Back in September 1967, a ship sailed into the Port of Baltimore. As stevedores looked out from the pier, they observed a new ship with a design unlike anything they had ever seen. This amazing vessel had containers stacked securely in protective cells. Vehicles, machinery and trailers had been driven on via a stern ramp and parked securely in garages under deck. With this hybrid setup, unloading and loading the Atlantic Span on her maiden voyage would turn out to be a breeze. Those assigned to handle the actual cargo had a far easier task compared with the long, arduous workloads for conventional vessels.
Little did these unwitting witnesses know that the vessel design in their midst would become the hallmark of quality and innovation for liner shipping for the next five decades. And in the process, Atlantic Container Line (ACL) would prove that size was not the only determinant for success in the competitive world of ocean transportation.
This September marks ACL’s 50th year of transportation service on the ever turbulent seas of the North Atlantic. Throughout the years, ACL vessels have steamed over 25 million miles and have carried more than 100 million tons of cargo between North America and Europe. This milestone represents a remarkable achievement for a niche operator in an industry now dominated by mega‐carriers who seek profitability through economies of scale. Unlike other carriers, ACL has thrived by catering to clients seeking customized service to destinations on both sides of the Atlantic.
ACL’s success stems from a corporate culture that has always pushed the envelope and has often made innovations that advanced the entire industry of international deep‐sea transportation. Even before the Atlantic Span ever set sail, ACL was setting new standards for the industry. Founders established the Company through the first‐ever international maritime consortium agreement, which brought together six legendary shipping companies: Holland‐America Line, Cunard Line, French Line, Swedish American Line, Transatlantic AB and Wallenius Lines. Expertise was already onboard with leaders like Olof Wallenius (the creator of the roll‐on/roll‐off concept) and Pieter van Houten, managing director of Holland‐America Line.
With an organization in place on both sides of the Atlantic, the group embarked on a bold course into the new world of containerization. U.S.‐based SeaLand Service was the world’s first container carrier, and ACL became the second (and the first European container carrier). While SeaLand was ultimately absorbed by another ocean carrier and ceased to exist, ACL remains the oldest container operator in the world.
ACL has constantly adapted itself to changing technology. This, however, was not an easy process back in 1967. For instance, early container cranes at New York’s Port Elizabeth terminal were mobile and they ran the risk of toppling if they tried to lift heavy containers off the far side of a ship. Once a crane had unloaded the starboard side of a ship, tugboats would quickly spin her around so the crane could safely unload the port side. Eventually, ACL introduced permanently secured cranes that could safely reach across a vessel’s entire beam.
Far from the docks, ACL tackled other challenges in terms of tracking equipment and shipments. When ACL’s G1 vessels began service in 1967, the company relied on a standard system of tracking each container with a small numbered metal rectangle that would be stuck to a giant magnetic board. Staffers would physically move each rectangle from one spot to another to indicate where all equipment was at any given time. Aware that the system was time‐intensive and prone to error, ACL’s brain trust got to work to develop a better way.
In these early days of computers, ACL sought a high‐tech answer. The company invested in what was then a state‐of‐the‐art computer system called a Univac 418 II from Sperry Rand Corp. Remote data communication devices, planted at various office locations, would keep ACL managers abreast of where their containers were and when they would be going elsewhere. By September 1968, ACLAIM, the first computerized container control system in the deep‐sea transportation industry, became fully operational.
Keeping track of inventory was not productive if ocean carriers could not be equally sophisticated in managing both ocean and inland movement of containers. For this task, ACL developed what it called the Route Code System. Designed for repeat customers whose weekly shipping patterns seldom changed, each route code would represent both the ocean and inland movement of a shipment’s journey. Such a system had become necessary as the concept of door‐to‐door “intermodal” transportation (combining ocean, rail and truck movements) became an industry standard. With the Route Code System in place, ACL’s marketing, logistics and accounting staff could tell from a single code not only where a shipment had been loaded and where it was going, but also how much to charge a customer based on an agreed matrix of ocean and inland rates.
By late 1969, a young ACL was already investing on a scale suggestive of an industry leader. The fleet size was expanded by 150 percent through the addition of a new and improved G2 fleet. These six ships were all faster and larger than the original four. The company operated from what was then the world’s largest marine container terminal (52.5 acres) at Port Elizabeth, NJ in the New York harbor. No other facility in the world had the necessary capacity to handle two combination roll‐on/roll‐off container ships simultaneously. By investing $1 million for the world’s first Paceco container crane, which would be a crown jewel for its New York operation, ACL reflected a bullish confidence in the future. After all, in those days, investing in a seven‐figure price tag for a piece of machinery was a bold move for even the deepest pockets.
Over the years, such smart investments paid off handsomely. Customers with high‐end goods used ACL to ship everything from automobiles and construction equipment to vodka. There were a few special shipments that were unforgettable. “Tanya,” for instance, was likely the first elephant ever to cross the Atlantic. At 2,400 pounds, she needed lots of exercise. Thanks to a personal attendant, Tanya took frequent laps around the deck. And she wasn’t the only celebrity to use ACL. The carrier also got the nod when John Travolta and Mick Jagger moved their movie/concert tour trailers overseas. Following suit was Arnold Schwarzenegger and HRH Queen Elizabeth who transported their personal helicopters on ACL vessels.
Occasionally, ACL was given a chance to mix business with patriotism. For example, in 1986, ACL’s Atlantic Compass proudly delivered a Swedish‐manufactured elevator system for installation at the Statue of Liberty. In 1990, ACL helped the Royal Navy during Operation Desert Shield in the Middle East, when ACL’s G3 vessel, Atlantic Conveyor, carried tanks, trucks and helicopters to the Persian Gulf for eventual use in the Iraq campaign. An Argentine missile sank the original Atlantic Conveyor, an ACL G2 vessel, during the Falklands conflict, as she was delivering RAF Harrier jets, Chinook helicopters and tanks to the war zone.
Investing in success
ACL’s business model, which still includes multipurpose‐designed ships and personalized customer service with local offices, has remained constant throughout the years. The company enjoyed a highly successful run on the Oslo Stock Exchange when it first went public in 1994. Then in 2001, the Grimaldi Group recognized the synergy potential of linking ACL’s North American expertise with their successful services in the Mediterranean, West Africa and South America. Grimaldi became the leading shareholder and eventually took the company private once again.
With a successful formula that has clearly withstood the test of time, ACL continues to play a key role when valuable shipments require a special level of care. The multi‐modal transport of RORO, cars and containers continues to be enhanced by investments in technology. ACL’s software network, ATLAS, operates throughout the entire Grimaldi and ACL networks, to ensure efficiency and control of cargo operations and customer service.
In 2008, ACL began to look towards the future and evaluated innovative new designs for its next generation of ships, the Generation 4 vessels (G4s). This innovative Danish design successfully solved the problem of high ballast on CONRO vessels. Virtually all CONRO vessels until now stow containers on deck and lighter RORO cargo under deck. Because of the significant air space that naturally occurs on RORO decks compared to the denser stowage of containers, most of the weight rides high on a standard CONRO vessel, requiring a great deal of ballast for stability. ACL’s new concept puts all the RORO cargo amidships, and stows the containers in cells fore and aft of the RORO section. This results in cargo replacing ballast and much more efficient use of vessel space.
After four years of planning, ACL chose a Shanghai‐based shipbuilder to construct the new G4’s. The G4 is the largest RORO/Containership (CONRO) ever built. Its innovative design increases capacity without significantly changing the dimensions of the vessel. The G4s are bigger, greener and more efficient than their predecessors, and emissions per TEU are reduced by 65 percent. The container capacity is more than doubled at 3,800 TEUs, plus 28,900 square meters of RORO space and a car capacity of 1300 vehicles. The 420‐ton quarter RORO ramp enables simultaneous loading and discharge of oversized cargo. The RORO ramps are wider and shallower and decks are higher (up to 7.4 meters) with fewer columns, enabling much easier loading and discharge of oversized cargo. The fleet continues to employ cell‐guides on deck; a feature that will allow ACL to extend its enviable record of 30 years without a container lost over the side.
The first G4, Atlantic Star, joined the ACL fleet in the fall of 2015. The remaining four G4 vessels, Atlantic Sail, Atlantic Sea, Atlantic Sky and Atlantic Sun were delivered throughout 2016‐2017. The Atlantic Sea was christened by HRH Princess Anne in Liverpool at the Cruise Liner Terminal – the first Royal ship christening in the Mersey since 1960.
The G4s demonstrate to our customers that our parent company, the Grimaldi Group, continues to invest long‐term in ACL's future. ACL has been successful during its fifty-year history by thinking differently than its competitors. We employ unique ships, go to unique ports and carry cargo that others cannot carry. The new G4 fleet will greatly enhance our cargo‐carrying capabilities. Combined with Grimaldi's ever‐expanding service network, they will enable ACL to provide more diverse services as a high quality container and RORO operator for many years to come.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.