Stack 'em higher and tighter.
That's been the mantra at the Port of Charleston's container terminals in recent months, as more cargo boxes are making their way from Asia to the East Coast through the expanded Panama Canal even as the real estate where those containers are stored hasn't grown.
A report last week by PR News Service, which covers the container shipping industry, shows the cargo capacity of Asian-based vessels visiting East Coast ports grew almost 24 percent in the past year — to more than 125,000 containers per week.
Starting in May, Charleston will get its second weekly visit from a "neo-Panamax" service capable of carrying 14,000 containers. A third is likely by the end of this year.
And industry consultant Alphaliner reported a record number of ultra-large container ships — those carrying between 14,000 and 21,000 containers — are scheduled for delivery this year, with some of that capacity undoubtedly bound for the East Coast.
All of that has the State Ports Authority studying ways to reconfigure the container yard at its Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant to make better use of the roughly 250 acres where cargo can be stored. Already, taller cranes can stack the metal boxes higher and in a tighter configuration. And some offices are being moved to make more efficient use of space.
The extra square footage is needed as the SPA set a record for containerized cargo with 1.23 million boxes in 2017. A further 6 percent increase is forecast for the current year.
Next month, the SPA's board of directors will get a detailed look at those reconfiguration plans and a new estimate of just how many containers can fit in the yards at Wando Welch and the North Charleston Terminal on the Cooper River. The SPA has previously put container capacity at 2.8 million per year, split between those terminals.
Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO, said he won't give specifics about the growth in capacity for competitive reasons, but "it's not insignificant."
"We certainly have more capacity than what we've thought we had up to now," he said.
The SPA's future Leatherman Terminal at the former Navy base in North Charleston will be able to store about 1.4 million containers a year at full build-out — but the first phase of that $762 million project isn't scheduled to open until 2020.
One of the SPA's biggest headaches at Wando Welch — a wharf refurbishment project that has shut down one of three berths for more than two years — is finally drawing to a close, and that will help the terminal operate with more flexibility and efficiency. With bigger ships occupying berth space for up to 24 hours, having the full 3,800 feet of berth space will help ease the logjam just as a second wave of neo-Panamax vessels starts to visit.
Newsome said the shipping lines haven't been happy about juggling their schedules to find berth space, but they've "put up with it" without too many complaints.
"The day we have the third berth back will be a very happy day in our lives," Newsome said of the nearly $63 million project to strengthen and upgrade the wharf.
The project will actually wrap up around the first of April, but the arrival of two new 155-foot-tall ship-to-shore cranes at about the same time will delay the availability of the entire third berth. China's ZPMC, which built the cranes, will need about 500 feet of space to erect the first one and 250 feet for the second. The SPA hopes both of the super-sized cranes will be in place by June.
And, like their existing counterparts at Wando Welch — a pair of 155-footers christened Heavy Metal and CraneBob Blue Pants — the SPA plans to hold a crane-naming contest for school-age children once the new cranes are in place.