The first U.S.-flag laker to be built this century was commissioned this week and figures to be completed by mid-2022. The new "river-class" vessel will be built to transit the Great Lakes and service customers in some of the smaller harbors found in the rivers connecting the lakes.
Commissioned by Interlake Steamship Company, based outside Cleveland, the 639-foot carrier capable of hauling 28,000 gross tons will be built in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., by Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding. Both companies have 100-plus years of history on the Great Lakes.
"We're proud to add it, announce it and ensure we serve our customers for years to come," Interlake Steamship President Mark Barker told the News Tribune. "It's being built with a lot of steel from Great Lakes steel mills to carry the products that help to do just that."
The yet-to-be named ship will now enter a design phase, using Bay Engineering, based in Fairfax, Va. Billed as coming with "advanced vessel and unloading systems automation," the ship will become the 10th ship in the Interlake Steamship fleet once completed. The most recent ship in the Interlake fleet prior to it was the 1,013-foot Paul R. Tregurtha launched in 1981.
"We are excited to construct this historic large-scale bulk carrier on the Great Lakes for Great Lakes operation," said Pincantieri Bay's Vice President and General Manager Todd Thayse in a joint news release. Thayse said the new ship is believed to be the first new laker built since 1983, more than 35 years ago.
Locally, the news was met with excitement by the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
"It's definitely exciting news and a positive sign not only for Great Lakes shipping, but also for the numerous and diverse economies that are supported by Great Lakes shipping - the shipbuilders, the industries and the communities as a whole," Port Authority spokesperson Jayson Hron said. "Diving into the specs, it looks like an innovative vessel with a versatile design that will allow it to transit the entire Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway."
Barker described the ship as being built for a set of customers who have specific requirements, adding that it will transport typical raw materials of the Great Lakes, including taconite iron ore. Barker declined to say how much the new ship will cost.
"We needed to make sure to build a ship that would supply our customers what they need," Barker said. "It's meant for certain ports in the river market."
The news release said it would be built for high-level maneuverability, with bow and stern thrusters, a flap rudder, and the newest self-unloading technology, including "a unique cargo hold and cargo hatch covers designed for maximum cubic space and the ability to handle difficult cargoes."
The ship will feature twin diesel engines with the strictest off-highway emissions standards, and a "single-screw" propeller with a controllable pitch. Its maximum speed will be 15 mph.
The announcement of the vessel disrupts a long affair on the lakes with bringing tug-barges onto fleets. After a ship-building boom in the 1970s that brought the Great Lakes a series of 1,000-foot ships, the practice seemed to reach capacity and vanish. Tug-barges began to emerge on the lakes in the 1990s, becoming fashionable arrivals to rosters of domestic ship companies for their utility and economic sense. Imagine a tug-barge as chopping off the stern end of a barge, notching it and plugging in a tug. The tug consolidates living space for a smaller crew, while also providing a modern engine room and power plant.
"Tug-barges have a place," Barker said, "but for what we're doing and trying to achieve a ship made the most sense."
The shipyard's Thayse said nearly 700 trade workers will be involved in the project.
The federal Jones Act of 1920 requires U.S.-built and crewed ships to carry U.S. goods between U.S. ports, making it necessary for Great Lakes ships to be constructed domestically. Thayse said major partners for the project include "the American Bureau of Shipping, EMD Engines, Caterpillar, EMS-Tech, Inc., Lufkin (a GE Company) and MacGregor."
Based in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, Interlake Steamship is the largest privately held U.S.-flag fleet on the Great Lakes.
"The Interlake Steamship Company is also extremely proud to build locally, supporting surrounding communities and states," Barker said in the news release.
The announcement also described the long relationship between Interlake Steamship and Fincantieri, with the shipyard handling four repowers and lots of other updates, maintenance and repairs.
"We've spent the past 10 years or more modernizing our fleet," Barker said. "We wanted to bring a new asset to bear for our customers. It's pretty exciting."