Monday, January 31, 2011

Why TC does not comment

I was doing some research on another topic when I came across an interesting article from the Tyee, a BC based, shall we say, left leaning, epub. The articles chronicles the interaction of the paper, with Transport Canada, and their (varying) stance on crewing for tugs operating in Vancouver Harbour.

The reason this subject has been in the news this past year, is that Alberta "tar sands" crude, and bitumen, is being pumped to Vancouver, for shipment overseas; a relatively new concept. With the increase in production, there has been a need to increase the size of tankers traversing the harbour, and its many challenging waterways.

The resulting discussion led to increase public awareness, and concern, about tanker traffic through the Second Narrows (pictured below), a treacherous waterway within Vancouver's harbour. As a result the Tyee armed with some "ammunition", courtesy of the guild (Ship's Officer Union - CMSG), quizzed Transport Canada about operating tugs with only two crew onboard, a Captain and a deckhand.

Tugs, within the ever widening boundaries of the Port of Vancouver, are not required to sail with a licensed engineer. This is becoming more of an issue with the increase requirements of escort tugs for tankers, and the complexity of the tugs themselves. The definition of "escort", being the tripping hazard for TC.

For us "locals" this is nothing new - the multiple version of a simple answer from Transport Canada, nor the fact that these 6,000 hp tugs operating with no engineers on board. To me, the later has been quite incredible to swallow for many years. There is some good deckhands, but its getting a little ridiculous to expect them to operate a complex engine room like that on the newer, high power tugs.

Never mind the aspect of safety, or the union's own motives, but who in their right mind would let a multi-million dollar piece of machinery, in the hands of a deckhand, dispatched from the union hall, a few hours before. Not to mention, the legal and financial implications of a possible accident.

OK, granted the reliability of modern engineering systems are better. There is probably not much an engineer - or anybody else, can do, in the case of a major failure, given the tight waterways, and the quick pace of something going south to start with. But, that is kind of the point with this discussion. The older, lower powered tugs, handling smaller ships, carrying grain, had a bit more room for errors, before they became front page news.

I heard a story from a friend of mine the other day; one of SMIT's new high powered escort tug in Vancouver being out of commission, because the deckhand, sick of hearing the engine alarm, punched the display, rendering the engine practically inoperable, and the tug laid up for a considerable amount of time, until a specialist with parts, came from Germany.

This debate was bound to come up, especially with the arrival of such high horsepower machines in the area. Anyways, you can read the articles here - Transport Canada at its best.

Pictures, from various online sources.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Floating Green Lab

Furthering a story which we brought you over two months ago; UVic (the University of Victoria) is officially confirming the acquisition of the Canadian Coast Guard Vessel Tsekoa II. They are also announcing nearly $18 million in funding, from the Federal and Provincial Government for the ship, and an expansion of the Venus project - an underwater observatory in waters of Saanich inlet.

The majority of the funding is to refit the former Canadian Coast Guard vessel, which will dramatically change not only its shape, with a planned extension, but also its propulsion system to fuel cell centered power plant. The rendering of the new design also show Z drives, which, if accurate, would be logical, but quite a dramatic change from its current propulsion set up.

The re-powering of the Tsekoa II with a Hybrid propulsion system is not a just trendy shift towards "green", well ok, perhaps a little, but also to make the vessel quiet and optimal for scientific research.

The press release states the University hopes to have the vessel ready in 2011, but no specifics have yet been determined, nor what their ship's new name will be. In the mean time, the Tsekoa II has been relocated - towed, from the CCG Base at Pat Bay, to downtown Victoria, where she is berthed for refit preparations.

You can read the full press release from UVic and a "Backgrounder" on the project, as well as Tactical Marine's Press Release on the Tsekoa II. Here's the CBC's take on the announcement. Tactical even got some international press from Tradewinds, find the story here.

Pictures and graphics, courtesy of Tactical Marine.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Shipyard Men

The Company Men is not an extraordinary Hollywood film, but it does have a bit of an interesting setting for us mariner types. The setting of this "corporate drama" is of a large US industrial conglomerate, the fictional GTX of Boston, with a focus on the drama of "cost cutting" to please shareholders in the company's shipbuilding division. The cost cutting measures result in the firing of thousands of people in the shipyards, including at the top of the "corporate ladder", to which the impacts on the characters is chronicled in this film.

The end is pure Hollywood; if you see it, you will understand. Otherwise it was a interesting drama with Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, and Ben Affleck. A few years ago, I kinda lost interest in Affleck movies, due to his constant acting obsession to save the world. The Town was pretty good drive away from this, but poor old Ben makes a bit of a return to his charitable ways in this one...

The film is out this weekend, here is the IMDB write up.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

That gentle glow, more than a nice sunset...

A shipment of Uranium concentrate was damaged on a cargo ship, during rough seas, while in transit from Vancouver to China, between Hawaii and Midway, in the Pacific. Two drum like containers, came loose from what I understand to be a larger shipping container, and have spilled their content into the ship's hold. The ship, the MCP Altona, was instructed to return to Canada by the Uranium's producer, Cameco, to deal with the situation. The cargo ship sits at anchor, off the east coast of Vancouver Island near the town of Chemainus.

Since it is very near my place, I had a drive down there today to have a look see. Not much activity was showing around noon today. According to news release and press reports, the situation has been assessed, a clean up plan proposed and federal agencies are overlooking the process. It is a bit unusual to see a such a cargo ship anchored off there, so before I even heard that of the situation, I noticed something was amiss.

The anchorage faces a quiet area, as is most of Vancouver Island; that particular area is peppered with retiree's homes and not much else. The anchorage is called Ladysmith, but really the ship is nearest the town of Chemainus. South of Chemainus, are the deep sea docks of the local pulp mill at Crofton, the only logical place for the ship to dock nearby, if deemed necessary. I am not sure why authorities chose to anchor the ship there, as Vancouver would have been a more appropriate place, with a greater access to resources to deal with this. One must wonder if the area is designated as a "port of refuge".

Chemainus is the base of operations for Jones Marine, a small log and general towing business, these guys are the most likely place to provide logistic support to the operation, this hunch was also supported by the sight of large newer rental SUVs in the parking lot. At the time of my visit, there appeared to be little activity at the yard or on the ship.

This shipment is touted as benign, but I certainly would be wary to start playing with anything labeled Uranium. Here and here, you can find out more about the nature of the shipment. With Canada being a leading worldwide exporter of Uranium products, this event is probably far more common than we like to think.

The MCP Altona is Chinese built cargo ship, classed by Germanischer Lloyd, and delivered in 2007 to its owners, Hartmann Shipping of Germany. The 7,853 DWT ship flies the Liberian flag and is managed by Intership of Cyprus - a small, but typical cargo ship. The ship was inspected by the USCG shortly after the incident, in Hawaii. It was also inspected by Transport Canada in December 2010, where 9 deficiencies were recorded, mostly dealing with certifications.

You can read more in the media here and here. Cameco's press release on the incident. I shot some video footage of the ship today, the zoom on my new camera is excellent, but my steady hand, not so much... Here it is below.

My first YouTube upload, that's progress! but I have no idea how I wound up with the ID "poppinwoods" - very strange.
Picture of the Altona at the top, from internet sources.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Norwegian Icebreaker Heads Up The Mississippi

I got this email below a couple of weeks ago, and of course I had to laugh, having sailed with numerous Norwegians; the email is reproduced below...

" As you may have seen on the news, it's been very cold in Iowa, so cold in fact that Iowans have borrowed a Norwegian Icebreaker from Minnesota to unclog the Mississippi, starting over near Davenport, and working its way north.

Here is the first picture of it as it begins the hard work required to break up the ice.
The first Norwegian Icebreaker heads up the Mississippi."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Spruceglen serves up PR

I am just working through an update for the main site, and came accross an interesting link to a Canadian Geographic Magazine piece, on the the St Lawrence Seaway. For those outside Canada, who may not be familiar with the seaway; it is a major piece in Canada's maritime industry, and a fairly impressive feat of engineering.

The article by author D'Arcy Jenish, lays out what the Seaway is all about while transiting it on the Canada Steamship Line's Spruceglen. A topical look at the look at the seaway but an easy and interesting read. Check it out the article here, published about one year ago.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

A ray of Sun

The largest newspaper, west of the Canadian Rockies, has a feature on west coast tugs in today's Business section. It features an optimistic outlook by the regional operators after several years of hardships - no pun intended.

Seaspan is featured in the story, as is the Catherwood, Jones Marine, Smit, Pilots and others. An interesting read overall, but the history side is of course nothing new to those plying these waters, such as myself having faced the economic downturn first hand.

The optimism in the industry is the main focus of the piece. I am not yet convinced a big time recovery is in the works, but with a major part of the workforce quickly reaching retirement, even a mild increase in operations might turn into something worthwhile for young professional seafarers on this coast. Although in typical west coast - Canadian - fashion, it will be accepted with a fair dose of trepidation and resulting foresight.

You can read the Vancouver Sun feature here. In a related story, the Vancouver Sun published a piece on the forestry sector's anticipated recovery this year. Well its not really a recovery of sorts, more of a "to the victors, the spoils of war" story. The paper reports prices for lumber are to rise sharply as demand grows. But why they will rise so sharply, is that there is nobody left to cut it, mill it, or move it for that matter. Its great news for the investors!

Picture: Ernie Catherwood, owner of Catherwood Towing Ltd. of Mission aboard Sea Imp VIII on the Fraser River, has seen a major diversification in the kind of work his company has taken on. Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Welcome 2011, now behave !

Indeed another years has popped its head up. Welcome 2011! Welcome indeed, and hopefully you are better than that last year.

I was just re reading my 2010 outlook post I had made about one year ago, in preparation for this outlook or my musing of the future, and although I was pretty general last year, it turns out I wasn't off the mark too badly. I am feeling a bit out of the "maritime mindset" coming off the holiday season, but the Christmas Lights are now stowed and its time to get back to work. So here goes my observations for your consideration and comments.

So what happened last year? Well for one things, we in the maritime sector were busier then the year before. The economy in general has recovered some steam in the maritime sector, no skyrocketing performance, but an improvement, in the later half of 2010, in particular. I was expecting more of a steady climb out, especially towards the end of the year, but I am not so sure we are still climbing with determination. The US economic engine is still sputtering, so this remains a heavy burden on trade, especially in Canada, and a red flag for shipping.

From my personal observations, the port of Montreal and Quebec were tremendously busy, with a great deal of cargo and passenger traffic. Berths were very busy, in particular tanker traffic seemed extremely busy. The Port of Montreal reported a sharp increase in the first half of 2010 of about 10% over the same period the year before, and I am sure those figures will be up even more at the end of the year. The Seaway was also up, in particular grain cargoes, but overall 17% rise year over year.

Over in Vancouver, fresh numbers indicate a nearly 16% increase in all traffic over the previous year with inbound boxes up, and outbound dry bulk up significantly. Passenger traffic out of Vancouver though took a beating, down 35%. With Alaskan bound ships being home based out of Seattle instead of Vancouver, the rest of BC Ports are increasing in passenger traffic at Vancouver's expense.

The big stories of 2010 might be Seaspan acquiring its former competitor Rivtow (all assets from the non ship berthing duties) from SMIT Marine Canada. The Olympics in Vancouver sure caused allot of hubub in the harbour, and brings a bit of closure to a construction frenzy, requiring a great deal of raw materials. The Canadian Navy was richly celebrated this year, well at least in pomp and circumstance, across Canada. The service has been around for one hundred years, although much of its future sits on uncomfortable chairs.

The Canadian government (GOC) gave ship owners a giant gift in lifting import duties on foreign built ships. They also made some significant changes to the Coasting Trade Act, in hopes of clarifying the process. The changes are said to make it easier for foreign operators to work in Canadian waters - in particular this benefits the offshore oil and gas business in Eastern Canada. Which of course will probably not involve hiring Canadians. The GOC also went on a silly spending spree under the auspice of Economic Action plan, pumping millions and millions of dollars on "ready to go" ships projects to patch up yet again, the ageing red and white fleet. Old ships with shinny paint, except now there is a need to pay those bills, and here we go again with belt tightening for the coming years.

In the arctic, business has apparently been booming. Although venerable NTCL is floundering under what appears to be poor management. Other east coast based operators are picking up the slack without missing a beat. Things were tempered with two major groundings in the arctic, which grabbed national headlines highlighting vulnerabilities in the regions.

Another big story for the region is the federal approval of the Mackenzie Pipeline. The project, 30 years in the approval stage, is expected to cost over $16 billion - the largest capital project in Canada. Obviously the arctic marine industry is in a major position to take advantage of those development dollars - assuming there is some strong enough financial backers to actually undertake the project.

Over in the west coast, forestry is still in a slump. This important industrial sector heavily serviced by marine assets, remains in a decade long downturn. There is talk of the industry picking up, perhaps for the companies who sell raw logs, but for the guy on the tug, not too many of these guys are seeing any benefits. The raw logs are just being shipped on deep sea ships, right from the cut site, to be processed in Asia. With construction down across North America, aggregate is also down. So no real good news there. I was reading a story that a tug company was doing dive charters to keep their head above water. Pretty sad.

The bright spot on the west coast is those processed logs, along with everything else, coming back on box ships as consumer products, which is fueling a serious growth of harbour tugs. Big local player Seaspan is going head to head with worldwide powerhouse SMIT, in BC waters. Seaspan adding 5 new powerful ship berthing tugs to their fleet, while SMIT solidified its dominant position in BC's north and continued to refine its fleet in Vancouver. Meanwhile over at BC Ferries, traffic was down about 2% year over year, and they don't expect any growth any time soon. I have heard from several people that they also have a hiring freeze as well.

Oil continues to dominate the maritime environment on the east coast with a forecast of oil production from Canada doubling by 2020, which can only mean further offshore opportunities for seafarers, unfortunately with the changing of the Coasting Trade Act, this opportunities may be far and few between. And of course the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon have yet to fully materialize. Fishing is a major industry there, but I am not very familiar with its outlook or issues.

Deepwater Horizon, well if that is not the biggest maritime story of last year I don't what else it could be. This in my view is a major event which will have tremendous impact on a variety of aspect concerning the offshore oil market. The impacts will probably focus the industry; probably reduce the amount of projects; probably improve lives and safety of seafarers.

What holds for engineers in particular and seafarers in general for 2011; more of the same. We've been running on lean rations for a long time now. There is not much that can be cut, but the accountants will keep trying. Training is so rarely given to Canadian seafarers by their employers, that I dont think will change. Jobs afloat have been few and far between with a caution bunch hanging on to their positions. If growth continues, there is likely some good times ahead for us, as retirement is claiming more and more seafarers. The lack of young engineers being able to progress through the ranks is still a very real problem that has not been focused on by employers and shipowners, who have done even less, if that was possible, to attract new talent. This will quickly lead to an interesting and certainly diverse workforce in the very near future.

With these pressures mounting against their traditional operations, shipowners are likely to turn to foreign going assets to supply the Canadian market. Clearly this strategy will be detrimental to the already struggling Canadian mariner, in particular the much needed "young blood". But then again these guys have been shunned for many years, and those willing to pursue a maritime career past these roadblocks, do it in spite of Canadian operators, and in the international market.

Perhaps ship operators will turn to foreign assets, but regardless the shortage of competent and experienced officers is not a problem isolated to Canada. This is a major problem for shipping all over and there will be no quick solution, especially when the "good time" were here, they did nothing more than pay lip service to the problem. Now, after two years of belt tightening, you can be sure the situation is not any better.

In Manila this year, the new STCW requirements were agreed to and will usher in another round of of needed standards improvement. In North America where working hours routinely surpass 14 hrs days, this will have some pretty major impacts.

All these observation in my mind point to an interesting year. late 2008 and 2009 was a disaster, 2010 was better. 2011 I expect will be similar to 2010 with a modest growth, probably shy of pre meltdown levels. Asia continues to dominate in the production of goods wanted in Europe and North America, gobbling up resources from around the world. All this is made possible by shipping, and shipping is made possible by seafarers, so it should be a good year.