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The largest container ship to ever make port in North America unloads its cargo in the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif., on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015. After making its maiden voyage from China, where it was built, the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin arrived before dawn with its cargo. The ship can carry 18,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), which is about a third more than the ships that currently dock in the Port of L.A. The vessel measures 1,300 feet long, 177 feet wide and is 197 feet tall and is staffed with a crew of 26. The giant ship is scheduled to leave Los Angeles on Wednesday, December 30 en route to Oakland before returning to China.
Scott Varley/ The Daily Breeze via AP
CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin unloading in the Port of Los Angeles.
AT LARGE

The largest cargo ship to ever land in the US is just too big for the business

By Tim Fernholz

The mega-cargo ship CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin is as long as the Empire State building is tall, but the ship’s marketers will need to find a more country-appropriate analogy for its size now that it has been pulled from US trade routes.

Why? It’s just…too big.

The ship, which can hold 18,000 20-foot long cargo containers, debuted in the US this year with visits to west coast ports; no bigger vessel had ever touched these shores. Its owner, shipper CMA CGM, said its massive efficiency would help their company compete with two major competitors, Maersk Moller and MSC.

Typical cargo ships carry as many as 13,000 containers, but in the last year or so even the Benjamin Franklin has been eclipsed by vessels carrying 19,000 containers built last year. Firms around the world are increasingly using bigger and bigger ships. But shipping analysts say there just isn’t enough cargo for these outlandishly large sizes—growth in global trade can’t keep up with the potential number of containers that can traverse the world. In other words, there is a shipping glut.

Equally problematic for the Benjamin Franklin is that US ports are simply not prepared to offload a ship of its size efficiently, lacking the cranes, deep-water channels and infrastructure to get its cargo out of the port. The ship could not work at its full capacity without significant investments by US ports.

This spring, CMA CGM is purchasing a smaller Singapore-based shipper, Neptune Orient Lines, for $2.4 billion. CMA CGM intends to deploy Neptune in concert with three other Pacific shippers to form the Ocean Alliance, a partnership to compete for US-Asia trade work.

With all that cargo capacity steaming for US ports, it appears that the Benjamin Franklin will be redundant. It’s likely to be re-deployed to the Asia-Europe trade route, where larger ports can take better advantage of its efficiencies.

Tim Fernholz
Reporter
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