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Credit: KUOW

Mega-Ships Big Opportunity For Northwest Ports

One of the world’s largest ships arrived at the Port of Tacoma Sunday morning.

The Zim Djibouti slipped in at dawn, carrying loads of goods for big box stores. The vessel is 10,000 TEUs in size, meaning it holds 5,000 shipping containers. When the Zim Djibouti appeared on Sunday, fresh from a port in Vancouver, B.C., containers were 18 across on its upper deck.

The ship is part of a new wave of cargo ships emerging from Asian shipyards. They’re super-sized to save fuel costs.Don Esterbrook, chief operating officer at the Port of Tacoma, said a vessel the size of the Zim Djibouti can cut fuel costs by a quarter. That’s enough to drive shipping companies to sell off smaller vessels, order new vessels from shipyards in China and South Korea, and even share space with competitors to keep the new ships full.

"If you and I would have had this conversation even five years ago I would have said it just doesn’t make sense for these vessels to get any bigger,” Esterbrook said. “But now I’m not going to say anything."

The Port of Tacoma and its partners are spending millions to install huge cranes capable of unloading these ships. Esterbrook says just one crane costs $20 million. The upside is that a single ship brings in more goods, which need to be moved and stored locally before getting to their destinations.

But on a tour boat passing the Zim Djibouti, some tourists wondered about the resources used to build the great ships. Sean Cornell asked whether the energy used to produce the vessels offset the fuel economies. “How much fuel do you spend making this ship?” he asked. "It makes you wonder when they’re going to stop building – when is too big?"

Ruth King of Tacoma wondered if the port had missed a chance to buy American cranes. "How come they’re made in China and Germany and everywhere else? How come they’re not made in the USA?"

The cranes used by Washington United Terminals, where the Zim Djibouti docked, were built in China and assembled here. The Port of Tacoma says there hasn’t been a US manufacturer of port cranes since the 1970s.

Both Seattle and Tacoma are now equipped to handle the mega-ships. So are the Vancouver, B.C., ports. Esterbrook said shippers have begun to cut down on the number of stops they’re willing to make. And that could mean losing business to ports to the north.

"We need to be competitive in the Pacific Northwest region as a whole," he said. "As port rationalization happens with the ocean carriers, they’re still going to call a Pacific Northwest port. You just need to be relevant for our region."