in the global container shipping industry," Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said in a statement.
The ship, the largest to visit the Port of Charleston, docked at Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant at about 11 a.m. Saturday. By the time it left at about 6 p.m. Sunday, two shifts of more than 100 International Longshoremen's Association workers and dozens of SPA employees had moved 2,910 cargo boxes on and off the vessel using large ship-to-shore cranes purchased specifically for the big ships.
It was the second-highest number of moves for a single ship at the Port of Charleston.
When the Development pulled out of Charleston Harbor, it was loaded with 11,406 cargo boxes headed to Hong Kong.
"Everything went smoothly," SPA spokeswoman Erin Dhand said of the Development's visit.
Charleston was the last stop on the ship's three-port tour. It first pulled into Port of Virginia on May 8, where workers unloaded about 1,500 cargo boxes. It then went to the Port of Savannah, where roughly 4,800 containers were loaded on and off the ship.
The 1,200-foot-long Development kicks off a weekly service by Ocean Alliance ships carrying between 11,000 and 13,000 cargo boxes, linking the Port of Charleston with Hong Kong, Yantian, Ningbo and Shanghai via an expanded Panama Canal.
Next up is the Cape Tainaro, which carries about 2,000 fewer containers than the Development. It's scheduled to arrive Saturday.
A second weekly service by the big ships — known as neo-Panamax vessels — will start later this year and SPA officials are already talking to shipping lines about bringing in a vessel that can carry 18,000 cargo boxes.
The Development's visit will be "the first of many significant milestones ahead for our port system," said state Sen. Larry Grooms, a Charleston Republican and chairman of a legislative commission that oversees the port.
Gov. Henry McMaster said the Development's visit "is a symbol of our state's competitiveness in the global marketplace," adding the Port of Charleston is "one of the most integral pieces to South Carolina's economic engine that continues to grow every day."
Vessels carrying 13,000 cargo boxes are seen as the new workhorse for containerized cargo shipments between Asia and the United States, replacing the 8,000-box ships that were mainstays just a few years ago. Last year's expansion of the Panama Canal coupled with shipping lines needing to move more cargo on fewer vessels has led to growing use of neo-Panamax ships.
"The sweet spot now is 13,000," industry consultant David Arsenault told the Journal of Commerce last week.
The Port of Charleston and competing maritime facilities along the East Coast have spent years preparing for the big ships. The SPA, for instance, is spending more than $1.5 billion on ongoing projects to deepen Charleston Harbor, build a new container terminal, reinforce a wharf, add refrigerated storage space and install ship-to-shore cranes tall enough to stack cargo boxes up to nine high atop a ship's deck.
"The deployment of vessels the size of the Development is the primary driver of our efforts to move the Charleston Harbor deepening project forward expeditiously," Barbara Melvin, the SPA's vice president of terminals and operations, said of the $509 million project to deepen the harbor to 52 feet. Once completed, Charleston will have the East Coast's deepest navigational channel, "allowing us to handle bigger vessels loaded with heavy export cargo," Melvin said.
The Development visited Charleston as the port has been announcing record cargo volumes. Nearly 1.8 million containers have moved across the SPA's terminals since the fiscal year started on July 1 — a 10.2 percent increase over the previous year's totals. The SPA's inland port in Greer has handled 27.6 percent more cargo than last year.
The port described the increase as "broad-based growth with a healthy balance" of imports and exports.