Maitland: Alaska ro-ro voyage demonstrates value of U.S. mariners, pollution controls

Last year, at a Coast Guard Foundation dinner in Seattle, Carleen Lyden-Kluss and I bid on and won a one-way trip aboard Midnight Sun, a ro-ro trailer ship operating between Tacoma, Wash., and Anchorage, Alaska. Our attention was attracted by the fact that Midnight Sun’s owner, Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), a member of the Saltchuk group of companies, has a well-earned reputation for innovation combined with careful attention to efficiency and performance. Midnight Sun is one of two Orca class ships, purpose-built for the Alaska trade. Carleen and I have been active in advocating a need for growing attention to Alaska’s maritime future, including its growing maritime connections with the “Lower 48”and with the expanding economies of Asia. As co-founders of the North American Marine Environment Protection Association (NAMEPA), we were also attracted by TOTE’s strong environmental record, along with that of the other Saltchuk companies.

With the growing prospect of United States LNG production, the Alaskan trade from the West Coast is, by nature, a major force for a U.S.- flag (including Jones Act) shipping revival. Also, the challenging sea and weather conditions during part of the year are clearly a test for our mariners.

TOTE has agreed with General Dynamics/NASSCO to build several new LNG-powered trailer ships — an exciting prospect being closely watched by the industry as a whole. Also, Midnight Sun and its sister, North Star, have forward-looking designs; it is expected that they will be retrofitted for LNG in the near future. The Orca vessels are about 839 feet long and 118 feet wide, with an approximate draft of 29.5 feet and a service speed of about 24 knots. They can carry 600 40-foot trailer equivalents, plus as many as 200 automobiles, the latter being mainly new vehicles assigned to dealers in Alaska. TOTE’s slogan, “Designing for the Environmental Future” is not taken lightly; these ships use hazelnut oil, which has about the same specific gravity as seawater to lubricate the ships’ shaft seals, and crushed walnut shells to clean the turbine blades. They are powered by high-performance MAN diesel electrics equipped with double-hull fuel oil tank systems and contained freshwater ballast systems. Midnight Sun, one of two Orcas, is officered mainly by Kings Pointers, hawsepipers and one Fort Schuyler graduate.

The moon rises over Washington's Mount Rainier while the ro-ro ship Midnight Sun is moored at the Port of Tacoma.

Salt water even figures in the parent company’s name: “Saltchuk” means exactly that, from “Chinook jargon,” a trading language developed among natives of the Pacific Northwest/Columbia River region. In addition to Totem Ocean Trailer Express, the Saltchuk group of companies includes Foss Maritime, Sea Star Line, Young Brothers (Hawaii), Delta Western (Dutch Harbor Alaska), Inter-Ocean American Shipping and a group of air, road and water transport firms.

The most exciting experience for us was watching the roll-on, roll-off loading operation at the TOTE Tacoma facility, and the discharge in Anchorage three days later. This high-speed process employs truck cabs called “hustlers,” which move trailers or containers onto the ship via ramps. We watched in fascination as the driver/longshoremen drove the trucks aboard, where the trailers or containers were made fast in assigned spaces. Midnight Sun has six decks, and it was wonderful to see the skill and efficiency of the whole operation. We came away with a new realization and respect for the human and technical skill needed to clear approach paths, drive the loads to and from the ramps, and get each trailer and container to its assigned position on an increasingly confined area of deck space. The actual work of stowage and discharge is so precise and so sophisticated, it can only be said that “seeing is believing.”

Clay Maitland observes from the bridge wing of Midnight Sun while en route to Alaska.

All of this could not be achieved without a highly skilled crew, and a very sophisticated — again, that word — shoreside operation. To begin with, this is a carefully thought-through logistical framework, one that is loosely invisible to the consumer public. The high capital cost of container cranes has been replaced with a much more flexible — and less costly— ramping system. The Orca vessels keep to a 66-hour schedule in each direction through North Pacific/Gulf of Alaska waters. In winter, this means coping with storm and ice conditions particular to the region. As we personally observed, a very alert watch is kept in order to keep clear of fishing vessels, some of which appeared off the Kenai Peninsula and Kennedy entrance, and are small and hard to spot even with the ship’s modern radar equipment. Interestingly, the ship embarked an Alaskan pilot (a requirement for entry into Alaska waters) at Port Angeles, Wash.; he stayed aboard northbound and southbound, for the return trip to Puget Sound. The entry into Cook Inlet has its challenges: in addition to the fishing traffic, there is the Knik Arm shoal and the need to follow marine mammal protection regulations, both state and federal.

We noticed a pod of some nine belugas — those impossibly white mini-whales — frisking along near the shore, and were told that they used to be attracted to the TOTE ships, when their hulls were painted white. The hulls are now blue, so the belugas stay a way off. A word about the crew, which included two Kings Point cadets in their plebe year: both of these cadets will stay aboard, learning the way of a ship until November — a true “classroom at sea”. I wonder if the folks in Washington, including Congress, have any idea of the great value that the U.S. taxpayer-consumer gets from our merchant marine training system, exemplified by this system of imparting knowledge. The two Orca vessels have 24-person crews, so on a weekly basis, 48 crew members are moving a massive volume of freight in both directions on a 66-hour schedule “up” and another 66 hours “down.” An impressive display of efficiency!

We were amazed at the cleanliness of Midnight Sun’s engine spaces. The “spit and polish” regime (ably skippered by Capt. Andy Murray), the excellent food, and the fact that the members of the engine department not only were so willing to discuss our areas of interest — extending even to that most exciting article of maritime technology, the oily water separator — but that they obviously enjoyed their jobs was most impressive. The ship’s first mate, Matt Huyter, was like the rest of the crewmembers we met: alert, cheerful and helpful. The value of a well-trained, experienced and professional crew was (and is) obvious, and it occurred to us that every member of Congress should get the benefit of a trip on a Jones Act ship like Midnight Sun. All this says something about, in my opinion, the greatly underrated U.S. merchant service.

Fog enshrouds the horizon — and Midnight Sun's bow — as the ro-ro vessel sails through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

TOTE has entered into a cooperative effort with Alaska’s state government, as well as with an apprenticeship program for Alaskans with the Seafarers International Union’s Paul Hall Maritime Training Center at Piney Point, Md. Carleen and I chair NAMEPA’s Alaska Maritime Employment Project, cooperating with the University of Alaska and industry stakeholders, to bring training jobs and the state’s growing maritime sector together with the people — including the native peoples — of Alaska.

TOTE/Saltchuk’s vision of the future involves Foss Towing and its approach to new technologies. It is a leader in the use of natural gas as a shipboard propulsion fuel, as it was the inception of the trailer/ramp concept. LNG is a leading alternative to oil fuels that meets domestic and international air emission requirements, including the limits for Emission Control Areas adopted in recent amendments to MARPOL Annex VI. Current pricing and availability makes natural gas competitive in comparison to other fuels; however, with the exception of boil-off gas used on LNG carriers, existing U.S. regulations do not address the training of seafarers working aboard vessels powered by gas and other low flashpoint fuels.

The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted Resolution MSC.285(86), entitled “Interim Guidelines on Safety For Natural Gas-Fueled Engine Installations In Ships.” The IMO’s International Code of Safety for Ships Using Gases or Low Flash-Point Fuels (IGF Code) for vessels greater than 500 tons is a part of MARPOL, and therefore will become part of U.S. law in the near future.

Midnight Sun unloads its cargo at the Port of Anchorage and gets ready for the return trip to the "Lower 48."

International standards for the training of such mariners are currently being developed by the IMO. In June 2009, the IMO published Interim Guidelines, which are available at .

Mariners aboard ships operating under the U.S. flag will have to obtain training according to approved courses, and given by qualified personnel, such as engine manufacturers or other vendors defined as qualified under the Interim Guidelines. It will be interesting to see how the requirement for seagoing service will be applied to a ship after it begins to operate with LNG capability. Mandatory minimum requirements for the training and qualification of masters, officers, ratings and other personnel on ships subject to the IGF Code are now under discussion. It is expected that the U.S. Coast Guard will begin approving courses in issuing endorsements in the near future. In view of the rapid progress of the drawing boards of LNG-powered ships, it is hoped that any mariner found qualified under the Interim Guidelines will be grandfathered into the appropriate endorsements.

The arrival of LNG as a means of ship propulsion is a revolutionary development that will meet emission standards and demands for greater economy. It is an attractive and revolutionary new development with great promise for the U.S.-flag merchant fleet.

Clay Maitland is a maritime industry leader who is Managing Partner of International Registries Inc and Founding Chairman of the North American Marine Environment Protection Association. He can be reached a or through his website/blog

By Professional Mariner Staff