Shipping from the Great Lakes: Why it works for potash exports

By Suzanne Bleau-Myrand

Fednav has built has built 14 new ocean-going lakes-fitted ships (Lakers) since 2010, with four more on order for delivery in 2017 and 2018.

Fednav has built has built 14 new ocean-going lakes-fitted ships (Lakers) since 2010, with four more on order for delivery in 2017 and 2018.

Why, given the propensity of ship sizes getting ever larger, does shipping from the Great Lakes with its inherent physical limitations continue to work?

There are many good explanations—the main one being that sailing directly to or from the Great Lakes is the most direct route to the Atlantic Ocean from the industrial and agricultural centre of North America. The St. Lawrence-Great Lakes system reaches 3,700 kilometres (2,340 miles) inland.

Every year, more than 230-million metric tons of raw materials, agricultural commodities, and manufactured products are moved on this marine highway through more than 100 ports and commercial docks of the eight surrounding American states and two Canadian provinces.

Ocean-going vessels are generally positioned close to export ports in the lakes by the transportation of steels, general cargoes, and other raw materials on the inbound voyage leg, reducing expensive positioning days for shippers.

Other factors that favour this system include reduced cargo damage risks due to minimized transhipment, an experienced labour force that has been strike-free over the past 25 years, and finally, specialized terminal operators are both experienced and flexible with a dedication to continuously improve their performance.

The St. Lawrence Seaway offers both efficiency and reliability. Seaway authorities will have invested in excess of US$900 million between 1999 and 2018 in modernizing the lock system, including the installation of new hands-free mooring devices for faster and more cost-efficient transiting of locks.

“The Great Lakes-Seaway marine system operates under a well-established safety framework and has coordinated bi-national response programs/procedures in place. Furthermore, over the past decade, its operators have demonstrated an exemplary safety record.”1.

This marine highway is, without doubt, the greenest route—the shorter distance means less CO2 emissions. Typically, ships consume 19 per cent less fuel than trains and 500 per cent less than trucks. The St. Lawrence and Great Lakes marine industry is taking further action to strengthen its environmental performance. For the first time in North America, all sectors of the marine industry have united to voluntarily adopt an environmental program designed to drive a process of continuous improvement along this major maritime corridor. The program, entitled Green Marine, is spearheaded by an alliance of the marine industry associations in Canada and the United States.

Of course, as in anything, there are always issues to contend with. In the case of the Seaway, these would include increasing costs that must be kept in check and the three-month winter closure of the Seaway. In spite of these challenges, Seaway management has worked very hard in minimizing this necessary downtime in order to maintain and improve the locks, and shippers have adapted to plan accordingly by stockpiling at reduced costs for winter months and finding other innovative solutions. To mitigate natural limitations resulting from the lock sizes, ocean fleet operators have invested massively in lakes-adapted vessels. As part of its fleet- renewal efforts, Fednav—the leading international operator in the St. Lawrence—has built 14 new ocean-going lakes-fitted ships (Lakers) since 2010. There are four more vessels on order for delivery in 2017 and 2018.

These third-generation (Gen 3) superior-quality vessels are constructed at Oshima Shipyard in Japan, and in addition to the standard requirements for loading bulk cargos, are also adapted for efficiently transporting both bulk and breakbulk. They feature box-shaped holds for ease of stowing general cargo, reinforced decks for stowing heavy equipment and coils, and are each equipped with four cranes capable of lifting 35 metric tons.

These Lakers are the best in their class in terms of both efficiency and environmental protection. These Gen 3 Lakers have an EEDI (Energy-Efficiency Design Index) of 35 per cent less than the original Gen 1 Lakers, consume about 25 per cent less fuel, and are designed to meet the requirements of the CLEAN notation from DNV classification society. Finally, they are the first to be equipped with ballast water treatment systems (filtration and chlorine injection)—well before the IMO Ballast Water Management Convention enters into force.

These additions to the fleet clearly demonstrate the company’s confidence and dedication to the future of shipping in the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes, as well as a commitment and care for the future of this natural resource.

  1. Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System. Safety Profile of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System Executive Summary. 2014.
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