Super heavy-lift remains a niche market

Super heavy-lift remains a niche market

Heavy-load carriers, like their breakbulk brethren, are adding lift capacity, flexible hold configurations, specialized dynamic positioning systems and other complicated and customized fixtures to their ships.

These will make them ever more capable of handling tasks that range from transporting oil rigs to installing offshore wind turbines, tasks carriers devoutly hope they will be called to perform as the project industry slowing recovers from the global economic recession.

Eric Schmid, owner’s agent for Dutch heavy-load carrier RollDock, sees the heavy-load market slowly coming back to life. Major engineering, procurement and construction companies are once again discussing new projects. “We see inquiries now for projects worldwide including South America, Australia, inter-Asia cargo, cargoes for the Panama Canal expansion and even cargoes into the Baltic,” he said.

But inquiries are generally for projects only in the front-end engineering and design stages, he said. Load ports often remain undecided since contractors are still selecting manufacturers. Meanwhile, rates seem to be slowly firming up.

And even as the container and roll-on, roll-off carriers are eyeing the project cargo and breakbulk sector, some in the breakbulk arena are edging closer to the super heavy-lift end of the spectrum. Multipurpose carriers such as Beluga, for example, are equipping new vessels with cranes lifting up to 1,400 tons and have ambitions to go even higher. For their part, many heavy-loaders already carry breakbulk, bulk and the occasional container in addition to the oil and gas rigs, pressure vessels, barges, modules and other gigantic pieces that are their specialty.

Heavy-load typically means float-on, float-off and roll-on, roll-off as well as lift-on, lift-off. The top 15 members of the super heavy-lift or heavy-load sector dominate their chunk of the shipping industry, controlling 82 percent of the fleet by vessel count and 90 percent by deadweight tonnage, or 118 of 144 vessels and 2.6 million out of 2.89 million deadweight tons. However, the heavy-load niche is much smaller in absolute terms than the far-more-fragmented breakbulk sector, which weighed in at 65.4 million deadweight tons at the end of 2009.

The heavy-load sector, as defined in Dynamar’s 2010 report “Breakbulk: Operators, Fleets, Markets,” includes carriers such as CombiLift and Dockwise that operate semi-submersible ro-ro vessels and primarily serve the offshore oil and gas sector, open-deck crane transporters such as ZhenHua, and specialists such as Jumbo that can lift as much as 1,800 metric tons.

Many heavy-load specialists operate relatively small deadweight-tonnage ships. Heavy-lift specialist Jumbo’s ships max out at 13,000 metric tons, even as lift capacities range from 500 to 1,800 metric tons. This is because power plants, mines, refineries, offshore oil rigs, wind farms and the like — the projects built with the cargo carried by these vessels — are built where the commodity is, not where the end-users are. This includes the most remote regions of the world, places where there are not even ports, said Gary Strom, global logistics chartering manager for Bechtel Corp.

“So you always have that question of getting enough draft (at a construction dock) to bring your materials into the jobsite,” Strom said. “If you build a construction dock with a 6- to 8-meter draft maximum, how do you get an 11-meter draft ship in? (Or) if it’s ro-ro, you may have a ramp angle that won’t work.” The bigger the ship, the deeper the draft — for project cargo, flexible, shallow-draft vessels are key.

However, heavy-load also includes enormous vessels, often converted tankers, such as those used by ZhenHua, which uses converted oil tankers to move the gigantic port cranes its parent company builds.

Dockwise, the second-largest carrier after ZhenHua in the sector by tonnage, also operates several converted tankers, including the 76,000-ton Blue Marlin. Netherlands-based Dockwise operates 20 semi-submersible vessels and currently has no ships on order. The carrier has signed $40 million worth of agreements to transport jack-up rigs, construction vessels and supply boats worldwide, a welcome thawing after the economic downturn and many months of “pricing pressure,” according to Dockwise CEO Andre Goedee.

Goedee sounded a note of cautious optimism recently when he said that stabilizing oil prices and an improving global economy appear to be increasing tender activity in the drill rig sector.

RollDock is currently operating one vessel, the 8,300-deadweight-ton Rolldock Sun, which was delivered in January and has since performed seven voyages from Thailand to Singapore carrying 3,000-metric-ton furnaces, according to Schmid. RollDock ranks No. 15 on Dynamar’s sector list, but will move up the ladder as several new ships are delivered in coming years. The carrier’s second vessel, the Rolldock Sea, is being built at Larson & Toubro in India and should be delivered this summer. Another six vessels are on order with the same builder.

RollDock’s shallow-draft ships can load cargo using two cranes with a combined lifting capacity of 700 metric tons, using an adjustable ramp that can handle up to 4,000 metric tons, or via float-on, float-off.

Germany-based SAL, No. 4 on Dynamar’s list, is scheduled to receive a new vessel in 2010 and another in 2011, bringing its fleet to 16. The 12,500-dwt. vessels will have cranes combinable up to 2,000 metric tons and speeds up to 20 knots.

BigLift Shipping is currently operating a fleet of nine vessels with lifting capacities ranging from 500 to 1,400 metric tons. This year and next, the project carrier will add seven new ships to its fleet, including five with two 400-metric-ton cranes and one 120-metric-ton crane. These are being built at the Ouhua yard in China and will be delivered during the second half of this year. Two vessels with two 900-metric-ton cranes each, combinable for lifting capacity of 1,800 metric tons, are being built at Hazira, India, for delivery in early 2011.

Jumbo Shipping took delivery of the Jumbo Jubilee in January, bringing its fleet to 14 ships, and has another six vessels on order, according to Dynamar. In addition to heavy-lift capacities of up to 1,800 metric tons, two Jumbo vessels — Jumbo Javelin and Fairplayer — have dynamic positioning systems. These systems will enable the Jumbo vessels to install tidal generators weighing up to 1,100 metric tons that will eventually be used in subsea tidal energy farms. The Fairplayer also has deep-water winches usable in water depths up to 3,000 meters. In a recent test near the Orkney Islands, the Fairplayer demonstrated an ability to install these generators despite fierce tidal currents, according to the carrier.

Danish Combi-Lift has taken delivery of four geared semi-submersible Combi-Dock vessels since 2008 as well as two new ships with combinable lift capacities of 900 metric tons. Two more are scheduled to arrive in the next eight months, said Peter Poulsen, sales and marketing manager at Combi-Lift.

The Combi-Dock ships have a hold, heavy-lift cranes combinable up to 700 metric tons, and stern ramps with a 700-metric-ton capacity, allowing them to handle pieces as heavy as 7,500 metric tons, Poulsen said. They can sail with open hatch and open stern ramp as needed.

They also have positioning systems that allow them to maintain positions via GPS while working offshore, and removable watertight bulkheads that allow the vessels to safely carry dry cargo in the fore part of the hold while submerging for float-on, float-off loading in the rear.

Cargoes are mainly for the petrochemical, offshore and energy sectors, “but we carry all kinds of breakbulk cargoes,” Poulsen said.

Contact Janet Nodar at