PORTLAND – The container ship Skogafoss is due to arrive in Portland late Friday night to deliver containers filled with bottled water from Iceland and frozen fish from Iceland and Norway.

It’s not much – just 40 containers – but it’s the start of the first direct container service between Maine and Europe in 33 years.

Until now, the nearest container port for Maine businesses has been Boston, although service there is so limited that most Maine companies have been sending overseas shipments through the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The new Portland service, operated by the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, will cut down on trucking costs and help Maine businesses be more competitive, said Janine Bisaillon-Cary, president of the Maine International Trade Center.

In a recent survey of 115 Maine companies, the cost of transportation was identified as a leading barrier to international trade, especially for firms with fewer than 100 employees.

Companies that shipped ocean freight on pallets reported that shipping by truck from Maine to ports in Boston and New York cost nearly as much as transport across the ocean on a ship.

“This is all very timely in terms of addressing one of Maine exporters’ biggest needs,” Bisaillon-Cary said of the Eimskip service.

Eimskip is moving its North American hub from Norfolk, Va., to Portland. It will offer bimonthly service connecting Portland directly with cities as far north as Murmansk, Russia, 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, and as far south as Rotterdam, Netherlands, Europe’s busiest port.

Perhaps more significant for some Maine businesses, it also will connect Portland with the ports of Argentia and St. Anthony in Newfoundland, Canada.

Exxon Mobil Corp. in January gave the green light to a $14 billion project to pump oil from a massive oil field off the coast of Newfoundland. Some materials for constructing the oil rigs and infrastructure are likely to be delivered by ship. Eimskip is the only international carrier serving the island, and Portland will be Eimskip’s only scheduled port of call in the United States.

In addition, the Newfoundland government over the next few years will spend more than $7 billion to build two huge hydro projects in Labrador. They also could benefit from receiving materials by ship. Work on one of the projects has just started.

John Gulliver, an energy expert at the Pierce Atwood law firm in Portland and a board member of the New England-Canada Business Council, said the transportation link to Newfoundland presents opportunities for Maine companies involved in engineering, construction, heavy equipment, composite technology, and manufacturing and design of energy-related equipment.

More than any other state, Maine has developed close relationships with maritime Canada, but that relationship has been hindered by the difficulty of moving people and goods between the two regions, Gulliver said. The Eimskip service will help change that, he said.

“We didn’t have a way to get there before,” he said. “This is going to create all kinds of opportunities.”

Peter Vigue, president and CEO of Cianbro Corp., said a container ship is not going to carry large items, such as the 22 modular buildings that his company recently shipped to Newfoundland by barge from its Brewer facility. The buildings went to a nickel-processing operation in Newfoundland.

But his firm can send smaller items by container, he said. And besides shipping goods, the Eimskip service will help build relationships between businesses in Maine and Canada.

For some Maine companies, though, the transportation link to Europe presents the greatest opportunity.

J.B. Turner, president of Front Street Shipyard in Belfast, said he hopes the service will save his company money when shipping boat parts across the Atlantic. He gets a lot of specialized parts from Europe, and he hopes eventually to transport yachts on the ship to customers in Europe.

Not only will it save money on trucking costs by going through the port of Portland, it will be more convenient, with fewer delays, he said.

“Overall, I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for everybody,” he said.

Businesses won’t have to fill entire containers to ship products through Portland. Eimskip will be able to consolidate pallets from multiple shippers into a single container, said Kelly L’Heureux, general manager of the Falmouth office for OCEANAIR Inc., a freight forwarder that provides international transportation logistics services.

She said she expects Eimskip will eventually deliver cargo to Asia by transporting the containers to Asian-bound steamship lines at the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Eimskip officials have said they don’t need to attract new customers for the service to be viable. They’ve been operating out of Norfolk, Va., for decades and expect to keep most of their current customers as they move their hub to Portland.

Still, developing more business from Maine would assure that Eimskip stays in Portland, L’Heureux said.

“As the service develops, I am hoping the Maine clientele will be able to grow so it’s efficient and prosperous for everyone,” she said.


Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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Twitter: @TomBellPortland