The State of Shipbuilding

Sea Change Launch

What a difference a year makes for the nation’s shipbuilders. 

After a dismal 2020 that brought unprecedented challenges and a sharp slowdown in new projects, there are signs that the worst is finally over. 

The economy is open and some level of normalcy has returned. And with that comes an uptick in new work — some of which was shelved when the pandemic first arrived in the U.S. in March 2020.

Passenger and tour boat operators, whose vessels account for a significant chunk of the U.S. small shipbuilding industry, were among the most heavily impacted during Covid-19. Ferry ridership, though, is now bouncing back in a lot of markets — including for Washington State Ferries, one of the nation’s largest ferry operators. 

“We’ve experienced a rapid recovery and are approaching pre-pandemic ridership on many routes,” said Ian Sterling, spokesman for the ferry system. “This has largely been driven by tourism, rather than commuters who have yet to return to offices in Seattle.”

But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism comes from the rapid rise of the offshore wind industry. The 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project has received federal approval, and numerous other wind projects are in the pipeline. Several high-profile offshore wind support and construction vessels have already been ordered, and others are said to be in the final contract stages. 

Advances in alternative propulsion are another positive sign in an industry looking to reduce its carbon footprint. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) continues to gain momentum as a maritime fuel, and shoreside infrastructure is building to meet demand. Meanwhile, hydrogen fuel cell technology will soon become a reality in the United States, creating potential for plentiful and zero-emission fuel.

“I think we will start seeing more (alternate propulsion) depending on the operational profile of the boat,” said Ron Wille, president and chief operating officer of All American Marine in Bellingham, Wash., which is nearing completion on the hydrogen fuel cell ferry Sea Change. “But I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution. I think you will see different technology that will be used in different applications.”

Taken together, it suggests ongoing innovation and opportunity for an industry that has shown remarkable resiliency during the last 18 months. 

Offshore wind industry offers promise, opportunity

The federal government in May gave formal approval to Vineyard Wind’s proposed offshore wind project south of Massachusetts. That project, and countless others coming behind it, signals the start of a new industry that should benefit American mariners and shipbuilders. 

Contracts have already been signed for multiple large ships designed to build or service offshore wind farms. Edison Chouest Offshore, for instance, plans to build the first U.S. service operations vessel (SOV), which will operate as a floating mother ship for large-scale projects. 

Orsted and Eversource have agreed to charter the 260-foot vessel in support of their Revolution Wind, South Fork Wind and Sunrise Wind projects planned in waters off the northeastern coast. It will have accommodations for 60 turbine technicians and amenities that include an internet cafe and cinema room.

Keppel AmFELS of Brownsville, Texas, is building the first Jones Act-compliant wind turbine installation vessel for Dominion Energy. It will be available for charter to other companies upon delivery in 2023, according to the shipyard. 

The future 472-foot ship will be among the largest wind turbine installation vessels in the world. Its main crane will have a 426-foot boom, and its lifting capacity is estimated at 2,200 metric tons. The ship also will have accommodations for 119 people. 

“The vessel is designed to handle current turbine technologies, as well as next-generation turbine sizes of 12 megawatts or larger, and will also be capable of the installation of foundations for turbines and other heavy lifts,” Keppel AmFELS said in a news release.

Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, meanwhile, announced plans to build the first U.S.-flagged vessel designed for subsea rock installation. 

These large projects gained plenty of attention, but offshore wind projects need a wide variety of vessels. The American Wind Energy Association identified more than a dozen different vessels needed for each installation. This includes everything from tugboats and barges to survey vessels, cable-laying ships, crew transfer vessels (CTVs), SOVs and turbine installation ships. 

The market for crew transfer vessels is certainly heating up. Atlantic Wind Transfers of Rhode Island took delivery last fall of its second CTV, Atlantic Endeavor (profiled on page 14), which supports the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project. It is only the third CTV built in the U.S., although that is likely to change soon. 

“In the next three to five years, there is going to be a need for more vessels,” said Charlie Donadio Jr., president of Atlantic Wind Transfers. “Unfortunately, they are all going to be coming online at the same time, so we may have some supply chain issues and shipyard availability issues.”

Crew transfer vessels carry technicians and cargo back and forth between the shore and the offshore wind sites. Current vessels resemble high-speed ferries, with airline-style seating, ample storage, galleys and comfortable amenities. The next generation of CTVs, Donadio predicts, will be in the 27- to 30-meter range (88 to 98 feet) and could have overnight accommodations for technicians to sleep on the vessels. 

The number of CTVs needed to support this burgeoning industry will vary based on the number of projects and the number of turbines at each site, among other factors.   

“There is really no secret formula,” he said. “It really comes down to the operating model the developer … is looking for,” he said. 

These new vessels will need mariners to operate them and new training programs to bring captains and crews up to speed on maneuvers and evolutions they’ll perform against an offshore wind turbine. Additionally, the market for technicians who will service offshore these wind turbines could be one of the most in-demand jobs over the next decade. 

Advances in green propulsion

LNG is rapidly gaining acceptance as an alternative fuel, and battery advances are making electrification possible for a wider range of vessels and operating profiles. 

Hydrogen fuel cell technology, according to All American Marine’s Ron Wille, could ultimately eclipse all other alternative fuel sources. All American is close to delivering Sea Change, a ferry that will run on hydrogen fuel cells. It will be the first such vessel of its kind in the U.S. 

The vessel will be powered by 360-kW Cummins fuel cells, with storage tanks that can hold 246 kg (542 pounds) of hydrogen. It also will have 100 kWh of batteries and two 300-kW electric traction motors providing propulsion. The hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity that in turn powers the electric motors. BAE Systems, Cummins and Zero Emissions Industries partnered on the project. 

“The hydrogen fuel cell power train system affords the same operational flexibility as diesel with zero emissions and less maintenance,” All American said in a news release. 

There are plenty of hurdles to wider adoption, including ensuring a steady supply of hydrogen. Much of the nation’s hydrogen supply is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry, but there is a push to develop sources of so-called “green hydrogen” from renewable energy. The cost of the fuel is another factor. Right now, Wille said, it is more expensive than diesel. 

But compared to LNG or batteries, he sees a tremendous upside. Hydrogen is more energy-dense than LNG, and it is much lighter than even the most modern battery technology. Fuel cells have far fewer moving parts than a combustion engine, reducing long-term maintenance costs. 

Sea Change is currently in the water in Bellingham, awaiting final regulatory approvals — a process slowed, in part, by a lack of existing U.S. maritime standards for hydrogen fuel cell technology. 

Meanwhile, a second hydrogen-powered vessel was announced this summer: The University of California, San Diego plans to build a research vessel equipped with the first-ever hydrogen-hybrid propulsion system. 

“The design is scaled so the ship will be able to operate 75 percent of its missions entirely using a non-fossil fuel —hydrogen — with only pure water and electricity as reaction products,” according to UC San Diego. “For longer missions, extra power will be provided by clean-running modern diesel generators.” 

The 125-foot vessel is not expected until 2024, and a shipyard partner has not been announced. 

Large ships on the horizon

There have been plenty of challenges over the last year, but also some occasions to celebrate. One is the start of construction on a new class of training ships for the nation’s maritime academies. 

Late last year, Philly Shipyard began cutting steel for the first ship in a series known as national security multi-mission vessels (NSMVs). The new ships will measure 525 by 88 feet and have classrooms, simulators and lab spaces along with accommodations for 600 cadets and 100 officers, faculty and staff. Cargo capabilities include containers and roll-on, roll-off equipment. 

SUNY Maritime College in New York is scheduled to receive the first ship of the series in 2023. Subsequent vessels are projected for successive years through 2026 for training academies in Massachusetts, Maine and Texas.

Other notable large ship projects include Keppel AmFELS’ continued work on Pasha Hawaii’s ‘Ohana class (profiled on page 26). The ships are designed to run on liquefied natural gas from the moment they enter service. 

On the West Coast, General Dynamics NASSCO delivered Matsonia, the second container/roll-on, roll-off (con-ro) in the 870-foot Kanaloa class. The San Diego shipyard also launched USNS John Lewis, the lead boat in a class of 742-foot replenishment oilers for the U.S. Navy. 

Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., is close to delivering Clean Canaveral. With its 5,500-cubic-meter capacity, it will be the largest LNG bunker barge in North America. Upon delivery later this year, the vessel will pair with a pusher tugboat under construction at Master Boat Builders in Alabama.

McAllister Towing LNG Services will operate the ATB on behalf of Polaris New Energy. It will be home-ported in Jacksonville, Fla. 

Bay Shipbuilding is continuing work on a new Great Lakes freighter for Interlake Steamship Co. The future Mark W. Barker, named for the current company president, will measure 639 by 78 feet. It is scheduled for delivery in 2022, at which time it will be the first new U.S.-flagged Great Lakes carrier built in more than 35 years. 

On the Gulf Coast, Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors of Houma, La., won a contract with the U.S. Navy worth $178 million to build two new oceanographic research ships. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will acquire the vessels through the Naval Sea Systems Command. The first new ship will be named Oceanographer, while the second will be named Discoverer.

“These state-of-the-art ships will play a vital role in collecting high-quality data and leading scientific discoveries,” Neil Jacobs, Ph.D., acting NOAA administrator, said late last year. “The science missions aboard these vessels promise to push the boundaries of what is known about our still largely undiscovered ocean.”

VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula, Miss., won a contract worth $149 million to design and build an oceanographic survey ship for the U.S. Navy. The ship will be the eighth in the Pathfinder class, the previous seven of which also were built by VT Halter. 

Additionally, the shipyard is moving toward the start of construction on the Coast Guard’s first new heavy icebreaker. Work is now slated to start next year, a delay the Coast Guard attributed to design revisions and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The Coast Guard is working with the shipbuilder to assess the impacts of Covid-19 on (the) design and how that will affect the overall production and delivery of the (polar security cutter),” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Brittany Panetta told Professional Mariner last summer. She said the new ship remains on track for a 2024 delivery.

A few hours east of Pascagoula, in Port St. Joe., Fla., Eastern Shipbuilding delivered the first of three new Ollis-class passenger ferries to the Staten Island Ferry service (profile on page 18). Two additional 320-passenger sister vessels are scheduled for delivery over the next six to eight months. 

Separately, Eastern remains busy building the lead vessels in the Coast Guard’s new class of offshore patrol cutters. The first vessel in the series, the future USCGC Argus, is slated for delivery in 2022. Two other cutters, the future USCGC Chase and USCGC Ingham, also are under construction. All told, the Coast Guard plans to build up to 25 new offshore patrol cutters.

By Professional Mariner Staff