PORTLAND – Calling Friday’s event a “groundbreaking” may have been a misnomer, but city and state officials were happy nonetheless to kick off construction of Pier II at Ocean Gateway, a project that will enable Portland to welcome the world’s largest cruise ships.

The “megaberth” will stretch east from the Ocean Gateway terminal about 1,100 feet.

That length, combined with the 60-foot depth of the water, should allow the pier to accommodate the largest cruise ships, Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said at the event marking the start of construction.

Mavodones said the project symbolizes the city’s commitment to revitalizing the eastern end of its waterfront.

To mark the start of the work, officials drove small pipes into the ground — the more traditional turning of dirt with shovels would have been impractical for a site that’s under water.

The pilings that will be driven to anchor the pier will be about 200 feet long, said Jackson Parker, president and chief executive officer of Reed & Reed of Woolwich, the lead contractor on the $4.8 million project.

Parker said the company expects to have about 35 workers on the project through the winter and into next summer, with completion scheduled for the beginning of July. City officials have already booked Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas to be the first cruise ship to tie up at the new pier, on July 16.

On Friday, Portland wrapped up a record-breaking year for cruise ship visits, with 71 coming into port. Those ships bring thousands of passengers, who pump millions of dollars into the local economy.

With the new megaberth, not only will the city accommodate larger ships, it will be able to have two ships in port at the same time, city officials said.

“This was one of those things that was just a no-brainer” because of the amount of economic activity it could generate, Gov. John Baldacci said at Friday’s ceremony. “This project is a shining example of how we will build our economy.”

The money for the pier project came from a state transportation bond that was approved by voters in June.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]