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Mobtown Beat

Becalmed

Ships idle for days on end just south of Bay Bridge

By Lee Gardner | Posted 4/8/2009

At nearly 12,000 tons displacement, the cargo ship Höegh Trekker is hard for even the casual observer to miss. Anyone who lives or works along the stretch of the Chesapeake Bay just south of the Bay Bridge (or commutes over the Bay Bridge) would have seen the "roll on/roll off" car-carrier vessel, or RORO, every day for most of the month of March, anchored near the head of a line of as many as 10 similarly stationary cargo ships that extends for several miles down the bay.

Cargo traffic anchored south of the Bay Bridge isn't uncommon; ships frequently hold up in what's known as the Annapolis Anchorage for a few hours or days when on their way into or out of the Port of Baltimore. But spotting the same vessels, such as the Höegh Trekker or the nearby Frisia, day in and day out for weeks is somewhat unusual. On March 24, the Annapolis Capital even ran an online photo essay on the "growing number" of ships anchored offshore. The floating parking lot turns out to be, perhaps, yet another sign of the global economic downturn.

"In the good times, ships might sail right past [the Annapolis Anchorage] and go on in" to Baltimore to load or unload, says James Perduto, vice president of marketing for Höegh Autoliners, the company that owns and operates the Trekker. "These days it's a whole different situation. We have vessels all around the world sitting and waiting."

Not all of the ships that wait in the Annapolis Anchorage wait long. According to MaritimeTraffic.com, a web site that uses GPS information to track vessels, the Queen Lily arrived from Europe and dropped anchor on March 23 only to move on to a dock in Curtis Bay on March 30. But others, such as the Tamoyo Maiden, spend weeks idle in the Chesapeake. The ship sailed into the bay from Mexico on March 5 with its hold full of raw sugar bound for the Domino facility in the Inner Harbor. When it arrived it was told by Domino to wait because the plant wasn't ready to receive the delivery because of "high stocks or whatever," says Konstantin Zorin, director of operations for the liner division of Tamoyo Maiden's owner TBS International. A delay of a few days turned into weeks, costing what Zorin would only characterize as "thousands" of dollars thanks to the downtime.

When reached by phone on March 25, Zorin seems impatient with questions about whether or not the delay is unusual and offers that "the same is happening when[ever] ships discharge at private terminals" such as Domino's. William Manning, dock superintendent for Domino, says the delay was due to the need to "empty one side of the storage shed out--90 million pounds [of raw sugar]" before a new shipment could be properly stored. The Tamoyo Maiden finally got the go-ahead to sail in and unload its cargo on March 27.

Some ships are still waiting, however. The Kom sailed into the bay on March 14 and stopped short of the port at the Annapolis Anchorage. The Tellus has been sitting in the anchorage since it left Baltimore on March 10; the Frisia has been sitting since March 6, just after it briefly entered and left the port. As of press time, all have been floating in the Annapolis Anchorage ever since, and they have been joined by the Podhale, which arrived at the anchorage from Brazil by way of Philadelphia on March 29. (Attempts to reach the owners of the Queen Lily, Kom, Tellus, and Frisia were unsuccessful as of press time.)

"We've been getting these calls for months now," Maryland Port Administration spokesman J.B. Hanson says of inquiries about cargo traffic slowing at the port. He contends that the number of ships currently anchored in the bay is nothing remarkable; they're simply "awaiting orders from their company on where to go next," whether it's into the port to deliver or pick up cargo or out of the bay on to their next destination. In either event, the ships' presence signifies nothing in terms of the port's health. "We're open for business," he says.

A call to the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay, the organization that tracks traffic in and around the port of Philadelphia, receives a similarly unruffled answer. "We're not seeing that [ships are] delayed in port at all," says Lisa Himber, vice president of the Maritime Exchange, adding that a scan of recent traffic reports and polling the Exchange's considerable "institutional memory" turns up nothing unusual. "Traffic is down, as it is everywhere, but the [anchorage] situation is normal," she says.

Annapolis Harbormaster Ric Dahlgren says that it's not unusual to spot "one or two" ships anchored in the waters off the state's capital, but he hesitates to characterize seven or eight ships as out of the ordinary. He does offer that "If trade has slowed down, then that is as good a place as any to anchor and save fuel until they figure out where they're going next."

Asked if trade has slowed down, Höegh's Perduto says, "Undoubtedly. Different segments [of the shipping industry] have been hit differently, but all have been hit hard." In the case of the car-carriers that Perduto's company specializes in, he says, "All the major RORO carriers have reduced their frequency of sailing, all around the world. And it's really down to the consumer."

The drop in consumer demand for new automobiles has led to a marked drop in business at ports such as Baltimore's. As The Sun reported in February, the volume of cars moving through the port fell by 15 percent last year and in January the state spent $5.2 million for more than 14 acres in an industrial park near the port to store the accumulating backstock of cars that in past would have been quickly whisked off to dealers.

Perduto says that while some shippers are pulling vessels out of active duty, Höegh is responding to the slowdown in car shipments by trying to shift its ROROs to carrying "project cargo" and "high-and-heavy cargo"--oversized industrial machinery and oversized vehicles (e.g. harvesters), respectively. Other shipping companies are trying to do the same, of course. "There's still cargo moving, but it's competitive," Perduto says. "We're trying to get our fingers in there."

Perduto says that he expects that sometime in early April the Trekker will proceed into the Port of Baltimore to pick up a load of high-and-heavy equipment and used cars bound for western Africa. But until then, it sits.

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