The Market Potential for a St Lawrence-Max Container Ship

Port of Montreal
Port of Montreal

By Harry Valentine 06-18-2017 08:19:07

About a year ago, Montreal maritime officials declared that post-Panamax ships were cleared to sail the St Lawrence River to the Port of Montreal. This vessel class could usefully also be defined as St Lawrence-Max, a class that will definitely sail between Europe and Montreal but rarely, if ever, sail the Panama Canal.

Lower St Lawrence River

The Lower St Lawrence River between Port of Montreal and Gulf of St Lawrence has allowed passage to ships of 10-meter (33-foot) fresh water draft for several years, given overhead bridge clearances of 52 meters (170 feet) and a channel width of 42 meters (140 feet). Panamax ships that nominally sailed a draft of 12 meters and beam of 32.3 meters carried 5,000 TEUs. If the destination was Port of Montreal, ships sailed an equivalent fresh water draft of 10 meters carrying 4,100 TEUs. 

About a year ago, Canada’s national transportation department recognized the precise navigation capability of computer directed bow and stern thrusters. By bestowing such recognition, Transport Canada declared that “Post-Panamax ships of 44 meters (144 feet) beam could sail the Lower St Lawrence River to the Port of Montreal.” However, the vessels will be restricted to the old 10-meter fresh water draft and overhead bridge clearances of 52 meters. Maritime researchers have declared that the vessel could carry 6,000 TEUs or half the capacity of Neo-Panamax ships that sail via the Panama Canal. 

Canada – European trade accounts for almost 50 percent of the maritime container traffic that is handled by Port of Montreal, a factor that could justify construction of the St Lawrence-Max container ship.

Market for the Ship

The Port of Montreal operates both container and bulk terminals. During its operating season, the St Lawrence Seaway transits mainly Seaway-max size bulk carriers carrying freight from ports located around the Great Lakes and Seaway to Montreal’s bulk terminals. Future trans-Atlantic bulk ships that sail between Montreal and European ports could carry one-third greater payload than an earlier generation of trans-Atlantic bulk carriers. 

In terms of container traffic, an increase from 4,100 TEUs to 5,600 TEUs between main European ports such as Antwerp/Rotterdam and Port of Montreal enhances trans-Atlantic ship transportation economics.

The St Lawrence-Max container ship has potential to serve as an interline vessel connecting Montreal to east coast American ports as well as Western Mediterranean ports. A 13,000- TEU Neo-Panamax ship sailing from an East Asian port could carry a combined load of containers destined for both Montreal and southeastern America port. While 7,400-TEU would be unloaded at the American port, the remaining Montreal-bound 5,600-TEU would be transferred to a Montreal bound St Lawrence-Max vessel. A 20,000-TEU ship sailing from Asia to Europe could transfer 5,600-TEU to a Montreal-bound St Lawrence-Max ship at a Southwestern Mediterranean port.

Domestic Canadian Interlining

Plans are underway in Nova Scotia for a terminal capable of servicing Suezmax container ships of up to 20,000 TEUs. These ships could sail to east coast North America from any of several Asian container ports that include Kerala (Southwestern India), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Singapore or the trio of container super ports at and near Hong Kong. St Lawrence-Max container ships could interline with the oceanic giants at eastern Nova Scotia and take on containers destined for Port of Montreal as well as the Port of Boston, which would require modifications to port cranes in order to service the wider ship.

Maritime transport has the potential to offer very competitive rates for low-priority containers, courtesy of s 2008 – 2010 study by Sea Point Group of New Orleans comparing railway versus maritime container rates between Ports of Long Beach and Memphis. Despite a ship sailing three times the distance via the Panama Canal, maritime transport incurred savings of some $2,000 per container. 

There is identical distance by rail and by ship between Eastern Nova Scotia and Montreal as well as shorter maritime distance than railway distance between Eastern Nova Scotia and Boston. Along both links, maritime transport would offer competitive transit times.

Winter Challenges

The Canadian winter could impose restrictions on the operation of ships that sail a beam of 44 meters along the Lower St Lawrence River. During winter, a mixture of snow and water, known as frazzle, covers sections of the river and adheres to the bow and sides of ships, requiring additional propulsive power. Winter ice cover on the Gulf of St Lawrence has previously impeded ship traffic and could pose a greater problem to a ship sailing a 44-meter beam. The wider ship would be at greater risk of getting stuck in the ice on the Gulf of St Lawrence.

River Bow Wave

Ships that sail any kind of speed generate a bow wave, and along narrow inland waterways, bow waves cause coastal erosion. Imposing speed restrictions along inland waterways reduces the height of the bow wave and resulting coastal erosion. A vessel that is both wide and deep will have to sail at reduced speed along narrow inland waterways so as to minimize the bow wave. As a result, a 44-meter beam vessel sailing a 10-meter draft along the Lower St Lawrence River will have to sail at reduced speed compared to now obsolete Panamax size vessels.

An American research group has been evaluating a hull design that redirects the bow wave beneath the hull. Sailing along the Lower Mississippi River, the concept hull is believed to generate a residual bow wave of less than two inches. While such a concept hull would be applicable along narrow inland waterways, its sailing capability on the open ocean is unknown. It is unclear yet whether aspects of the concept hull could be included in the design of a vessel with a 44-meter beam and 9.4-meter fresh water draft.


There is the prospect of competition from the older generation of Panamax ships that is now becoming obsolete. Many are being scrapped or being sold at scrap value prices. However, using the precedent developed by Crowley Maritime, it may be possible to convert a pair of such ships into coupled barges that could sail between Montreal and Eastern Nova Scotia, navigated by a coordinated combination of bow and stern tugs using computer navigation. The combination could carry over 8,000 TEUs at competitive rates into Port of Montreal, dividing at the port to be berthed at different terminals. 

Outside of storms, wave heights on the Gulf of St Lawrence usually remain at 1.5 meters. That wave height enhances the ability for coupled barge trains to sail between Eastern Nova Scotia and the mouth of the Lower St Lawrence River. 

Crowley Maritime has developed ocean capable tug-barges that are equivalent in beam to older generation Panamax ships and capable of sailing through seas with 20-foot waves. During stormy weather, barges would have to sail as individual vessels with each being pushed and navigated by an independent tug. However, such operation would be comparatively rare with coupled barges being the norm.

Coupled 44-Meter Beam Ship

Research has for many years focused on the concept of articulated or coupled oceanic ships. Historically, there was a time when the idea of coupled vessels sailing along an inland waterway, was dismissed. However, now coupled trains of barges of up to 40 units actually sail along the Southern Mississippi River between Memphis and New Orleans, with coupled trains of 12 barges sailing upriver of Memphis. Several years ago, maritime researchers at University of Michigan examined the possibility of a two-section coupled vessel that could possibly sail on North America’s the Upper Great Lakes. Tug-barges do sail on the Upper Great Lakes as well as North American domestic ocean coastal services. 

A theoretical two-section coupled container vessel built to a 44-meter beam, 9.4 to 10 meter fresh water draft and an overall length of the largest oil tankers could carry 8,400 to 9,000 TEUs. The American maritime consultant and researcher Paul Pollinger has evaluated many concept vessels capable of both inland and oceanic service. Further research would be needed to evaluate the possibilities for a 44-meter beam, coupled vessel of 500 meters length sailing to Montreal.

International Service

While several major international ports have been dredged and modified to service deep-draft container ships, many other ports remain unchanged and can only berth the older Panamax ships. The list includes ports such as Boston (USA), Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, several African Atlantic ports, Sub-Saharan Africa’s busiest port at Durban that experiences ongoing silt build up problems, Maputo, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and several Indian ports. Extended reach cranes could service Panamax ships widened from 32.3 meters to either 42 or 44 meters at the aforementioned ports.

Coupled two-section versions of the Panamax ship could carry 10,000 TEU sailing a draft of 12 meters. The combination of a forward bridge near the bow and additional beam could allow the coupled ship to carry an additional level of containers, perhaps raising its capacity to over 12,000 TEUs sailing a draft of 13 meters. If destined for northeastern North America, a partial unloading of containers to an accompanying Panamax ship assigned to domestic service would be required at Nova Scotia for the coupled ship to continue sailing to either Montreal or Boston. 


The City of Montreal seeks to maintain its status as an international maritime port, hence the clearance being granted for 44-meter beam ships with computer assisted navigation that includes bow and stern thrusters, to sail along the Lower St Lawrence River.

There is an international market application for 44-meter beam by 10-meter draft ships, both container ships and bulk carriers, along the North American east coast to sail into unmodified ports capable of berthing Panamax ships. Such ports would require extended reach cranes to service 44-meter beam container ships.

44-meter beam ships could operate domestic North American interlined container service from super-port in Eastern Nova Scotia. After a 21-day ocean voyage from Asia, an interlined maritime connection to Montreal would involve 24 days total transit time compared to 23 days total transit time for the more expensive interlined railway connection.

The Canadian winter will impose operation problems on 44-meter beam ships sailing across Gulf of St Lawrence and Lower St Lawrence River. Based on precedent, an articulated two-section version of an ocean capable 44-meter beam ship with a 10-meter draft may be technically possible. 

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