In July, the Port of Tacoma’s Washington United Terminal was host to the largest ship ever to call in Tacoma, the Zim Djibouti, a 1,145-foot vessel carrying more than 10,000 container units.
But the port could be seeing even larger vessels calling at its Blair Waterway terminals now that a new study has shown the waterway can safely handle them.
That $40,000 study, paid for by the port and the Puget Sound Pilots organization, set firm conditions for allowing the so-called Ultra Large Container Ships to transit the Blair.
The study was commissioned at the prompting of several containership lines calling at the Washington United Terminal on the port’s Blair Waterway, said Lou Paulsen, director of strategic operations for the port.
Those conditions were determined in simulations at the Pacific Maritime Institute in Seattle.
The tests used a model of the Blair Waterway and a model of the MV Hamburg Express, a containership some 54 feet longer than the Zim Djibouti with a carrying capacity of more than 3,000 additional 20-foot containers.
The test was conducted under several scenarios with different load configurations and weather conditions.
The study concluded that a vessel the Hamburg Express’ size could safely navigate the Blair if it was accompanied by three tugboats, if it had a working bow thruster and if it was guided by two Puget Sound pilots.
The study suggested that wind, which can affect the vessel’s path, be 20 knots or less.
The report further recommended that the port remove two high spots in the waterway near the navigation channel to give the pilots more flexibility in guiding the big ship.
One issue that emerged during a briefing Thursday of the Port of Tacoma commission was the availability of the high-powered tugs the report recommends accompany the ultra large ships.
The study called for two of the three tugs to be heavy-duty 90-ton tugs. Capt. Jonathan Ward, Puget Sound Pilots president, told commissioners that only two such tugs exist in Puget Sound service; both are usually assigned to escorting oil tankers in northern Puget Sound.
The Hamburg Express is operated by Hapag-Lloyd, one of the four shipping line members of the Grand Alliance container consortium.
The Grand Alliance moved its Puget Sound operations from Seattle to Tacoma last year. The other three members of the alliance are OOCL, NYK and Zim.
Hapag-Lloyd now uses the Hamburg Express for journeys between Asia and Europe.
While the 2012-built Hamburg Express is a huge ship by most standards, even larger containerships are being launched from Asian yards.
Maersk Line recently began service with the first of several 18,000-container-unit-capacity ships in service between Europe and Asia.
The Port of Tacoma two years ago modified the Washington United Terminal on the Blair to handle larger ships.
The port also is taking steps to upgrade its terminals north of East 11th Street to accommodate the big ships by fitting rails to handle larger cranes and by straightening the piers to keep the long ships from jutting into the channel.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663