Canadian company orders five lakers, Wheat Board orders two others

Bullish on Great Lakes shipping, Algoma Central Corp., of St. Catharines, Ont., is investing nearly $400 million in a fleet renewal program involving the purchase of five new Equinox-class bulk carriers.

The five new Algoma ships will be joined by two additional Equinox-class ships purchased by the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). All of the ships will be operated and managed by Algoma's Seaway Marine Transport division.

According to Greg D. Wight, president and CEO for Algoma, "The new Equinox-class vessels will provide much-needed improvements in operating efficiency and environmental performance. This fleet renewal will allow us to continue our leadership position in domestic dry-bulk transportation and maintain Canadian jobs in this essential sector."

Algoma owns and operates Canada's largest fleet of vessels on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway but has not built a new Canadian Laker since 1983.

The bold move highlights Algoma's and the CWB's commitment to shipping dry-bulk cargo on the Great Lakes. According to the CWB, its chartered lake freight to eastern Canadian ports has increased by about one million tons over the past decade, hitting 3.8 million tons in 2009. The CWB expects the export flow of wheat to increase over the next few years as demand strengthens in Europe, Africa and Latin America — destinations served through eastern Canadian ports.

Controlled by western Canadian farmers, the CWB is the largest wheat and barley marketer in the world.

The Equinox-class ships were developed by a team of Algoma in-house designers in collaboration with contract engineers and will be built by Nantong Mingde Heavy Industries, a shipyard located in the Yangtze delta area of China.

According to Al Vanagas, a senior vice president for Algoma, "Up until 2007, foreign shipyards were overbooked with standard ocean-type vessels and had little interest in our peculiar, self-unloading, seaway-sized lakers. Also, at that time, a 25 percent Canadian import duty and an unfavorable currency exchange provided more disincentives. After the global economic meltdown in 2008, shipowners around the world were reluctant to place new orders and many were unable to execute on existing orders and cancelled or delayed contracts. Shipyards found themselves looking at order books that did not fill their capacity beyond 2011.

"As a result our peculiar, self-unloading, seaway-sized lakers became much more interesting and yards were now competing to build our design. After an involved review process we settled on a yard we had done business with before, Nantong Mingde Shipyard. We now found ourselves with Canadian currency on par with U.S., and as Chinese shipbuilding contracts are executed in U.S. dollars, one more obstruction fell. Finally, in October 2010, the Canadian government repealed the longstanding 25 percent import tariff on foreign-built ships."

At first glance the new lakers may not seem extraordinary, since the basic dimensions are constrained by the dimensions of seaway locks.

The new lakers will be 740 feet long with a 78-foot beam. When fully loaded they will draw 31 feet 2 inches. Load capacity will vary. In a self-loader configuration, cargo capacity is 38,000 tons. As a gearless bulker, they can carry 40,000 tons.

But a closer look reveals a unique double-hull design for increased speed and fuel economy and a new rudder design and more powerful bow thrusters for enhanced maneuverability. For propulsion there is a 9,288-hp Wärtsilä 5RT Flex 50 two-stroke marine diesel that will deliver a speed of about 14 knots. Modern hard hull coatings are a further improvement in terms of speed and maintenance.

Ballast tanks and cargo holds are all treated with abrasion-resistant epoxy coatings for ease of cleaning and longevity. Deck and cargo runoff is controlled with vertical gutters and deck scuppers can allow for overboard discharge or tank storage for later disposal.

Propulsion has been optimized for fuel efficiency, environmental impact, life-cycle costs, service and support and space conservation. While the new vessels have crew accommodations for 26, Algoma declined to specify what the size of the crews will be. The vessel's fully electronic engine meets Tier II NOx emission requirements and is smokeless at all engine loads and speeds.

The first ship is expected to enter service in 2013 with the remaining ships to follow through mid-2014.

By Professional Mariner Staff