Videos of the Benjamin Franklin's visit.
As recently as six months ago, the Port of Long Beach didn’t expect to host ultra-large container vessels like the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin in the next five years.
“In November, CMA CGM came to us and asked, ‘How soon can you receive the ‘Benjamin Franklin?’” said Port Director of Tenant Services and Operations Glenn Farren.
The answer ended up being sooner than Port officials might have thought possible. The Benjamin Franklin, the largest container vessel ever to come to North America, visited SSA Marine’s Pacific Container Terminal (PCT) from Feb. 18-24, loading and off-loading almost 13,000 containers. The figure is a staggering two-and-half times more than Long Beach’s already world-leading 5,000 containers moved during a typical vessel call.
A lot of preparation went into the Benjamin Franklin’s stay. Chassis and trains were queued to speed the rapid movement of containers from the docks inland to warehouses locally and across the country. Scuba divers toiled in the deep to remove parking blocks, lashing poles and other miscellaneous debris from the harbor bottom. And late-year maintenance dredging of the Pier J turning basin ensured the pilots could maneuver the massive ship into Berth J268. Crane work was also required, with PCT raising some of its cranes from 126 feet to 152 feet.
To their credit, PCT had that last task covered, even before the Ben Franklin’s surprise visit became a possibility.
“Luckily, the crane raising was already in progress,” Farren said. "The operations team at PCT has always done a great job of looking ahead and preparing for the future."
Why did the world’s third-largest shipping line send one of the so-called big ships to Long Beach years before they were anticipated? Testing the Port’s ability to handle a vessel of the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin’s size was one reason. The 18,000-TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) ship is more than 25 percent larger by capacity than anything the Port had handled before.
Stagnant economies in China and Europe were another factor. More and more, ocean carriers are routing larger ships to the West Coast because it’s more profitable than the Asia-to-Europe trade.
The price of a container move from China to Europe has dropped to less than $100 in the last 18 months, Port of Long Beach CEO Jon Slangerup told Tie Lines last month. Shipping costs between Asia and the United States are running between $800 and $900 per container.
“That’s why you’re seeing the 18,000-TEU vessels here way, way in advance of what we were planning for,” Slangerup said. “It’s not profitable to fill up a ship of that size as rates drop toward $50 per container.”
The Benjamin Franklin also officially entered service in Long Beach on Feb. 19 during an inauguration ceremony hosted by CMA CGM and attended by hundreds of elected leaders, port officials and industry executives.
In more big ship firsts, the Port of Long Beach will become the first and only seaport in North America able to handle an 18,000-TEU ship fully loaded when Long Beach Container Terminal opens Middle Harbor in April.
The $1.3 billion automated Middle Harbor terminal — nearly all-electric, near zero emissions — will be the most technologically advanced in the Western Hemisphere and stand as a green, highly-productive model for the shipping industry. When fully completed in 2020, Middle Harbor will be able to move 3.3 million TEUs a year, and handle 24,000-TEU ships.
The Port has an ongoing $4 billion capital program to modernize facilities to bring long-term, environmentally sustainable growth.