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City welcomes largest container ship ever to call on East Coast

  • Walter and Mary Logan of Savannah brought lawn chairs as they waited for the arrival of the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt container ship to the Savannah port. The largest ship ever to call on the East Coast, the 1,200-foot-long Roosevelt will depart Sunday for Charleston and later to the Port of New York/New Jersey. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • A tug shooting water welcomes the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt to the port of Savannah Friday. The ship, the largest ever to call on the East Coast can carry up to 14,400 twenty-foot equivalent units. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • The 14,000-plus TEU container ship CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt sails past Tybee’s South Beach Friday on its way to Garden City Terminal (GPA Photo/Stephen Morton)
  • The CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt passes City Hall at 3:00 Friday on its way the Georgia Ports Authority’s Garden City Container Terminal. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • The CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt passes City Hall at 3:00 Friday on its way the Georgia Ports Authority’s Garden City Container Terminal. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • Folks catching a view of big ship as it passes Cockspur Island. About 35 people were up close and personal near pilot dock. (Polly Stramm/Special to the Savannah Morning News)

It’s a scenario we have yet to tire of — even when the weather is less than ideal.

Scores of shipwatchers ignored the prediction of heavy rains to line the riverfront on both sides Friday in anticipation of the arrival of the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt, at 14,414 TEUs — or 20-foot equivalent units — the largest container ship ever to call on the U.S. East Coast.

This time, Mother Nature relented, instead serving up sticky heat that most immediately forgot about when the majestic ship rounded the bend a few minutes before 3 p.m. Friday, dwarfing City Hall and other buildings as it bulled its way upriver.

Retirees Walter and Mary Logan of Savannah had been waiting in the sun for more than an hour, a small price to pay to witness an historic moment, they said.

“It was awesome,” Mary Logan said. “I never thought I’d live to see something like this.”

Many held their breath as the big ship, with Master River Pilot Trey Thompson at the helm, cleared the Talmadge Bridge with only 3 feet to spare.

“She handled really well — very much like the other big ships we’ve brought in recently,” Thompson said. “The only difference was how close we were to the bridge.”

Joost Gompels, who watched with his friend Donna Danley, declared the sight “better than the eclipse.”

“It really says a lot about the port authority here,” the longtime Savannahian said. “If they hadn’t had the vision to foresee this and the planning to be ready for it, we wouldn’t be here watching this.”

Willie Seymore agreed.

The executive vice president for the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast division of the International Longshoremens Association and a former president of ILA Local 1414, Seymore credited the port’s unprecedented success to GPA leadership — both past and present — and the unique ability of the Savannah maritime community to work together seamlessly.

“I’m proud, but not surprised, to see a ship this size in Savannah,” he said.

ILA Local presidents Ricky DeLoach, of 1475, and Tim Mackey of 1414 noted that the ILA alone will have seven gangs totaling between 200 and 240 people working three back-to-back shifts to move more than 5,000 containers - totaling some 9,000 TEUs - on and off the ship.

It was the first time in GPA history that the port would use seven ship-to-shore cranes on one vessel.

And, Mackey pointed out, the Roosevelt was not the only ship in port.

“We’re working six other ships today, meaning we’re pushing 800 longshoremen on the clock right now,” he said.

“Not only do these massive ships play to Savannah’s strengths, they actually make us more efficient,” GPA executive director Griff Lynch said.

“When these Neopanamax vessels call on the largest single container terminal in North America, it maximizes the attributes that set Savannah apart: more space, more cranes and better landside connections.”

In just three months, the Port of Savannah has hosted 13 vessels with a capacity of 13,000 TEUs or greater. The average number of containers moving on and off these big ships is 8,000 TEUs per vessel.

“In Fiscal Year 2017, which ended June 30, the Port of Savannah served 69 vessels with a capacity of 10,000 TEUs or more,” said GPA Board Chairman Jimmy Allgood. “No other port on the East Coast has served more vessels, more often with more on-terminal assets than the Garden City Terminal.”

That means more opportunities to see more big ships coming up the river — or back down.

Frank and Susan Gaston traveled from Hilton Head Island on Friday to see the Roosevelt arrive. They plan to return Sunday with their five grandchildren to watch it depart. The ship has a sailing window of noon to 1 p.m., which should put it city front between 12:30 and 2 p.m.

But, if they miss it, they won’t have to wait long to see another 14,000-TEU ship come in — the CMA CGM John Adams is due in port Thursday.

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