Super-Sized Mega-Ship Making Its Way to California Ports


CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin

The largest container ship ever to call in the United States will be arriving at three California ports to test the waters on how the facilities handle a megaship of this size.

The CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, a new vessel launched by French shipping line CMA CGM on Dec. 10, has the capacity to carry nearly 18,000 20-foot-long containers—making it among the biggest container ships in the world.

The large vessel, which is 1,320 feet long, is making its maiden voyage by sailing into the Port of Los Angeles on Dec. 26, where it will dock at the APM Terminals—Pier 400—one of the largest terminals in the United States.

Until now, the largest container ship to call at the Port of Los Angeles carried 13,000 containers. That was the Cosco Development, which visited in June 2014.

Normally, the larger container ships docking at the Port of Los Angeles haul between 8,000 and 10,000 containers at a time, but the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin is nearly twice as big. “It is a big deal for us,” said Phillip Sanfield, the port’s director of media relations. “We have been big-ship ready and active here. That is one of the prime reasons they selected to come here.”

After unloading its cargo in Los Angeles, the megaship will sail north to the Port of Oakland, arriving Dec. 31 for a one-day stay. “Nothing this big has ever been seen in our country,” said Port of Oakland Executive Director Chris Lytle.

Then, early next year, the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin is expected to visit the Port of Long Beach.

In the past, container ships of this size have plied the waters between Asia and Europe. But with the European economy in the doldrums, shipping lines are exploring other routes. “A few years ago, we thought the 18,000 container ships wouldn’t be coming for several years, and now they could be coming more regularly in the months and years to come because the economic outlook in Europe is pretty weak,” said Art Wong, assistant director of communications at the Port of Long Beach.

All three ports have been working on infrastructure improvement to accommodate the new generation of vessels that need 50-foot-deep channels and berths to dock. Ports across the country have been racing to make sure they have adequate water draft, berth sizes, terminal space, rail connections and larger cranes. The Port of Los Angeles, which has 86 super cranes needed to unload the larger ships, believes it will have no problem handling the bigger ship.

“Together with the Board of Harbor Commissioners, we appreciate the confidence CMA CGM has instilled in the Port of Los Angeles and the opportunities this vessel call will provide to APM Terminals, longshore labor and supply-chain partners,” said Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka in a statement. “The arrival of the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin signals a new chapter in Pacific Rim trade flow and supply-chain optimization.”

Earlier this year, APM Terminals processed three vessels each carrying 13,000 containers. The terminal moved more than 38,000 containers over an eight-day period.

Bigger ships may be more cost efficient for shipping lines, but they can create havoc at the ports if there are not enough longshore workers, cranes and chassis to get the goods off the ships and onto waiting trucks and railcars.

Last year and early this year, the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach were hammered with a chassis shortage that only exacerbated a slowdown staged by longshore workers during their new negotiations.

Earlier this year, the four companies that control about 95 percent of the chassis at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex launched a “gray” chassis pool. Under this system, truckers can pick up and drop off chassis at any of the cargo-container terminals at the two ports.

Before the gray chassis pool was formed, chassis were divided up into different pools run by different leasing companies and had to be returned to those pools, making chassis scarce at some terminals and abundant at others.

Port officials say the new chassis system has created a marked improvement in finding the wheeled frames used to transport containers.