SEA STAR SEEKS FOOTHOLD IN PUERTO RICO TRADE

SEA STAR SEEKS FOOTHOLD IN PUERTO RICO TRADE

While attention and speculation focused on the entry into the U.S. mainland- Puerto Rico trade of Malcom McLean's Trailer Bridge Inc., a decidedly tiny upstart slipped most quietly into the trade.

Sea Star Express Inc. began sailing weekly between Jacksonville, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, in mid-November, said Alec Boriss, president and one of the owners of Sea Star.However, beginning Feb. 14, Sea Star will sail from the Port of Miami to maintain a better sailing frequency, Mr. Boriss said.

Even in a trade that attracts a steady stream of small carriers like moths to a flame, Sea Star is minuscule. Its fleet consists of one oil-rig supply boat converted to carry 36 40-foot equivalent containers, 24 of which can be refrigerated boxes, and three 20-foot equivalent containers.

"It's big enough to carry sufficient weight to make a go of a container service with it," Mr. Boriss said.

He was a former operations manager with Marine Transportation Sea-Barge Group Inc., which managed not only to survive as a small carrier in the U.S.-Puerto Rico trade, but also to expand. He also was a founder of ill-fated Ocean Line of North Florida, which tried in vain to prolong its existence in the trade through expansion and merger.

That Sea Star hasn't been the talk of the industry doesn't surprise its president, who said the company opted for a low profile while getting started and is only now beginning a light advertising campaign.

"We're not even in the Yellow Pages," he joked.

Getting the operation under way wasn't easy, Mr. Boriss said. For one thing, the company picked "a terrible time to start," just as the Christmas shipping surge was concluding and holiday slowdown was beginning.

Then Sea Star struggled through a number of events outside its control, such as heavy fogs and an oil spill in Jacksonville, that delayed sailings.

"We've gotten through about as many Murphy's (Laws) as we possibly can," Mr. Boriss said.

But Sea Star's major problem was trying to maintain a seven-day sailing schedule out of Jacksonville, the trade's mainland hub, with a slow workboat.

To guarantee a fixed-day schedule, Sea Star had to adopt an eight-day sailing frequency, which confused shippers who are accustomed to weekly sailings, Mr. Boriss said.

The shift to Miami should rectify the scheduling problem, Mr. Boriss said, noting that despite the disadvantageous schedule and the holiday slowdown, Sea Star's loads are averaging 60 percent to 65 percent of capacity.

Asked about his chances of surviving in a trade in which small carriers have the life expectancy of a helicopter door gunner in combat, Mr. Boriss laughed, saying: "We hope we're so small that when the fur flies, nothing will hit us.

"And the fur is about to fly," he predicted, alluding to Trailer Bridge's Feb. 5 maiden voyage.