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Prime No More: International shipping as we know it wouldn’t exist without this


March, 2017

M. DeHart

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Malcom McLean at railing in Port Newark, 1957

Source: Maersk Line

Trade is an integral part of the world economy.

Cargo ships cross every ocean, bringing with them needed (and wanted) items from faraway lands.  New post-Panamax vessels carry ever larger loads, and ports around the world are expanding to meet demands. Part of that expansion, and an important part of the cargo industry’s history, are the hundreds of dredging projects. Imagine what the world would be like if this kind of shipping never developed. Amazon Prime’s two day shipping wouldn’t exist.

Less than a hundred years ago shipping was drastically different from what it is today.

Break bulk shipping was the name of the game, where dozens of men spent long hours walking on and off the ships, carrying large sacks or unwieldy boxes. This method of shipping was prone to a high theft rate, along with high labor and time costs. Then the trucking mogul Malcom McLean came into the picture. His idea of using shipping containers instead of break bulk made intermodal cargo transportation possible. Since then, cargo ships have made transoceanic shipping an efficient and regular routine in the trade world.

Shipping companies thrive on lowering costs by packing as much cargo as possible onto one ship to decrease the number of round trips, therefore leading to increasingly larger ships. Vessel sizes have increased so much that in the past few years the Panama Canal had to undergo a $5.2 billion expansion project to accommodate for the newest ships.

To stay ahead in international trade, ports are fighting to keep up.

Take the Port of Baltimore. After the third Panama Canal lane opened, ports on the Atlantic were finally exposed to the super-sized ships that used to be only available to their Pacific counterparts. However, with ships growing ever larger, the Atlantic ports had to prepare for their incoming vessels.  The Port of Baltimore was one of these such places.  Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called the Port of Baltimore’s expansion to a 50-foot-deep canal a “30-year overnight success,” which took the course of six governorships to complete(1). The port now contains 5 public and 12 private terminals, along with 7 post-Panamax and 4 super-post-Panamax cranes for onloading and off-loading containers(2). The renovations elevated the Port of Baltimore into being one of the only four Eastern U.S. ports that can take ships of these sizes.

Even after the initial construction and expansions, dredging plays an important role in the shipping industry.  Ports need regular upkeep in order to ensure that waters remain deep enough for ships to pass through. Without careful monitoring of the port’s canals and terminals, post-Panamax and super-post-Panamax cargo carriers would be unable to dock, and potentially thousands of jobs would be lost. 

Next time you order something from China or Japan just think: Thank God for Dredging.

Port of Baltimore Pier

  1. http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/mdmanual/01glance/html/port.html
  2. http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/ports-rail/bs-md-container-ship-arrival-20160719-story.html
  3. http://www.universalcargo.com/how-a-box-changed-history-the-shipping-container-story/


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