The Port of Long Beach is going big – really big – to get a competitive advantage in handling cargo.

Larger cranes are on the way to meet the demands of the shipping industry, which is favoring increasingly bigger vessels.

The need for taller cranes was accented when the largest container ship ever to traverse North American waters, French shipping line CMA CGM’s Benjamin Franklin, sailed into port Feb. 18.

While the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are among the few U.S. ports that can harbor such a megaship – it’s 1,300 feet long – the height is a problem; the cranes used to unload cargo containers are not tall enough to reach the very top.

“Ports in the U.S. are not quite ready to handle vessels like these week after week,” said Marc Bourdon, president of CMA CGM America. “And the cranes are the biggest challenge.”

The existing cranes can reach up to 150 feet, an equivalent of eight containers stacked on top of each other on the deck of the Benjamin Franklin. But that ship can stack 10 containers on deck, so taller cranes are on the way to cope with that ship and similar megaships that could dock there in the future.

“Obviously we want the highest level of productivity, so that the vessel can be turned around as quickly as possible, which allows us to move in and out faster,” Bourdon said.

The Benjamin Franklin is so big it cannot sail through the widened Panama Canal, which is set to open in the coming months. That gives West Coast ports one advantage in holding on to the crucial shipping trade between China and the United States, particularly if shipping lines adopt more megaships. But of course, that means the ports and terminal operators must upgrade to accommodate them.

New equipment needed

The terminal where the Benjamin Franklin was docked had only four cranes tall enough to handle a stack of eight containers. But ideally, a terminal should have 10 cranes tall enough to handle the stack of 10 containers to efficiently unload a vessel the size of the Benjamin Franklin, said Glenn Farren, director of operations at the Port of Long Beach.

He said that four giant multimillion-dollar super-post-Panamax cranes, which can reach the top of a stack of 10 containers, have been purchased and are on their way to the port from China, where they are manufactured by engineering company Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co. Two are due to arrive within weeks and two more early next year. He added that there are plans in development for several more. That implies it might be years before the port can handle a megaship with peak efficiency.

Farren said he did not know the exact price of the equipment. But the average price of such cranes typically is about $10 million each. A cheaper option is to retrofit existing cranes but that, too, comes with a hefty price tag of just under $3 million for each crane.

While investing in cranes will certainly speed things up, it’s not the Long Beach port that is paying the money but the companies that operate the terminals.

“The terminal operators own cranes and they will make a decision on whether they want to replace, raise or buy new cranes,” said Lee Peterson, spokesman for the Port of Long Beach.

Meanwhile, the Port of Los Angeles next door is in better position to handle megaships. It has 42 cranes – almost a half of the port’s 88 existing cranes – that can handle the Benjamin Franklin with containers stacked 10 high.

Four terminals have all necessary infrastructure, including large cranes, to accommodate megaships, said Arley Baker, spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles.

“We made a substantial effort to work with the carrier, so we could understand the sequencing of how the ship is loaded,” he said.

Deepening waterways

Even as they invest in high-reaching cranes, the ports must also dredge their channels deeper to accommodate the megaships to stay ahead of competition.

“I think it’s worth the investment because the industry is evolving towards this size of the larger ship,” Farren said.

At 76 feet, the port of Long Beach has the deepest channel in North America, but the depth at dockside is not always great enough for a ship the size of the Benjamin Franklin. For large vessels, the depth needs to be up to 49.2 feet.

In the next few months, the port will open three terminals that will be capable of handling gigantic container ships, close to the size of the Benjamin Franklin. The first of those will be Middle Harbor terminal, which will be able to handle such ships starting in April.

“Soon we will have terminals that can operate the largest ships in the world, even larger than Benjamin Franklin,” Farren said.

The Port of Los Angeles has spent $372 million in dredging to handle the megaships.

CMA CGM launched its first megaship in 2012. By the end of last year, the company operated six such vessels in Asia and Europe.

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