Matching American Pride with South Korean know-how

It was a perfect California evening when General Dynamics Nassco christened Golden State, the first of a new class of 49,000-dwt product carriers built for the Jones Act trade. Onstage was a diverse group of guests: shipyard VIPs, a BP Shipping executive, representatives of the South Korean shipbuilders who designed the vessel, and the smartly dressed CEO of the New York company that was taking delivery, U.S. Shipping Partners. But the fireworks that lit up the January sky over San Diego harbor were bittersweet for U.S. Shipping. In July, its lenders took control of Golden State and its sister ships still under construction.

In a yard busy with work on new T-AKE construction and repair work for the U.S. Navy, Nassco still found room to dedicate a section to its line of product carriers.

But if the demise of U.S. Shipping is an apt metaphor for a year in which shipbuilding has been hard hit in a stumbling economy, the completion of Golden State was a remarkable achievement for the yard that built it. Nassco delivered the vessel under budget, six months ahead of schedule and just 16 months after beginning construction, despite the complications of working with a foreign design. The key was intensive planning — and a willingness to recognize that American yards have much to learn from the largest shipbuilder in the world.

At 600 feet, Golden State is similar in many respects to the 46,000-dwt product carriers that Aker Philadelphia Shipyard is building for Overseas Shipholding Group; perhaps the chief difference is an increase in draft that allows it to carry more cargo. But whereas Aker took an existing South Korean design from Hyundai Mipo Dockyard, Nassco teamed up with Daewoo Shipbuilding Engineering Center (DSEC) to create a composite drawn from several existing vessels.

“The engine room spaces are very much like a class of ships that Daewoo designed called the Vela class,†said Fred Harris, Nassco’s president. “The corrugated bulkheads were brought from another class. And then there are some hull differences we got from a third class. But each portion of the ship had been built previously by the Koreans for some other company.â€

According to Harris, Nassco began exploring the possibility of a foreign partnership towards the end of 2005. The Korean company was a good fit, he said: “Daewoo’s approach was consistent with ours and its CAD system (computer-aided design) was compatible with ours.†Nassco brought in U.S. Shipping Partners and the deal was consummated by the end of 2006. Initially, Nassco was looking at nine ships, worth a total of $1 billion; in all, five will be built.

With a contract in place, Nassco was ready to deal with the complexities of the project. “We knew the issues ahead of time,†said Kevin Mooney, Nassco’s program manager for commercial contracts. “We were using both design and materials from an external source.†Nassco threw resources into the project from the beginning: according to Mooney, it flew 50 production workers to Korea to see how Daewoo built ships, it assigned a production engineering team to the project full time, and it even hired two new employees from Korea, one in production and one in engineering. For the first year, Nassco’s engineering manager visited Korea once a month.

Nassco took two early steps to minimize risk, creating a data pilot and a production pilot. “We took two engine room blocks of the ship and built them in advance,†said Mooney.

Along the way, differences between U.S. and Korean shipbuilding quickly became apparent. “The Koreans don’t put as many details into their engineering drawings; their workforce is more specialized,†said Mooney. “Because of the large volume and specialization, the Koreans are used to reaching for the right bolt without being told.â€

Golden State’s cargo arrangement resembles that of the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard product carriers, with six pairs of segregated cargo tanks with flush overheads.

Nassco solved part of the problem by specifying in the contract that Daewoo needed to write more details into its drawings. And to help shipyard workers, it dedicated a building on the pier for presorting and packaging different components for single jobs. Inside, it looks like a hardware store.

On a larger scale, Nassco was absorbing every lesson it could from its partners. “This has been a very, very, very rewarding and satisfying arrangement,†said Harris, the company’s president. “The Koreans have been a major player in giving us advice to improve productivity, processes, and even facilities.†Nassco modeled its corrugated bulkhead construction facility on a similar Korean facility. It copied the practice of welding on the ladders for the bulk tanks during construction rather than afterwards. And new blocks for ships under construction now sit on giant transporters with a 320-ton capacity. “We’re moving away from cranes,†said Mooney. “It makes for more efficient building.

Nassco is also learning as it goes along. In January, a stern block for a future vessel was sitting on an adjustable jack stand. Such stands are a common practice in Asian yards, but the first hull was built without them.

Did using Korean know-how dent the Americans’ pride? “We sent 14 designers to Daewoo,†said Parker Larson, Nassco’s commercial engineering projects manager. “I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have some personal pride in our designs, but in the end we learned a lot from them.â€

Because of the collapse of U.S. Shipping Partners, Golden State and its sister vessels wound up under the control of Blackstone, a private equity group based in New York City with no expertise in vessel operations. Under an agreement hammered out in bankruptcy proceedings, Blackstone named Crowley Maritime Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla., to manage the existing vessels and oversee the construction of the remaining newbuilds under the name American Petroleum Tankers.

Golden State is on long-term charter to BP Shipping and Pelican State, which was delivered in June, is on long-term charter to Marathon Oil. Two of the remaining vessels will be chartered to the Military Sealift Command.

Crowley was already operating four older tankers as well as an array of articulated tug barges in the Jones Act petroleum trade. What it gets with the Nassco newbuilds is a class of modern but straightforward product carriers with very little of the sophistication of the 185,000-dwt Alaska-class tankers the yard built for BP Shipping in the early 2000s.

Nassco Area Manager Neil Henry, opposite page, whose area is the cargo and ballast tanks, explains the pumping system for Golden State, which includes 12 submerged deepwell Framo cargo pumps. Framo equipment was also used for the ballast pumps and ballast control system.

Like the Aker product carriers, Golden State has six pairs of segregated cargo tanks with flush overheads separated by corrugated bulkheads and served by 12 submerged deepwell Framo cargo pumps driven by hydraulic motors. Instead of sounding tubes, the cargo tanks rely on tank-level indicators that employ radar. In addition, there are two ballast pumps and a ballast control system, also by Framo. Water ballast is carried in wing and double-bottom tanks, and there are also two slop tanks.

The propulsion is equally simple: a B&W 6S50 MC diesel rated at 10,480 bhp at 122.6 rpm, at recommended operating load. The engine is direct-coupled to the shaft, which turns a 19-foot Wärtsilä fixed-pitch, four-blade propeller. Service speed is 14.8 knots and the cruising range is 10,000 nautical miles. Three STX MAN B&W four-stroke, inline-type gensets rated at approximately 960 kW supply the ship’s power and there is a single GPC-Cummins GEC120 emergency generator.

On deck is an Oriental HHC-1022 hose-handling crane. The cargo monitoring system is by Kongsberg, but the bridge has a Hyundai control system and an extensive array of communications and navigation equipment. Schat-Harding supplied the two lifeboats.

On May 29, when Nassco started work on the fifth tanker, it faced the prospect of running out of commercial work towards the end of next year. That vessel, Evergreen State, is due for delivery in the third quarter of 2010.

Final preparations for the new product carrier’s maiden voyage. The photos for this profile were taken two days after the christening ceremony; delivery was six months ahead of the original date.

But keeping a foothold in the commercial world is vitally important to the company, whose president, Harris, believes that a mix of navy and commercial newbuilds plus repair work gives Nassco a steady volume of work, whatever the vagaries of the industry. What’s more, he’s convinced that the different skills that come into play allow his yard to offer customers more than a single-focus shipyard. “We don’t have two tiers at this yard,†he said. “I’m able to give the Navy a great ship at an affordable price, and people work just as hard on commercial.â€

Balancing all types of work, three components have kept Nassco remarkably stable despite the economy. Its workforce has held steady at around 4,700 for several years, and the company benefits from strong military presence in San Diego; a local study put Nassco’s share of military contracts in 2008 at $1.9 billion. Nassco is the city’s largest manufacturer.

Nassco has made several recent improvements at its yard on Harbor Drive, leasing about 5 acres of an adjacent Navy property (“We have a good steel line here, but we found we needed more capability on our fitting side,†said Harris). The company is also building a new blasting and painting facility that will meet strict environmental standards for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

Meanwhile, Nassco’s line of underway replenishment vessels for the Military Sealift Command — the Lewis and Clark class, or T-AKE — is also winding down, although Nassco is hoping to adapt the hull to meet the Navy’s need for other types of vessels. How it will fill the void as its key naval and commercial contracts expire together is uncertain, but Nassco is looking hard for more work. And the partnership with Daewoo may pay off if shipowners start ordering ships again. After all, the purpose of Nassco’s deal with the Koreans in the first place was to improve its chances of success.

By Professional Mariner Staff