In Memoriam: Ole Skaarup, Father of the Modern Bulker

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By The Maritime Executive 06-16-2017 08:26:10

Ole Skaarup, who passed away June 11, 2010, was considered one of the most charismatic and innovative shipping executives of the postwar era. In the early 1970s he led the exodus of maritime companies from New York City to nearby Greenwich and Stamford, Connecticut and was rewarded for his efforts by being named the first Commodore of the Connecticut Maritime Association, which he helped found and which holds its annual gathering every March in Stamford and is attended by maritime executives from around the world.

He was born and educated in Denmark and fled that country after the German invasion of 1940. He then served as an officer in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps from 1941 to 1946 and helped load the D-Day ships during the Allied invasion of France, an achievement he often said was the highlight of his transportation career.

In 1951 Skaarup moved to New York City and founded Skaarup Shipping Corporation, where he fixed charters for bulk cargoes. At the time, the U.S. government had flooded the market with cheap Liberty Ships from World War II, which Skaarup soon realized were inefficient and too narrow and awkward for bulk cargoes, especially grain. He had to employ carpenters to build wooden shifting boards and beams to accommodate his loads. The process took too much time and money. If the returning shipment was coal or another dirty cargo, the ship had to be totally reconfigured again.

Birth of the OS Design

Skaarup understood that there must be a more efficient way to transport bulk cargoes and began drawing concepts on a notepad in his office. His 1954 design featured wider cargo holds and wing tanks, which could be filled with ballast water. He put the machinery aft and designed the hatches several feet above deck to accommodate on-dock grain feeders. When he was totally satisfied with the pencil designs, he handed them over to a naval architect for a professional rendition.

With the architectural plans completed, Skaarup went searching for capital to build the ships. He was eventually introduced by the Swedish shipowners Nordstrom and Thulin to Marcus Wallenberg, Sweden’s most famous and greatest industrialist. He explained how the modern bulker could transport more cargo efficiently as well as save time and money and Wallenberg immediately saw the brilliance of the concept and agreed to support it.

The design was named the OS-type in recognition of its creator, Ole Skaarup. In 1955, the first OS-type bulker, the 19,000-dwt M/V Cassiopeia, was launched at a cost of $2.5 million. The ship began transporting ore, grain and general bulk commodities, and the market quickly took notice of its fast loading and discharge times as well as the huge attendant savings in port and fuel costs of the new design.

An Innovative Self-Unloader

Skaarup designed self-loading bulkers as well. In 1955 he convinced the National Gypsum Company, the world’s biggest manufacturer of wallboard, to build its first self-unloading vessel. His concept was a gravity-type unloader, which did not need cranes either onboard or ashore. Nor did it need stevedores or, for that matter, even a dock to unload it.

He designed the ship with a conveyor belt in the hold to move the cargo off the stern and onshore via a boom conveyor extending off the ship. The ship could discharge about 2,000 tons per hour and only require three men to work it. The crew would simply open the gates and control the unloading.

The M/V Melvin H. Baker I, which was named after National Gypsum’s CEO, began service in 1956. National Gypsum would go on to name two more bulk ships after Mr. Baker, the last of which delivered its final cargo in 2003.

Through the following decades, the OS-design became the industry standard and was considered the most innovative model to follow. Today, bulk carriers represent about 15 percent of the commercial fleet, and they come in Handysize, Handymax, Panamax and Capesize configurations.

While the “father of the bulker” will always be remembered for his modern ship designs, he was also a noted musician, raconteur, and the first Commodore of CMA, one of the nation’s – and the world’s – leading maritime groups. Today, being named Commodore is one of the great honors of the maritime industry, a standard set by Skaarup himself. Those who followed in the role are considered the brightest and best maritime executives in the world.

Ole Skaarup died on June 11, 2010 at the age of 94.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.