Hands-Free Mooring For St. Lawrence and Great Lakes

March 27, 2018

In what is being hailed as the greatest positive development for St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes-shipping in more than a half-century, a soon-to-be-completed hands-free mooring program will open access to 10 times as many vessels while delivering impressive time, money and safety benefits.

From port executives and Seaway marketers to carrier operations managers and ship captains, enthusiasm abounds as the innovative program to ease passage through Seaway locks has been finished at all 14 Canadian installations and advances toward mid-2019 completion at the two remaining locks, both in the U.S.

The program, alternatively referred to as auto-mooring and self-mooring, is the world’s first to deploy a hands-free solution at locks, thus eliminating the time-consuming, labor-intensive and hazardous traditional method of transit.

At the same time, vessels going through the Seaway locks no longer will need to be equipped with special securement fittings. That means waterways that had been restricted to handling only the 800 or so Seaway-fitted ships in today’s fleet will see their accessibility unlocked to the approximately 8,000 vessels small enough to pass through the lock system.

“Huge Opportunity” Seen

“It opens up a huge opportunity for us in terms of additional vessels that can enter the Seaway system,” Bruce Hodgson said. Hodgson is director of market development for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, the St. Catherines, Ontario-based not-for-profit Canadian entity that teams with the U.S.-based St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation in promoting St. Lawrence-Great Lakes passage under the Hwy H2O banner.

Whereas the vast majority of the more than 80,000 vessels in the current world fleet remain too large for such passage, the number of ships able to go through the St. Lawrence Seaway and on through the Great Lakes will increase 10-fold with the auto-mooring system in place.

“We know there is cargo moving via other gateways, but we don’t have enough capacity to service all that cargo,” Hodgson said. “Now, this gives us the capability to do so.”

And the benefits extend well beyond the ability to potentially accommodate 10 times as many ships, encompassing significantly reduced transit times, less demand for manual labor at locks, enhanced safety and concomitant cost savings.

Among leaders of Canadian and U.S. ports excited about the auto-mooring program is Tim Heney, CEO of the Port of Thunder Bay, Ontario, situated on Lake Superior, about 2,300 miles inland from the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

“It’s probably the biggest technological leap since they built the Seaway system,” Heney said. The St. Lawrence Seaway opened nearly 60 years ago, in 1959.

Heney said he sees primary benefits including the elimination of safety concerns related to the use of cables no longer needing to be deployed, and the potential for lower operating costs and faster transits through the locks.

While Thunder Bay is the leading export port along the Seaway and Great Lakes, its import activity is minimal, according to Heney, who noted that just 15 of 400 ships calling at Thunder Bay in the past year handled imports of project cargo. He said he sees substantial opportunity, with auto-mooring in place, for wind turbines, power generators, oil-sands-destined pressure vessels and other oversized cargoes to come to his port from Europe and other places, to which Thunder Bay exports grains, potash and coal head.

“You have to run loaded in order to be competitive,” Heney said, pointing out the importance of vessels carrying cargo in each direction along the lengthy Seaway supply chain. “You can’t afford many empty miles.”

Gains Seen Far-Reaching

About 200 miles farther inland than Thunder Bay, the Port of Duluth-Superior, the No. 1 total tonnage port on the Great Lakes and farthest inland port accessed by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway, is looking forward to handling additional project cargoes as well.

“Anything that widens the net of opportunity is a good thing, and that’s what the auto-mooring program does,” said Vanta E. Coda II, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Historically a “natural resources port,” the twin Port of Duluth-Superior, respectively encompassing Minnesota and Wisconsin facilities, is a solid mover of mined, forested and agricultural products. Coda said he sees the current flow of some 35 million short tons a year being augmented by more breakbulk and project cargoes with the advent of hands-free mooring.

With greater vessel availability providing better pricing opportunities, Duluth-Superior becomes more competitive in reaching upper Midwest destinations with heavy-lift and breakbulk cargoes, Coda said, adding: “Typically, when we lose an opportunity, we lose it to Houston.”

 

SOURCE: Break Bulk