At 1,312 feet long, the MSC Anna is among the largest container cargo ships in the world. Bay Area maritime enthusiasts will have a rare opportunity to see it up close this week. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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In the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic that has killed tens of thousands and slowed international trade, the Port of Oakland is expected to welcome one of the world’s largest cargo ships this week.

The 1,312-foot-long MSC Anna is scheduled to dock at Oakland’s International Container Terminal on Thursday with a load of empty containers it is picking up in Southern California, according to port officials. It will spend 24 hours in port taking on exports.

The ship can hold 19,200 20-foot cargo containers, making it one of the largest vessels ever to visit a North American port, according to port officials.

“We’ve spent years and millions of dollars keeping ahead of the pace of trade and the size of ships,” said Port of Oakland Executive Director Danny Wan.

In order to accommodate massive mega-ships like the MSC Anna, the port has spent the past 10 years dredging waterways and raising container cranes.

Ships of this size also require special handling by the local bar pilots who take command of vessels entering the San Francisco Bay in order to bring them safely back and forth to their berths.

“The San Francisco Bay is one of the most challenging pilotage grounds in the world and safely piloting these huge ships requires expertise and significant training,” said Capt. Joseph Long, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association.

Long said preparations for the MSC Anna’s arrival included computer simulations run at the California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo.

The ship’s arrival coincides with a substantial drop in international trade as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide efforts to slow its spread.

The World Trade Organization reported last week that it expects the decline to exceed the slump caused by the global financial crisis of 2008 and could fall by as much as 32 percent in 2020.

This week, the Port of Oakland reported that its loaded container volume declined 7.4 percent in March compared to the same period last year. Import volume dropped 10.3 percent compared to March 2019 and exports were down 5 percent. The return of empty containers to Asian markets decreased 23 percent and total volume — which combines all three measures — declined 11 percent, according to the port.