Jet-powered ships that zoom cargo across the Atlantic Ocean in half the time of steam or diesel vessels are more than just a dream for shippers now.

Recent studies by Massachusetts Institute of Technology are giving credibility to the concept."Before, it was just pie in the sky," said Rey Ortiz, international procurement manager for E.I. Du Pont de Nemours, a chemical manufacturer that ranks as one of the top shippers in the trade. "But now they have had MIT studies. That's pretty prestigious."

MIT computer tests and the tank simulations for the technology developed by FastShip Inc. aren't yet complete. While the preliminary results were good, a final report has yet to be issued.

MIT notwithstanding, there are those in the shipping and ship-design industries who aren't fully convinced by the technology being employed by FastShip, the experience of the people pushing the product and the economic viability of ships that will charge higher rates for cargo that can be moved more cheaply by conventional ships.

"Sure you could make a ship go much faster," said Marshall P. Tulin, the director of the Ocean Engineering Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "But I don't know how economically feasible it would be. Who would pay the higher rates? That's the question."

Mr. Tulin has been researching and developing systems for faster-moving ships since the middle of the century, first for the Navy, then for private industry.

FastShip officials said shippers will be glad to pay higher rates for cargo that must be delivered quickly.

"We have done an extensive analysis ourselves," said Collister "Terry" Johnson, FastShip Atlantic president. "The market is there."

An MIT marketing study backed him up.

FastShip took several shippers to Washington to talk to officials into making sure funds would be there to help build the jet-ships. Some of the shippers have begun to share proprietary information about their shipping and manufacturing schedules.

One of those companies that went to Washington was Eastman Kodak Co., a major shipper of cargo that is sensitive to both time and temperature - just the kind of cargo FastShip is trying to capture.

"If it works like it's supposed to, we'll be very interested in FastShip," said David Movsky, worldwide manager of maritime transportation for Kodak.

To some, like Mr. Tulin, that's a very big if.

Here's how FastShip's vessels are supposed to work: Instead of a propeller, jet engines will fire a system of water propulsion jets. A sharply pointed bow will slice through North Atlantic waves that can rise four or five stories. But the secret is in the stern, or rear, of the ship. FastShip says it has found a way to break the water speed barrier.


This barrier prevents conventional ships from traveling at a high speed without using a lot of fuel or beating the ship's hull against rough seas. The faster the conventional ships go, the deeper their sterns sink. But the FastShip jet propulsion and a unique hull design that features a widening stern that is concave actually lifts the stern out of the water so that is is almost planing across the surface, like a huge jet ski.

This makes it possible for the ship to travel at speeds as high as 42 knots, about twice as fast as the average speed of a conventional containership.

The technology has been around for decades but, until recently, there were no engines big enough to provide sufficient power.

Some experts question whether FastShip will work, mechanically or economically.


A. Ashar, a senior research associate at the National Ports and Waterways Institute in Rosslyn, Va., has challenged the assumptions of FastShip's time estimates.

Thomas Lang, who conceived a twin-haul design for smaller, faster ships called Swaths, or Small Waterplane Area Twin Hulls, said everything will depend on the economics.

Mr. Tulin also questions the economics, as well as whether the design is the best one for fast-moving cargo ships.

"Forty knots is a lot different than even 30 knots," he said. "The fuel costs go up very rapidly with speed."

While at Hydronautics Inc., a company he helped found that worked on ship engineering, Mr. Tulin researched and tested systems to make ships go faster. ''In the early 1970s, before the oil shock, containerships were planned for over 30 knots."


Sea-Land Service Inc. had built and run SL-7s, which could move faster than 30 knots. The ships used too much fuel to make any money.

"We didn't see any real commercial possibilities, or enough to justify the high speeds," Mr. Tulin said. The ships will cost more to build, carry more debt and cost more to operate - about $100 million a year - than most conventional ships. The shippers would have to make up the difference which, by some of FastShip's own estimates, could be twice as high as the amount per container on a conventional ship.

"The problem was, who would be willing to pay to carry cargo at those costs," Mr. Tulin said.

FastShip said it has solved the fuel problems with its hull designs. But Mr. Tulin contends the jet propulsion systems are not as efficient as propellers. Mr. Johnson and MIT say the jet systems are more efficient at higher speeds.

Mr. Tulin also pointed out that the FastShip team - and MIT - have very little experience with hull design, at least for cargo ships that are almost as long as three football fields and intended to carry about 1,350 20-foot containers. Mr. Johnson's experience includes a stint as a port board member in Virginia and a failed airline. The FastShip's inventor, David Giles, is mostly known for his work with plane and yacht designs.


"And MIT does some fantastic work, but this is not MIT's forte," said Mr. Tulin, an MIT graduate in 1946.

"Maybe MIT has not designed ships from the bottom up," said Paul Sclavounos, an MIT professor of ship shape and design, and one of the team working on FastShip. "But we have been involved in ship dynamics for 20 years. We have plenty of experience from a theoretical point of view. I call myself a modern naval architect. In the future, there will be a lot more computer simulations."

Still, Mr. Tulin points to other designs, such as the Japanese Techno- Superliner, which rides on two hulls and a cushion of air above the water. The $150 million project was started in 1989. But the ships are only meant for shorter hauls near the Japanese coast and are designed to carry less than a third of the cargo for which the FastShip vessels are designed.

Another entry into the faster ship scene is the Incat Cargo Express, a 360-foot aluminum catamaran with a projected speed of 50 knots, a capacity for slightly more than the Japanese ships and a range of 2,000 nautical miles, still not enough for a trans-Atlantic route. But the Australians feel they may be ready for the Atlantic in a few years, according to Incat Designs, which designed the ship.


Mr. Johnson said FastShip will be ready before then. And, he contended, his company's design is best. "The others work quite well on short distances. What's tough is to go fast in heavy seas with heavy cargoes. We use a plain old monohull, but with a uniqueness of design."

Ship captains, mates and sailors have questioned the safety of a high- speed crossing of the Atlantic, especially in the spring when icebergs head south. Ships often place sailors in the bow to watch for ice at that time of the year.

"That's an issue that will be addressed," MIT's Mr. Sclavounos said. "At this stage, the designers are more concerned that the ship can go fast in high seas."

Mr. Johnson said the ship's will be equipped with sophisticated radar.

Conventional ships, however, now have radar and still find it difficult to locate large fishing vessels, especially in the fog or rain, while the containerships average only about 18 knots.


"Our systems will be much more sophisticated," Mr. Johnson said. "It's like when jets came in. They were going much faster than the propeller planes and they needed better equipment."

While FastShip feels it fares well in comparisons with conventional ships for some cargo, it is the air freight that the service will be out to grab, Mr. Johnson said. While the transit time would be slightly longer, the lower rate would make FastShip competitive for the shipper, Mr. Johnson said.

"That would be our niche market," he said. "And from there, it would create new markets that weren't there before. It would be like Federal Express. No one thought that there would be billions of packages overnighted,

because the service was never there before."

Some shippers are buying the idea.

"We feel there is more of a potential for stuff going by air to go by FastShip," Mr. Ortiz said. "We might increase the cycle time, but we still would get it there in time."

Tests Nearing Finish

Mr. Johnson said it's only a matter of time before FastShips cross the Atlantic between Philadelphia and Europe in only 3.5 days. The tests are almost all done. The proposal for the U.S. Maritime Administration is just about complete.

"The last thing we have to nail down is the shipyard to build the ships," said Clifford Sayre, one of the company's point men located in Philadelphia. ''We need a shipyard partner for Marad."

The company would like to use the closed naval shipyard in the city, but the financial details have yet to be ironed out. Mr. Sayre said there are a couple of other possibilities for American yards.

''We hope to build it in the United States. But we need a competitive price. If we can't, we'll have to go to Northern Europe."