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Workhorses of the Sea

By Jim Romeo 2013-08-02 15:19:00

During the 2009 Transpac Race from the West Coast to Hawaii, the Pasha America Ro/Ro vessel Jean Anne assisted the producers of the documentary Morning Light, a Disney film that highlighted a young crew of sailors participating in this biennial race. The Ro/Ro transported the vessels and crew equipment used to make the film. 

Whether it’s utility trailers or camera boats for Universal Studios, 500 tons of trailer-loaded turbines and generators for an electric power plant on Oahu, or 5,000 newly manufactured Toyotas sailing into Newark, ocean shipping by Ro/Ro vessel is a key transport mode that the maritime industry relies on to get the job done.

Marine Highway for Autos
Though automobiles dominate, Ro/Ros carry other cargo as well, and many think the future is promising. “Ro/Ro shipping is the most widely accepted method in the world for the maritime transportation of motor vehicles,” says James Carrick, Vice President of Pasha Hawaii. The company operates a fleet of Ro/Ro vessels that operate between the U.S. West Coast and mainland Hawaii. “In global automotive logistics, waterborne vehicle commerce generally follows Ro/Ro transport methods when available in any maritime trade lane,” adds Carrick. “This is due to the inherent efficiencies of this type of transport for motor vehicles.”

Ro/Ro ships, an acronym for “roll-on/roll-off,” are oceangoing carriers of just what their name implies – wheeled cargo such as automobiles, trucks, semi-trailer trucks and trailers, loaded on and off the ship under their own power. According to Larry St. Clair, Director of Non-Containerized Business Development for the Port of Tacoma, the market for Ro/Ro vessels is two-fold: One is scheduled liner service where vessels call regularly from the same steamship line, and the other is charter service where they call on a port when sufficient volume dictates. St. Clair says that Tacoma receives both types of traffic:  “It’s never the same. Each vessel and each shipment bring a brand new day.”

As the world trade in automobiles has increased dramatically since the early 1970s, more Ro/Ros with advanced technology have populated the world fleet as a kind of marine highway, connecting automobile shipments from points of origin in the U.S. and foreign sites to worldwide destinations. Ro/Ros typically have a stern ramp and side port ramp, allowing for the dual flow of cargo loading.

The Andromeda Leader is an NYK Lines Ro/Ro vessel that carries between 5,000 and 8,000 vehicles on its 13 levels. All told, the vessel can carry just over 21,000 tons of cargo and has a breadth of 105 feet, just enough to make it through the Panama Canal – hence its “Panamax” designation. Underway, as little as 15 percent of the ship is displaced, enabling it to enter shallow-draft ports. Car carriers tend to be mostly imports, with the auto carrier returning to its place of origin, often Asia, empty.

The Non-Auto Market
Tacoma’s St. Clair explains that although autos are extremely important to the Ro/Ro industry, some carriers specialize in high and heavy equipment such as excavators, agricultural machines, cranes and similar large-scale items.

Galveston is one such port where Ro/Ro traffic carries construction and farm equipment, among other items. Located just nine miles from the sea buoy, the port offers swift turnaround times and convenient intermodal connections, which many shippers rely on. Its location and infrastructure provide a competitive advantage, enough to attract shippers from all over the Midwest. At present, about 11 percent of its tonnage comes from Ro/Ro vessels carrying equipment made by the likes of Caterpillar, John Deere and Komatsu.

“I’m a member of the Transportation Club of Peoria, Illinois,” says Captain John G. Peterlin III, Senior Director of Marketing and Administration for the port. In spite of his Texas Gulf Coast location, he travels regularly to Peoria to attend club functions because of the market potential in that area. He explains that Peoria is home to Caterpillar and not far from John Deere’s headquarters in Moline – two shippers who stand to benefit from the route to Galveston for outloading. 

The port offers a robust transportation infrastructure including rail and a highway system that provides cost advantages for shippers. Peterlin says that while the port expects to continue shipments of construction equipment as well as used vehicles, it hopes to attract new vehicle shipments as well. Peterlin cited several Ro/Ro carriers who come in and out of Galveston – including Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, which has a strong market position in Ro/Ro shipping and carries a variety of cargoes aboard its vessels. 

Like Wallenius, Pasha’s Carrick says the company transports a mix of cargoes on its Ro/Ros, including construction equipment and containers in addition to automobiles. The advantage of Ro/Ro shipping is that it can take all kinds of heavy and bulky cargoes.

“Ro/Ro carriage is suitable for construction equipment or components that can be moved by forklift, or practically any oversized or overweight cargo that cannot be accommodated by a typical container ship,” he says. “In the case of our vessel, the M/V Jean Anne, we transport a mix of autos, Over High Wide (OHW) cargo, and containers on a regular basis, having modified our decks to accommodate these types of cargo. We have invested in specialized trailers that can accommodate all types of static cargo from pipe to heavy machinery.”

In War and Peace
Aside from the commercial trades, Ro/Ro vessels play a significant role in strategic military sealift operations. The Cargo Preference Act of 1904 requires that 100 percent of Department of Defense (DoD) cargoes move on U.S.-flag ships. DoD makes use of commercial and government-owned Ro/Ro vessels to meet its peacetime and wartime requirements.

“In peacetime, commercial Ro/Ros are used primarily to move Personally Owned Vehicles (POVs) for military members and families to support change-of-duty stations,” says Jonathan D. Kaskin, Senior Advisor-Maritime, Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy. “Commercial Ro/Ros, as participants in the Maritime Security Program (MSP), also support wartime surge and follow-on sustainment operations.”

MARAD vessels in layup, often operated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC), fill this role. “In fact, over the last several years almost all Ro/Ro-type cargoes – mostly unit equipment supporting Iraq and Afghanistan operations – have moved on commercial US-flag ships, most in liner service,” Kaskin explains. “During the initial stages of a major contingency, commercial sealift will be augmented by capacity from MSC’s fleet and MARAD’s Ready Reserve Force (RRF). Both are made up mostly of Ro/Ro ships. These vessels are not used in peacetime to move cargoes except to occasionally support military exercises.”

According to Kaskin, Ro/Ro vessels are relatively shallow draft, usually less than 36 feet, so port access and pier capabilities are not an issue. He points out that there have been concerns raised regarding the availability of sufficient staging areas for loading of tracked, wheeled and aviation unit equipment. However, the last mobility report in February 2010 indicated that “The programmed CONUS (Continental United States) infrastructure is sufficient to meet the most demanding MCRS (Military Condition Reporting Status) case,” he adds.

Ro/Ro Trade Growth – Smooth Sailing?
ACL has been a specialized carrier in the trans-Atlantic trade of containers with a niche in project and oversized cargo, heavy equipment and vehicles. It has one of the world’s largest combined fleets of Ro/Ros and containerships and operates its transatlantic Ro/Ro service on a weekly, fixed-day basis in North America at the ports of Halifax, New York, Baltimore and Norfolk. In Europe, ACL calls on Liverpool, Antwerp, Hamburg and Goteborg. Along with other operators, it is upbeat about the future of Ro/Ro shipping. 

“As the world economy begins to improve, we see a slight upward movement in freight in the next two to three years,” says Robert J. Willman, General Manager for Ro/Ro Special Projects for ACL North America in Westfield, New Jersey. “If the worldwide recovery continues to move upward into strong economies, we forecast a large trade growth three to five years out in the Ro/Ro market.”

Pasha is likewise upbeat about the future. In fact, its customers are investing in Ro/Ro shipping to be better capable of transporting different types of cargo, such as movie equipment trailers and power equipment. Pasha is currently constructing a ConRo (combination Container Ro/Ro) vessel, built in the U.S., to enter service in 2014. The 692-foot vessel will accommodate 1,400 TEU containers and 2,700 automobiles.

“The U.S. economy certainly took a downturn in the last few years, particularly in the vehicle market, and there was a tangible impact on all domestic and foreign liners,” says Pasha’s Carrick. “However, there is definitely an uptick in our business today and a growing demand for our services. People still want new cars, and construction projects are on the upswing.”

Jim Romeo is based in Chesapeake, Virginia. This is his first appearance in the magazine.

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