Wider, greener, and built for faster loading and unloading, the massive carrier Themis is the shape of ships to come calling these days, thanks to a $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, said Kristin Decas, CEO of the bustling Port of Hueneme.
The nine-year canal expansion project added a traffic lane that allows ships 2.5 times larger to pass through the 100-year-old shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Analysts expect the expansion to shift world trade routes and change the way imported goods are distributed in America.
Some predict that because mega-ships now can pass through the canal, the cost of shipping from Asia to the East Coast will drop, resulting in less traffic for California ports.
But Decas doesn’t think the local port will lose business, at least not in the near future. Many East Coast ports aren’t set up to handle an influx of large container-ships from Asia, said Decas, who was director of the Port of New Bedford in Massachusetts before taking the helm at the Port of Hueneme.
“We have the infrastructure in place that is attractive to the roll-on, roll-off industry, which is cars,” Decas said.
The port is small and focuses on cargo that needs to be moved quickly, such as fresh produce and automobiles. Bananas account for about 30 percent of the port’s cargo; cars make up 60 percent.
Since the expanded canal opened in June, Decas has seen an increase in car trade with South Korea.
“We’re exporting a lot of GM Impalas to Korea, and importing a lot of Kia Souls,” Decas said. “We feel that we will keep our competitive edge because time is money, and we still are the shortest route from Asia.”
The Themis is part of that Asian equation. Built at a Hyundai shipyard in South Korea, the Themis was designed by one of the Port of Hueneme’s biggest car carrier customers — Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics. The vessel is part of a fleet of eight high-efficiency roll-on, roll-off ships the Netherland-based company is launching in response to the canal expansion.
Each ship is designed to carry up to 8,000 car-sized containers and an additional 2,000 roll-on, roll-off vehicles.
Post-Panamax is the new standard vessel size, based on the width of locks now open at the Panama Canal. Before the expansion, the size of the canal’s locks limited ship capacity to 5,000 containers. The locks increased from 35 meters (just over 114 feet) to 55 meters (just over 180 feet), allowing for the larger ships.
The Themis is the second Post-Panamax vessel to call on the port since the canal’s expansion. In August, its sister-ship Thalatta arrived on its maiden voyage through the widened canal.
Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics owns 65 acres in Oxnard with an auto-processing facility. The port is a major distribution hub for automobiles, supplying 13 states with imported vehicles.
The eco-friendly designs of the new Post-Panamax ships also mesh with the port’s emphasis on operating a green business, port spokesman Will Berg said. Each vessel is fitted with an exhaust cleaning system that reduces sulphur emissions to below 0.1 percent and removes 70 percent of particulate matter.
The ships also use a new technology to generate steam-based exhaust while docked at berth instead of diesel. The onboard scrubber system gives the ships a mobile compliance with emissions regulations in ports worldwide, said Geir Fagerheim, head of fleet management for Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics.
In 2014, California passed regulations requiring container fleets docking at major ports, including the local one, to shut off diesel engines and use electricity for half the time at berth. In response, ports have spent millions installing onshore power systems.
Accommodating the size of the Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics ships has not been a problem. The ships are 200 meters, or 656 feet, long and fit within the port’s largest berths with turning room to spare, Decas said.
“What makes them different is how wide they are, but we’ve been able to accommodate that, too,” she said. The ships’ beams measure 36.5 meters, or 120 feet across.
There is much more volume on the ships, so more cars are inside. When you can move more, that builds efficiencies into the supply chain,” Decas said.
More than $9 billion worth of cars, produce and other key goods in the world trade business passes through the Port of Hueneme annually. And while some other industries report cuts in employment, port business-related jobs grew 25 percent from 2012 to 2015, according to a recent Maritime economic assessment by Martin Associates.
“The success of the port impacts the success of the entire region,” Oxnard Harbor District Commission President Manuel Lopez said.