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January 5, 2016 11:00 AM, EST
Largest Containership to Call on US Sails Home

Port of Oakland, California, leaders exulted Jan. 4 over success of the maiden visit of the mega containership CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, which tested the port's years of planning and millions of dollars spent to bring in such large ships.

"This was a milestone event," said John Driscoll, port maritime director. "We proved the Port of Oakland can handle big ships efficiently."

However, industry sources say it was a public relations visit and a test that did not answer questions about the capacity of West Coast ports to handle routine visits of fully loaded giant ships. The Benjamin Franklin carried a far from full cargo, came in on a slow holiday weekend in excellent weather and with intensive preparation.

At 3,100 feet long, the ship was the largest container vessel to ever call on the United States. It arrived on New Year's Eve and left at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 4 headed for China. It is expected back in February.

A fortuitous circumstance aided the port in its mission. It had rented time on a navigation simulator at the Maritime Academy in Vallejo, California, before learning in midsummer that the French shipping company CMA CGM planned to route the Benjamin Franklin from Asia to the West Coast.

"They told us last year this was for Asia-Europe trade, but that's in the tank now" because of the European economic slowdown, Driscoll said. "We were thinking it would come in three to five years." The Cal Maritime simulation was like a high-tech video game, Driscoll said. Nineteen bay shipping pilots used it to study moving such a big ship on the bay.

CMA CGM said that working a ship the size of the Benjamin Franklin "requires long and meticulous preparation to guarantee a flawless call and fluid operations in as little time as possible."

The company said it worked for several weeks with the port and the Northwest Seaport Alliance, the San Francisco Bar Pilots, Ports America Outer Harbor (a port terminal operator), railroads, trucking companies and others in the maritime supply chain.

Driscoll, who rode the ship into the bay, said "it handled a little better than anticipated." Such ships are "like big sails in the water," he said, with many different components of tides, winds, weather and currents affecting their movement.

The ship came in with containers stacked six high although it can carry them twice as high. Three longshore worker crews of 20 to 23 people did some 2,100 "lifts" — moving one container on or off the ship — finishing the night of Jan. 3, he said.

"There really were no major surprises," Driscoll said.

The port expects to see the Franklin about every five weeks with its next voyage taking it to Long Beach, Oakland and Seattle.

Some maritime observers did not reflect the happy afterglow in Oakland.

One expert quoted in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 4 cautioned that the ideal conditions — the slow season and less than full cargo — did not test whether Oakland or Los Angeles would be up to routinely handling such ships.

"This is not normal operating conditions, to be able to set up and prepare for this vessel call," Paul Bingham, a trade economist with Economic Development Research Group Inc., told the newspaper.

"It's extremely unlikely that this could be sustained routinely," he said.

A shipping consulting firm concurred in remarks reported in the industry newsletter Ship and Bunker.

"U.S. West Coast ports are not yet in a position to handle 18,000 [unit] containerships regularly and have much work to do in terms of improving productivity if they are to see them call on anything other than an ad hoc basis," Drewry Shipping Consultants Ltd. said.

The Port of Oakland has a more optimistic view.

"So long, 'Big Ben;' hurry back," it said in a news release Jan. 5.