Hands-Free Mooring For St. Lawrence, Great Lakes

Hands-Free Mooring For St. Lawrence, Great Lakes


By Paul Scott Abbott 

In what is being hailed as the greatest positive development for St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes-shipping in more than a half-century, a soon-to-be-completed hands-free mooring program will open access to 10 times as many vessels while delivering impressive time, money and safety benefits.

From port executives and Seaway marketers to carrier operations managers and ship captains, enthusiasm abounds as the innovative program to ease passage through Seaway locks has been finished at all 14 Canadian installations and advances toward mid-2019 completion at the two remaining locks, both in the U.S.

The program, alternatively referred to as auto-mooring and self-mooring, is the world’s first to deploy a hands-free solution at locks, thus eliminating the time-consuming, labor-intensive and hazardous traditional method of transit.

At the same time, vessels going through the Seaway locks no longer will need to be equipped with special securement fittings. That means waterways that had been restricted to handling only the 800 or so Seaway-fitted ships in today’s fleet will see their accessibility unlocked to the approximately 8,000 vessels small enough to pass through the lock system.


Huge Opportunity Seen

“It opens up a huge opportunity for us in terms of additional vessels that can enter the Seaway system,” Bruce Hodgson said. Hodgson is director of market development for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, the St. Catherines, Ontario-based not-for-profit Canadian entity that teams with the U.S.-based St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation in promoting St. Lawrence-Great Lakes passage under the Hwy H2O banner.

Whereas the vast majority of the more than 80,000 vessels in the current world fleet remain too large for such passage, the number of ships able to go through the St. Lawrence Seaway and on through the Great Lakes will increase 10-fold with the auto-mooring system in place.

“We know there is cargo moving via other gateways, but we don’t have enough capacity to service all that cargo,” Hodgson said. “Now, this gives us the capability to do so.”

And the benefits extend well beyond the ability to potentially accommodate 10 times as many ships, encompassing significantly reduced transit times, less demand for manual labor at locks, enhanced safety and concomitant cost savings.

Among leaders of Canadian and U.S. ports excited about the auto-mooring program is Tim Heney, CEO of the Port of Thunder Bay, Ontario, situated on Lake Superior, about 2,300 miles inland from the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

“It’s probably the biggest technological leap since they built the Seaway system,” Heney said. The St. Lawrence Seaway opened nearly 60 years ago, in 1959.

Heney said he sees primary benefits including the elimination of safety concerns related to the use of cables no longer needing to be deployed, and the potential for lower operating costs and faster transits through the locks.

While Thunder Bay is the leading export port along the Seaway and Great Lakes, its import activity is minimal, according to Heney, who noted that just 15 of 400 ships calling at Thunder Bay in the past year handled imports of project cargo. He said he sees substantial opportunity, with auto-mooring in place, for wind turbines, power generators, oil-sands-destined pressure vessels and other oversized cargoes to come to his port from Europe and other places, to which Thunder Bay exports grains, potash and coal head.

“You have to run loaded in order to be competitive,” Heney said, pointing out the importance of vessels carrying cargo in each direction along the lengthy Seaway supply chain. “You can’t afford many empty miles.”Gains Seen Far-Reaching

About 200 miles farther inland than Thunder Bay, the Port of Duluth-Superior, the No. 1 total tonnage port on the Great Lakes and farthest inland port accessed by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway, is looking forward to handling additional project cargoes as well.

“Anything that widens the net of opportunity is a good thing, and that’s what the auto-mooring program does,” said Vanta E. Coda II, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Historically a “natural resources port,” the twin Port of Duluth-Superior, respectively encompassing Minnesota and Wisconsin facilities, is a solid mover of mined, forested and agricultural products. Coda said he sees the current flow of some 35 million short tons a year being augmented by more breakbulk and project cargoes with the advent of hands-free mooring.

With greater vessel availability providing better pricing opportunities, Duluth-Superior becomes more competitive in reaching upper Midwest destinations with heavy-lift and breakbulk cargoes, Coda said, adding: “Typically, when we lose an opportunity, we lose it to Houston.”

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The auto-mooring also is creating a somewhat less tangible benefit, that of generating an overall buzz about Seaway-Great Lakes shipping, according to Coda. “The biggest handicap of the Seaway has been that people don’t readily recognize it as an option. The ability of building awareness is very important.”

Peter Hirthe, senior trade development representative at Port Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan, said he believes Great Lakes ports may well begin receiving calls from additional carriers following completion of the auto-mooring endeavor.

“Now, you’ve removed a barrier to entry,” Hirthe said, honing in on the elimination of the need for special Seaway fittings. “I think there’ll be an interesting period of time with more carriers testing the waters, including some Asian- and Indian-based carriers bringing themselves into the system.”

While declining to name names, Hirthe said he has had conversations with decision-makers of carriers “kicking the tires” on Hwy H2O who have balked when faced with the need to invest in Seaway-fitted ships, but who now may enter the market with removal of that significant “speed bump.”

“I just think you’re going to see more traffic,” Hirthe said. “It just opens up opportunity.”


Operators Encouraged

Operations management at Fednav, the largest vessel operator on the Great Lakes, pointed to a number of advantages offered by the auto-mooring program.

Philippe Roderbourg, senior manager of Fednav’s operations department, said self-mooring devices “have definitely been an advantage”, as they have meant fewer Fednav crewmembers must be engaged in the lock transit process.

Colleague Ross Gordon, manager and Lakes coordinator for Fednav operations, cited a trio of benefits: “Efficiency, saving time and resources, as the maneuver is faster than mooring manually with wires, with fewer crewmembers needed for the procedure; safety, with appreciable progress of personnel safety both ashore and onboard, since incidents with mooring wires are prevented; and stability, as vessels remain in position during the lockage.”

According to the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation’s Hodgson, handling of mooring wires prior to hands-free implementation resulted in a wire breakage every 10 days on average, imperiling employees on the lock and on vessel decks.

Furthermore, Hodgson quantified time savings associated with auto-mooring could add one extra voyage per navigation season per vessel, with transit of the Welland Canal alone achievable in 40 to 48 fewer minutes.

When the idea of auto-mooring was first explored more than a decade ago, it was viewed from the safety perspective, according to Hodgson, with recognition of the further benefits coming later.

Cavotec teamed with Seaway management beginning in 2007 to develop the hands-free solution, innovatively using vacuum pads to secure ships in position during filling and emptying of lock chambers.

By the end of 2017, all 14 of the hands-free installations in Canada, including three twin locks, had been completed, at a cost to Transport Canada of CAN$95 million (US$76 million), while the work at the two U.S. locks, both at Messina, New York, the responsibility of a unit of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is targeted to be done by the middle of 2019.

Captains and crews of vessels transiting the Seaway are eager to see the full extent of the program completed, but already are seeing benefits at the Canadian installations.


A professional journalist for nearly 50 years, U.S.-based Paul Scott Abbott has focused on transportation topics since the late 1980s.

Photo credit: The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.



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