The Port of Savannah served the CMA CGM Marco Polo, the largest vessel to ever call the U.S. East Coast, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. The vessel has a carrying capacity of more than 16,000 twenty-foot equivalent container units. Featuring nearly 10,000 feet of contiguous dock space, 30 ship-to-shore cranes, and 1,345 acres of container yard space, the Port of Savannah's Garden City Terminal is perfectly suited to handling vessels in the 16,000-TEU class. Find print-quality images here. (Georgia Ports Authority / Stephen B. Morton)

The largest ship ever to visit the East Coast slipped into Savannah Wednesday morning with plans to shed thousands of 20-foot-long containers filled with furniture, appliances, auto parts and construction materials.

Longer than the Empire State Building and able to carry up to 16,000 containers, the spectacle of the CMA GGM Marco Polo caused people along River Street to gather and watch. The ship started its voyage in Asia and traveled through the Suez Canal to stops in Canada and New Jersey. Its last port of call in North America will be Charleston.

The ship's visit is emblematic of the swelling trade passing through Savannah, as increasing quantities of goods are transferred on and off ever-larger ships.

"This is very exciting for the Georgia Ports," said Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. "It is 1,300 feet long and 176 feet wide. It is a behemoth."

Since 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been overseeing a massive effort to deepen the port's channels, a project that allows huge ships like the Marco Polo more leeway in timing their arrivals, according to authority officials.

Savannah handled 466,634 containers last month, the second-strongest month on record. The port's best month ever was March.

"The last two months have been unbelievable," Lynch said.

When trade dropped dramatically at the pandemic's start last spring, the authority instituted a hiring freeze. But trade came roaring back by summer as American consumers went to online purchases en masse.

Of the 3,676 people working at the Savannah port, 1,476 of them work directly for the authority, Lynch said. They average nearly 16 hours a week in overtime.

With no lull in view, "we are hiring as fast as we can," Lynch said.

The authority has not faced the same labor shortage many employers of low-wage workers have reported, he said. "We had a job fair a couple weeks ago and a thousand people showed up. We had people wrapped around the building."

Pay for port jobs, which include equipment handlers and crane operators, runs from $22 an hour up to $40 an hour.

Trade through Savannah, the nation's third-busiest port, is one barometer of the state's economic health. Port officials say that trade supports nearly a half-million Georgia jobs, from truckers to warehouse workers to cashiers.


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