Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Special Feature: Trade with Alaska – The 49th State’s 50th Anniversary

By: Jim Shaw (As seen in the November issue of Pacific Maritime Magazine)

Alaska is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its statehood this year, but just like the Gold Rush era of the 1890s, it continues to depend upon shipping for much of its trade and tourism. Although the once formidable Alaska Steamship Company is long gone, a victim of containerization and the air age in the 1970s, its place has been ably taken by a number of tug and barge lines as well as two modern ship operators, Horizon Lines and Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), while passenger traffic is catered to by the state-owned Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS).

Since 1977 the TAPS tankers, a fleet of US-flag crude carriers, has been moving crude petroleum south from the Valdez terminal to refineries in the “lower 48” while the cruise industry, launched in 1957 around the founding of Alaska Cruise Lines, has funneled more than 60 percent of the state’s visitors northward.

The next big step for Alaska is expected to be the construction of a natural gas pipeline that will run from Prudhoe Bay to Alberta, but that project, which has been in the planning stage for three decades, may cost more than $30 billion to build and take more than eight years to complete.

TAPS Tankers
Much of the shipping serving Alaska has been modernized over the past decade, with the TAPS tanker fleet now fully double-hulled, two new TOTE ro/ro vessels operational and several new ferries added to the growing AMHS fleet. Although the new TAPS tankers are somewhat smaller than what they might be because of navigational constraints at their loading and discharge terminals they are highly efficient and environmentally friendly carriers.

The newest of the vessels are a series of four 286.85-meter (941 feet) by 50-meter (164 feet) ships built by the NASSCO shipyard at San Diego, California for the Alaska Tanker Company. The 185,000-dwt sisters Alaska Frontier, Alaska Explorer, Alaska Navigator and Alaska Legend were delivered between 2004 and 2006 and are diesel-electric propelled.

Between 2001 and 2006 another series of ships measuring 272.7 meters (894.7 feet) by 46.2 meters (151.6 feet) was built by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems at Avondale, Louisiana for Polar Tankers. These latter vessels, all of just over one million barrel capacity, are easily identifiable by their bright blue hull colors and sail under the names Polar Endeavour, Polar Resolution, Polar Discovery, Polar Adventure and Polar Enterprise.

Last of the Single-Hulls Retired
Lagging somewhat behind in its modernization efforts to date has been SeaRiver Maritime, the privately-held subsidiary of ExxonMobil, which has just retired the Alaska run’s last single-hull tanker, the 1987-built SeaRiver Long Beach, ex-Exxon Long Beach, a sister ship to the infamous Exxon Valdez. In the past, rather than order new ships, ExxonMobil has brought in older double-hulled tonnage such as the 1978-built Kodiak (ex-Tonsina) and 1979-built Sierra (ex-Kenai). Several smaller but newer ships are also operating in the TAPS trade, including the 46,094-dwt twins Seabulk Arctic (ex-Cape Lookout Shoals) and Seabulk Pride, (ex-Nantucket Shoals) while the smallest member of the fleet is the 39,999 dwt Captain H. A. Downing, a 1996-built vessel operated by AHL Shipping Company. The later three ships have been moving petroleum for Tesoro Alaska while SeaRiver handles ExxonMobil’s transportation requirements. At the same time, Polar moves crude south for ConocoPhillips while the Alaska Tanker Company ships carry oil for British Petroleum.

Container Ships and Ro/Ro Carriers
As the TAPS tankers carry Alaskan oil south another fleet, made up of container vessels, ro/ro ships and barges, moves consumer goods north. Horizon Lines, spun off from Sea-Land in 1999 as CSX Lines, then renamed Horizon following its purchase by The Carlyle Group in 2003, operates three D7-class 1987-built container ships in the Alaska trade. The 21,292 dwt Horizon Anchorage, Horizon Kodiak and Horizon Tacoma measure 216.4 meters (710 feet) by 23.8 meters (78.2 feet) and formerly sailed as Sea-Land Anchorage, Sea-Land Kodiak and Sea-Land Tacoma. They have a speed of 20 knots and can carry up to 1,712 TEUs.

At the same time, a fleet of three ro/ro ships is operated in the Alaska trade by TOTE. Two of these ships, Midnight Sun and North Star, were completed by NASSCO at San Diego in 2003 while the third, Westward Venture, is one of the company’s original Ponce-class vessels and is currently held in reserve.

Midnight Sun and North Star, known as the Orca class, measure 255.7 meters (839 feet) by 35.9 meters (118 feet) and can carry up to 600 forty-foot trailers and 200 autos at a speed of 24 knots, while Westward Venture measures 241 meters (790.9 feet) by 32.1 meters (105 feet) and can carry up to 380 forty-foot trailers and 120 autos at a speed of 22 knots.

Tugs and Barges
Complementing the fast container and ro/ro services offered by Horizon and TOTE are a number of tug and barge firms, most based in Puget Sound. Although the barges are slow they are also cheap, as their towing tugs require a crew numbering only about a third of what a regular freighter handling the same amount of cargo would require.

While most tows are routine, and may take as long as two weeks to reach their destination, some are highly specialized and must be “engineered” to fit into a specific weather and time frame. Chief among the latter are the Sealifts to Prudhoe Bay, which must be sent through the Bering Strait and on into the Beaufort Sea. Although these tows are only run occasionally now, they were once vital during the early construction days of the North Slope oil field, when modules as high as a 10-story building and weighing more than 5,000 tons had to be moved north. Because of the extremely shallow waters off Alaska’s north coast, special wide-beam barges were built that could navigate in as little as 4 feet of water. The tows also had to enter and leave the Beaufort during an extremely narrow time frame, usually in late August and early September, when Arctic ice was at its thinnest.

The Alaska Marine Highway System
Catering to Alaska’s residents and tourists, plus some commercial traffic, is the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) ferry fleet. The name is important as the ferry system is considered part of the US National Highway System, and because of this, receives federal highway funding. Its history can be traced back to the early post-war period when two Alaskan residents, Steve Homer and Ray Gelotte, began a ferry service on the Lynn Canal using a war-surplus landing craft called Chilkoot.

The business was deemed vital enough to the interests of Alaska that it was purchased by the territorial government in 1951 after which a new ferry, the 256-gt, 75-passenger Chilkat, was delivered in 1957. Two years later the ferry service came under state ownership and a series of three larger ferries were ordered from Puget Sound Bridge & Dry Dock Co. at Seattle. These vessels, Matanuska, Taku and Malaspina, were completed in 1963 and allowed ferry service to be extended to Prince Rupert, Canada. A year later the 4,600-gt Tustumena was delivered by the Christy Corporation on the Great Lakes, to be followed by the smaller 934-gt E.L. Bartlett in 1969.

In 1974 the 1,328-gt Le Conte and 3,946-gt Columbia joined the fleet, to be followed in 1977 by the 1,280-gt Aurora. Between 1968 and 1974 one foreign-built ferry, Wickersham, (ex-Stena Britannica) was operated until returned to Europe in mid-1974 to become Rederi A/B Sally’s Viking 6. This long-lived 1967-built vessel survived for another 27 years before going for scrap in 2001.

Old Ferries and New
Most of AMHS’s first generation ferries remain in service, with only Chilkoot, Chilkat and E.L. Bartlett having been retired. Matanuska was lengthened to 124 meters (408 feet) in 1968 while Malaspina received similar treatment in 1972. Taku, although not lengthened, was extensively modernized in 1981.

In the mid-1990s AMHS placed an order for its first new ferry since Aurora and in 1998 took delivery of the 12,635-gt Kennicott from the Halter Marine shipyard at Gulfport, Mississippi. This 116-meter (382 ft) by 26-meter (85 ft) vessel is unique among AMHS ferries in that it was built to ocean-going status, which allows it to operate across the Gulf of Alaska between Juneau and Kodiak, and was also designed to serve as a command center in the event of natural disaster or oil spill, a lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez incident of 1989.

In 2004 and 2005 two more ferries joined the AMHS fleet, the high-speed, vehicle-carrying catamarans Fairweather and Chenega, both built by the Derecktor Shipyard on the East Coast. These 72-meter (235 ft) by 18.2-meter (60 ft) cats are powered by a quadruple diesel/water jet propulsion system giving a service speed of 32 knots. However, they have proven to be somewhat temperamental in the Alaskan environment, with Fairweather out of service for three months earlier this year because of engine problems while Chenega experienced similar mechanical difficulties in June.

Cruising to Alaska
Cruising to Alaska can be said to have started with the vessels of Alaska Steamship and Canadian Pacific in the late 1800s, although the Canadian ships were prohibited from moving passengers between US ports in the 1920s. Nevertheless, CP continued to operate seasonal Alaska cruises from Canadian ports both before and after World War II, continuing on into the early 1980s with the venerable Princess Patricia. It was this same vessel that gave birth to Princess Cruises in 1966 when it was chartered by Stanley MacDonald for a series of winter cruises to Mexico.

When one examines the Alaska cruise business as it is today, particularly with the many land excursions offered, the name of Chuck West must come up. It was West who designed a series of land excursions for the passengers of Alaska Steamship in the late 1940s, and when that company left the passenger trade in the mid-1950s, West went on to establish his own cruise line. He first chartered a converted British castle-class corvette from Canada’s Union Steamship, which he re-christened Glacier Queen, and then launched Alaska Cruise Lines in 1957. A sister ship, Yukon Star, was added in the following year, after which both vessels were purchased outright.

Pioneer of the Modern Era
In the early 1960s, when passenger numbers continued to increase, West proposed having a new building completed for the Alaska trade in Canada but backed out when the price exceeded $4.7 million. Instead, the third sister to Glacier Queen and Yukon Star was located in Greece where it was being operated by Sun Line as Stella Maris. This 1,924-gt ship was examined and purchased in early 1966. Unfortunately, the well-appointed little vessel, renamed Westar for the voyage back to Canada, was lost to a bunkering fire at Sardinia and had to be scrapped. It was replaced in the following year by yet another Greek-owned ship, Delos (ex-Wappen Von Hamburg), which was purchased from Nomikos Line and entered service on the Alaska run in 1968 as Polar Star.

West followed this ship with the purchase of the Spanish vessel Cabo Izarra from Yabarra Line in 1970 which he renamed West Star. This proved to be the undoing of West’s venture because of the ship’s cost, its mechanical condition and the rejection of its Spanish crew by Canadian seafarers. When financing could not be arranged to pay the vessel off, and with his other ships held hostage by angry seafarers, West was forced to sell his entire operation, by then known as Westours, to Holland America Line.

Continued Growth?
It was during this same time frame that MacDonald’s Princess Cruises was moving in the Alaska trade using such chartered ships as Princess Italia and Island Princess. By 1974 the Princess organization had been acquired by Great Britain’s P&O group and in 1975 Holland America Line sent its first purpose-built cruise ship, Prinsendam, to Alaska, marking the beginning of the modern era. Nearly 35 years later some 28 large cruise ships have been operating seasonally in the Alaska trade, moving more than a million passengers to the state annually. However, at least three of these vessels will not be returning next year because of the poor economy and high operating costs, the latter heavily influenced by the state’s $46 tax on each arriving cruise passenger. Their loss will mean at least 142,000 fewer tourists for the state in 2010 and has sparked the Alaska Cruise Association, representing all the major cruise lines serving the state, to file a lawsuit against Alaska’s government seeking to have the tax overturned.