NORTHSIDE -- Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. has pushed back by a few months -- and several miles -- thoughts of bringing ships to Jacksonville before its new $220 million terminal at Dames Point opens in early 2009.
In late 2007, Mitsui was considering starting service as early as this spring using Hamburg Süd's container handling services at Talleyrand Marine Terminal. Hamburg Süd, which handles cargo for its ships and Mediterranean Shipping Co.'s ships, said it was open to the idea and that its vessel rotation and use of space might be complementary.
Now, however, Mitsui is looking at arriving around July using the services of APM Terminals, a long-time tenant at Blount Island Marine Terminal. What hasn't changed is Mitsui's eagerness to be in Jacksonville as soon as possible.
"It is still our intention to start calling Jacksonville this summer pending further study of our Asia-U.S. East Coast service options and the strength of the market," said John Gurrad, Mitsui America vice president of business planning and e-commerce.
Mitsui has about four services that link Asia and the East Coast, Gurrad said.
Whether Mitsui ships begin calling at Jacksonville early will depend on the trans-Pacific market, in which Gurrad said his company has observed "some tailing off" this year. He's confident that if the market supports an early arrival, Mitsui and APM will have no trouble crafting an agreement.
Although Hamburg Süd indicated it could accommodate Mitsui, it eventually became clear that the Jacksonville Harbor channel in the St. Johns River was less hospitable.
The Jacksonville Port Authority had planned to conduct a computer simulation-based study with local river pilots to determine whether Mitsui's ships could safely navigate to Talleyrand.
Mitsui's ships that will be coming to Jacksonville are 965 feet long, about 120 feet longer than the longest ships calling at Jacksonville today.
Before the simulation was conducted, however, Mitsui asked the authority to alter the study's parameters to concentrate more on going to Blount Island and evaluating how to navigate the part of the channel that runs by the jetties, said Tim Murphy, the authority's senior director of engineering and construction.
In February, Murphy traveled with three pilots and four docking masters to the Maritime Institute of Training and Graduate Studies outside Baltimore to practice running the channel and docking at Blount Island. What they learned was that while navigating up the channel was not an issue, turning the ship to go back to sea was extremely challenging because the turning basin at Blount Island is 1,100 feet wide. That allows for less than 100 feet of clearance on either end of the ship while turning it.
"They were successful under perfect conditions, but it was very tight," Murphy said, adding that the pilots had time while at the institute to simulate navigating all the way to Talleyrand and encountered the same difficulty turning the ship. "They said they need a 1,500-foot turning basin."
As a result, the port authority has moved up its plans for building a turning basin at Dames Point for Mitsui's terminal, which will be operated by the company's subsidiary TraPac Inc. The turning basin had been scheduled for construction in late 2008, Murphy said, but now the authority is fast-tracking its completion.
On March 24, the authority's board approved a not-to-exceed-$2.5 million contract with dredging company Subaqueous LLC to create a 1,500-foot basin at Dames Point.
Murphy said finishing the turning basin by July shouldn't be a problem and that authority staff will ride the dredge frequently to monitor the contractor's performance.
The need for a turning basin now reinforces Mitsui's decision not to call at Talleyrand.
Having a basin at Dames Point for ships calling at Blount Island means those ships would have to travel up the river about two nautical miles to maneuver before heading to sea -- not ideal, but workable. Going to Talleyrand, however, would have necessitated backing ships from Talleyrand to Dames Point -- an eight-nautical-mile stretch with several bends, including the trickiest segment known as the Chaseville Turn.
Also, calling at Blount Island enables Mitsui to load more on its ships.
The channel has been deepened to 41 feet from the river mouth to mile marker 14.7, which includes where the channel passes Blount Island and Dames Point. From marker 14.7 to Talleyrand, the channel is 38 feet deep.
On average, an extra foot of draft can allow a container ship to carry about 1,800 tons of extra cargo, which equates to about 150 containers, authority Executive Director Rick Ferrin said.
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