At a time when supply strains are stretched to the maximum, any disruption, no matter how modest, is magnified. So it is at the Port of Savannah in Georgia, where dredging activity to deepen berths is delaying cargo transfers for container vessels by about two days, according to port officials and shipping companies.

The work is tied to a massive $706 million joint state and federal project to deepen a 32-mile stretch of the Savannah River between the Atlantic Ocean and the city from 42 feet to 47 feet to accommodate ultra-large vessels from Asia and Europe. 

The timing isn’t ideal because ocean carriers are already weeks behind schedule due to huge trade volumes that have overwhelmed vessel and equipment capacity and clogged up ports around the world. But dredging the berths means that the yearslong harbor expansion project is nearly complete, which will increase productivity because vessels capable of carrying 15,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) will be able to enter the port at full load. 

“It’s all good news because the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is now 90% complete. It signals that everything we’ve been talking about the last 20 years is going to start coming to fruition,” Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch said in a phone interview.

Savannah is the fourth-largest container port in the U.S. April and March were its two busiest months ever and year-over-year volumes are growing 30 to 40%. 

The harbor deepening project began in 2015 after 16 years of study and increased in importance last decade with the widening of the Panama Canal and the introduction of new-generation vessels vastly larger than anything seen before. 

Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. (Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its contractors have completed the initial 10-mile stretch known as the Outer Harbor, the entrance to the shipping channel on the coast, most of the river from the city through the marine terminals and the turning basin, according to the agency. Only a few spots on the lower part of the river near Tybee Island remain to be dredged, which should be finished on, or around, the end of the year, Lynch said.

Deepening along Savannah’s nine berths began about two weeks ago and is expected to be fully completed by July 11, but potentially sooner, he said.

Midway point

Some berths are already at their design depth and only require maintenance dredging to clean up silt, while others need to have 5 feet of dirt removed to bring them to 47 feet below low tide.

The port director said dredging crews are turning their attention Wednesday to berths that accommodate “small” ships in the 8,000-TEU range after already scraping the riverbed at berths for the biggest vessels. The container industry has evolved so rapidly that 15 years ago an 8,000-TEU vessel would have been considered a monster, dwarfing most of the fleet in service at the time.

Savannah had little control over the schedule, which was dictated by when contractors completed dredging other parts of the main channel and the contract with the Army Corps. Delaying work until traffic slowed was not an option because mobilizing such a large project, including the pipes for moving the spoils to other parts of the river, is extremely expensive and completing the project is a priority.

Savannah Harbor Deepening Project schedule. (Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

In reality, two of the Garden City Terminal’s nine berths are out of action at any one time now. That’s because Berth 1 is being deconstructed and rebuilt to increase capacity by 1 million TEUs per year by straightening out a bend. The effort will take another 18 months to complete.

About six vessels are currently waiting offshore for an available parking spot. That compares to 20 vessels at one point in early March.

Average wait times for a berth are 24 to 48 hours and the dredging is expected to double wait times, shipping giant Maersk (DXE: MAERB) said in a customer notice this week.

“We certainly would rather not be doing this work right now, but I think in the big scheme of things everyone understands that this is all for the benefit and it will make it better for load-outs during tidal windows,” Lynch said. “It’s really a short impact, but it’s manageable.

“If it ever gets to a point that it’s out of control we’ll stop the dredging and bring in the ships and work them. But we want to get this thing done.”

One of the sticking points for container velocity at ports around the country is the availability of chassis to move containers in and out of the terminal by truck. Some importers hold onto equipment and pay penalties to ensure they can get their next box. But Lynch said Consolidated Chassis Management is doing a good job getting new chassis into the pool and that repair shops are fixing equipment as quickly as possible.

“We’d love to have more chassis. We’d love to get more chassis returned to us,” he said.

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The Port of Savannah is on track to handle more than 5 million TEUs for the first time during the fiscal year that ends June 30 and has targeted 9 million TEUs of capacity by 2030. 

Besides the Berth 1 project, the port authority is investing in eight taller ship-to-shore cranes, replacing six older units and bringing the total fleet to 38 in 2023. It is also purchasing 20 new rubber-tired gantry cranes that can groom container stacks six high. A giant rail on-dock rail terminal is scheduled to open later this year. When all the work is done, the port will be able to handle four 15,000-TEU vessels at one time. 

Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch.


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