COLUMN | Stena Group may give towing a boost [Tug Times]

Photo: Stena Bulk

Stena Group companies have been much in the news recently. On the ferry side, Stena Line has been boasting about the number of women they employ, whilst Stena Bulk has been touting an innovative new concept for the bulk trades.

Stena Line said it will attract, recruit, and keep the best talents “by actively recruiting from all genders for all positions”.

If, like me, you thought there were only two genders, think again. According to some sources there are at least seven genders, although I still think there are simply two genders with a lot of different gender identities. Anyway, by opening that can of worms Stena Line seems to have shot itself in the foot because the rest of the blurb is concerned solely with the fact that, by the end of next year, 30 per cent of all its managers will be female. There is no mention of transvestites, eunuchs or other “genders”  anywhere.

I am not sure there is any wisdom in promoting people just to prove a point. In my view it makes more sense to recruit the best people of whatever gender or gender identity, then let the cream rise to the top. A level playing field for everyone seems to me to be a more likely recipe for success. In the towing business, we should make sure tugs have facilities for both genders, recruit on merit, then watch and wait as the best people rise through the ranks.

In any case, the women I know in shipping are a very impressive bunch and really do not need any help from anyone. The real problem is that a lot of women do not find the prospect of a career in shipping appealing, so perhaps our money would be better spent on an upbeat marketing campaign to convince all young people of the joys and rewards of the maritime professions. And if you think there are precious few joys and rewards in modern shipping, consider for a moment that towage and salvage is about the most interesting and exciting sector of the industry. We could benefit from such a campaign because many of the best recruits would be drawn to the scene of the action, and it is us!

“There will be a growing need for transportation of energy from areas with abundant renewable supply to areas with high energy demand.”

Stena Bulk, by contrast, is in the news due to its new InfinityMAX concept that proposes having modular cargo units capable of carrying wet and dry bulk cargoes or gases. These can be joined together behind a prime mover to form ocean-going ships. Each modular unit is designed to be self-sufficient, so a number of smaller parcels can be loaded and moved to the coast, where they will be collected by the prime mover and delivered to a variety of discharge locations. The beauty of this, from our perspective, is that the modules will need tugs to distribute them at either end of the sea passage – an idea we can all support.

Photo: Stena Bulk

At the moment, the intention is for the prime mover to use hydrogen fuel, but it will also have wing sails, wind turbines to generate additional energy, and “shark skin” hulls to improve efficiency. Individual modules will have wind turbines and solar panels so they will be self-sufficient in energy for their internal systems.

It is intended that the first vessels will enter service between 2030 and 2035. This is good timing because by 2050, according to Stena Bulk, there will be a growing need for transportation of energy from areas with abundant renewable supply to areas with high energy demand. Cargoes of hydrogen, methanol, methane, and ammonia will increase dramatically in the future, as will the requirement to transport sustainable edible oils and chemicals, and carbon dioxide from carbon capture facilities. And one modular vessel will be able to transport them all to tugs waiting at the end of every voyage.

I asked Stena Bulk President and CEO Erik Hånell for more details, and he tells me the individual units will be about 30 by 32 metres, and will have a capacity of about 17,000 cubic metres. At the moment the company is focusing on ships made up of eight cargo modules behind the prime mover, but are not prepared to exclude longer ships in the future. Details of the connection method between the modules, towing arrangements, etc. are still to be decided and will be developed in collaboration with other industry players. They see this as a global system, and believe standardisation will give it global appeal.

Older readers may note the similarity to an earlier concept. Lighter aboard ship (LASH) vessels were designed in the 1960s to carry small barges that were lifted and stowed via a shipboard gantry crane. The barges were towed to and from the ship, and were each about 20 metres long with a capacity of around 550 cubic metres. They first entered service around 1969, as did I, but they only lasted until 2007.

There were a number of reasons why LASH ships never appeared in great numbers and survived less than 40 years – the barges were small and flimsy with single hulls, so they were easily damaged; the ships were expensive to build and maintain and many of them were fitted with steam turbines; the gantry cranes were slow; and stevedores, particularly in the United States, hated them and made life difficult for the operators.

Sevmorput (Photo: Aleksandr)

But the biggest challenge to the LASH ships was that they came on to the scene at almost the same time as the cargo container, which was the preferred option for most shippers. The Russians built one or two vessels, and one of them, the 1988-built Sevmorput, became the world’s fourth, and last, nuclear-powered commercial vessel. Nonetheless, I expect the towing companies were the only people who mourned their passing.

“A system said to reduce the chances of losing containers at sea will only be valid until the container industry solves the problem of lost boxes.”

By coincidence, another company has proposed a similar idea recently. Seahorse Shipping has devised a semi-submersible concept where six smaller, standardised vessels can be floated on and off a mother ship for ocean carriage, and can then make their way to and from smaller ports under their own power. Each mini-vessel will have a capacity of 2,250 TEUs, 5,000 cars, or 21,000 tonnes of bulk cargo. As an American concept, the Jones Act might make it an expensive option, and there is less scope for towage, so I think I prefer the Stena idea.

As an aside, one of the advantages of the Seahorse system is said to be reduced chance of losing containers at sea, which gives it an edge over very large container ships. This will only be valid until the container industry solves the problem of lost boxes, which I am sure they will.

I hope the Stena Bulk concept will come to fruition, and in ten years or so will deliver additional business for tug companies everywhere. They deserve to succeed, not least because they were very kind in answering my questions so promptly. Of course, I may not be around to see it, but at least I will not have to deal with the eunuchs you will have recruited by then. Younger readers can, of course, console themselves with the thought that one of the greatest mariners who ever lived, Admiral Zheng He (1371–1433 or 1435), was also a eunuch.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.