CLEVELAND, Ohio — Even before longshoremen finished loading the Fortunagracht with cargo bound for Europe, representatives of the Port of Cleveland and a Dutch shipping giant were talking about adding a second vessel to the Cleveland-Europe Express.
The Seaway-sized container ship was scheduled to leave a busy Cleveland Harbor on Tuesday half empty — but many in the shipping business saw a ship half full.
They say the debut of regularly scheduled container service between Europe and the Great Lakes made just the right splash, and that keen interest from shippers may warrant a second vessel by midsummer. That would change the port of call from monthly to biweekly.
“We have been validated by shippers from throughout the Midwest and in Europe,” Marc Krantz, the chairman of the port authority, told a crowd gathered in a banquet room at the Aloft Hotel on Tuesday morning. “The Cleveland-Europe Express gives this region global reach, and all of Cleveland will benefit from that.”
The welcome reception drew more than 150 people, many from the shipping industry and the region’s international communities. Groups ascended to the observation deck of the Ernst & Young Tower for a panoramic view of a harbor being visited by five massive ships — one a container ship from Holland.
Torin Swartout, a vice president for ship-owner the Spliethoff Group, agreed with Krantz that the Express shows promise, even though it could have carried more cargo. He likened the start of a shipping service to the launch of a restaurant, saying he preferred a soft opening while the port and its staff learned to handle containerized cargo.
“We now have the infrastructure in place” and are ready to market the service widely, Swartout said.
“I think we’ll fill the ship, sure,” he said, adding that a second vessel would make the express more attractive to exporters. “If I was a betting man I’d say, ‘Yes, I think we’ll do that.'”
Hoping to stoke an export economy, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority is pioneering international container shipping from the Great Lakes. It forged a two-year agreement with the Amsterdam-based Spliethoff Group to charter vessels for regular cargo runs between Cleveland and northern Europe via the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
The new route allows Midwest manufacturers to avoid trucking exports to East Coast seaports, saving time and money, the port maintains.
The red-hulled Fortunagracht arrived late Friday night, having sailed nearly two weeks and 4,000 miles from Antwerp, Belgium. Hundreds came down to the port over the weekend to view the ship, which was to sail off Tuesday night on its return voyage.
Krantz told the gathering the launch of container shipping presented port officials with several surprises.
- Cargo for export came from businesses throughout Ohio, as expected, but also from Indiana, Iowa and even California.
- The most unusual export, a yellow school bus, is destined for an American school bus buff in Germany.
- Great Lakes Brewery shipped some 30 cases of its beer to be handed out at a European trade show. Company founder Pat Conway said the brewer does not make enough beer to export to Europe, but if and when it does, “It’s nice to know the Express is a mile from our brewery.”
- Much of the cargo was not stopping in Europe. It was destined for Saudi Arabia, Korea, Singapore and South America.
As they celebrated an historic voyage, city and port officials recognized people who played key roles in making it work. Thanks went out to members of Local 1317 of the International Longshoreman’s Association, who worked a long and anxious weekend unloading ships.
John Baker, the union president, said the crew still includes a few members who unloaded container vessels in the 1970s and 1980s and that helped speed the work.
By chance, an unprecedented five ships arrived in Cleveland Harbor in recent days, all with cargo to be unloaded.
“We love it,” Baker said. “It’s what we’re here for.”
Special recognition was showered upon the man many credit for creating the Cleveland-Europe Express, the late Charles “Arnie” de la Porte, a Dutch immigrant who for years championed transatlantic trade from Cleveland.
Mayor Frank Jackson recalled being on city council a dozen years ago when de la Porte first pressed upon him his vision.
“And he was persistent about it,” the mayor said. “And he talked about this consistently — how we needed to connect Cleveland to The Netherlands. I am happy his family is here today to see this.”
De la Porte died suddenly last fall, without seeing his dream realized.
Port President Will Friedman presented to de la Porte’s son, Peter, a street sign bearing the new name of Erieside Avenue as it winds through the port: “Arnie de la Porte Way.”