Work on long-awaited, multi-million Euro deepening and widening of the River Elbe between Hamburg and the North Sea is making good progress with completion now expected in 2021, writes Tom Todd.

Ships drawing 13.5m - previously 12.5m - will have tide-independent access to Hamburg, and the port itself is deepening its own fairway channel into major terminals to17.3m. An increasing number of mega boxships drawing 14.5m will also soon be able to reach and leave Hamburg at full tide and find it easier to pass enroute.

The latest word is that twice as many large container ships will be able to reach Hamburg and that the port - Germany’s biggest handling some 135 million tons a year – could see three million more teus on its terminals and at least dent the ongoing drift of big-name liner services to rival ports.

The WSV – the German government waterways and shipping agency responsible for the Elbe project - says widening of the river from 300 to 320m along a 36 kms stretch between Hamburg-Wedel and the River Stör has already been completed, As of the start of this year, ships with a combined breadth of 92m have been able to pass or overtake each other on that stretch.

The overall project, begun last July, is covering dredging to 14.5m worth €238 million of a 116 kms channel between the Elbe Estuary port of Cuxhaven and Wedel. It is being handled by a consortium comprising Dredging International and Nordsee Nassbagger und Tiefbau. Both are part of Belgium-based Dredging, Environmental and Marine Engineering NV (DEME).

WSV head Hans-Heinrich Witte drew attention not only to the already finished 36kms Elbe stretch but also to an important new ship berth in operation since the end of last year near Brunsbüttel at the Elbe end of the busy Kiel Canal. Big ships which might be reliant on tidal access, can use the new facility to lay up and wait.

Finally Witte noted the completion by the WSV of a five kms long section of a widened eight kms long overtaking ‘box’ for large container ships and bulkers on the Elbe between Wedel and Hamburg.

Since the end of January ships with a combined breadth of up to 98m have been able to pass or overtake in the ‘box’, deepened and widened by 65m to 385m. Witte said its completion had provided the Elbe project’s “first nautical benefit for shipping and for the Port of Hamburg”.

Progress has however not been so swift on the completion of the remaining three kilometre stretch of the new overtaking ‘box’, which lie within the boundary of the city-state of Hamburg and for which Hamburg authorities are responsible. But there have been reasons for that, one being the need to locate and clear unexploded WW2 bombs in the river - a procedure which German ports have to contend with regularly.

Hamburg Port Authority (HPA) spokesman Kai Gerullis told Maritime Journal the clearance work was still underway late March as deepening and widening began on Hamburg’s stretch in the overtaking ‘box’.

HPA awarded the Hamburg dredging work to Belgium’s Jan de Nul and its German subsidiary Jan de Nul Nassbaggerei und Wasserbau in January. Gerullis said the 147m hydraulic hopper dredge Pedro Alvares Cabral and the 60m backhoe dredge Gian Lorenzo Bernini were tackling the ‘box’ project and that work there would be finished in August.

He said ships with a combined width of 104m would then be able to use it. He also revealed that the Federal Waterways Engineering and Research Institute (BAW) was conducting simulation tests to see if greater combined ship widths could be approved. Dredging inside Hamburg port itself covers the deepening of the river as far as the giant Altenwerder Container Terminal and the central Mittlere Hafen.

Gerullis said work there was expected to be finished by the end of the year and the government’s Elbe work in the first half of 2021. Hans-Heinrich Witte confirmed the WSV Elbe project was now expected to end in 2021, rather than the originally tipped 2022. Berlin is investing about €220 million in it this year. A total cost, although never officially given, is widely expected to be well over €800 million.