Back in September 1967, a ship sailed into the port of New York. As stevedores looked out from the pier, they observed a new ship with a design unlike anything they had ever seen. This amazing vessel had containers stacked securely in protective cells. Vehicles, machinery and trailers had been driven on via a stern ramp and parked securely in garages under deck. With this hybrid setup, unloading and loading Atlantic Span on her maiden voyage would turn out to be a breeze. Those assigned to handle the actual cargo had a far easier task compared with the long, arduous workloads for conventional vessels.
Little did we know that this vessel design would become the hallmark of quality and innovation for liner shipping for the next five decades. And in the process, Atlantic Container Line (ACL) would prove that size was not the only determinant for success in the competitive world of ocean transportation.
This September marked ACL’s 50th year of transportation service on the ever turbulent seas of the North Atlantic. Throughout the years, ACL vessels have steamed over 25 million miles and have carried more than 100 million tonnes of cargo between North America and Europe.
In an industry now dominated by mega-carriers, ACL has thrived by catering to clients seeking customized service to destinations on both sides of the Atlantic.
ACL was launched in 1967 through an agreement bringing together six legendary shipping companies: Holland-America Line, Cunard Line, French Line, Swedish American Line, Transatlantic AB and Wallenius Lines. Expertise was onboard in such persons as Olof Wallenius (the creator of the roll-on/roll-off concept) and Pieter van Houten, Managing Director of Holland-America Line. With an organization in place on both sides of the Atlantic, the group embarked on a bold course into the new world of containerization.
U.S.-based SeaLand Service was the world’s first container carrier and ACL became the second, and the first European container carrier. While SeaLand was ultimately absorbed by another ocean carrier and ceased to exist, ACL remains the oldest operating container carrier in the world.
Early container cranes at New York’s Port Elizabeth terminal were mobile and they ran the risk of toppling if they tried to lift heavy containers off the far side of a ship. So ACL pioneered a solution to this dilemma. Once a crane had unloaded the starboard side of a ship, tugboats would quickly spin her around so the crane could safely unload the port side. Eventually, permanently secured cranes were introduced. These cranes were capable of safely reaching across a vessel’s entire beam.
When ACL’s G1 vessels began service in 1967, the Company relied on a standard system of tracking each container with a small numbered metal rectangle that would be stuck to a giant magnetic board. Staffers would physically move each rectangle from one spot to another to indicate where all equipment was at any given time. Aware that the system was time-intensive and prone to error, ACL got to work to develop a better way. The Company invested in what was then a state-of-the-art computer system called a Univac 418 II from Sperry Rand Corp. Remote data communication devices, planted at various office locations, would keep ACL managers abreast of where their containers were and when they would be going elsewhere. By September 1968, ACLAIM, the first computerized container control system in the deep-sea transportation industry, became fully operational.
Keeping track of inventory was not productive if ocean carriers could not be equally sophisticated in managing both ocean and inland movement of containers. For this task, ACL developed what it called the Route Code System. Designed for repeat customers whose weekly shipping patterns seldom changed, each route code would represent both the ocean and inland movement of a shipment’s journey. Such a system had become necessary as the concept of door-to-door “intermodal” transportation (combining ocean, rail and truck movements) became an industry standard. With the Route Code System in place, ACL’s marketing, logistics and accounting staff could tell from a single code not only where a shipment had been loaded and where it was going, but also how much to charge a customer based on an agreed matrix of ocean and inland rates.
By late 1969, ACL’s fleet size was expanded by 150 per cent through the addition of new and improved G2 vessels. These six ships were all faster and larger than the original four. The Company operated from what was then the world’s largest marine container terminal (52.5 acres) at Port Elizabeth, NJ in the New York harbour, with the capacity to handle two combination roll-on/roll-off container ships simultaneously.
Over the years, smart investments paid off handsomely. Customers with high-end goods used ACL to ship everything from automobiles and construction equipment to vodka. A few special shipments were unforgettable. “Tanya”, for instance, was likely the first elephant ever to cross the Atlantic. At 2,400 pounds, she needed lots of exercise. Thanks to a personal attendant, Tanya took frequent laps around the deck. And she wasn’t the only celebrity to use ACL. The carrier also got the nod when John Travolta and Mick Jagger moved their movie/concert tour trailers overseas. Following suit was Arnold Schwarzenegger and HRH Queen Elizabeth who transported their personal helicopters on ACL vessels.
Occasionally, ACL was given a chance to mix business with patriotism. For example, in 1986, ACL’s Atlantic Compass proudly delivered a Swedish-manufactured elevator system for installation at the Statue of Liberty. In 1990, ACL helped the Royal Navy during Operation Desert Shield in the Middle East, when ACL’s G3 vessel, Atlantic Conveyor, carried tanks, trucks and helicopters to the Persian Gulf for eventual use in the Iraq campaign. An Argentine missile sank the original Atlantic Conveyor, an ACL G2 vessel, during the Falklands conflict, as she was delivering RAF Harrier Jets, Chinook Helicopters and tanks to the war zone.
Operating on the unpredictable and dangerous ocean comes with inherent responsibilities. On many occasions, an ACL ship paused to help the crew of another vessel, including a number of stranded yachts. In one case back in 1985, a mariner calling for help was none other than Virgin Atlantic founder, Richard Branson. Having run into stormy weather while attempting to set a new transatlantic speed record with his ship, Challenger II, Branson relied on a passing ACL vessel to tank up with a much-needed 600 liters of fuel.
Today, ACL vessels continue to divide cargo stowage areas almost evenly between containers and roll-on/roll-off cargo. ACL still takes part in many of the world’s most ambitious and extraordinary transportation projects. In one example, ACL was selected to transport 99 steel beams, some as long as 56 feet, from Luxembourg to New York City to secure the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower on the site of Ground Zero.
The company went public on the Oslo Stock Exchange in 1994. However, in 2001 the Grimaldi Group recognized the synergy potential of linking ACL’s North American business with Grimaldi’s successful services in the Mediterranean, West Africa and South America. Grimaldi became the leading shareholder and eventually took the Company private once again.
ACL is now Grimaldi’s North America Agent for services between North America and West Africa and between North America and the Mediterranean, and continues to play a key role when valuable shipments require a special level of care. The multimodal transport of RORO, cars and containers continues to be enhanced by investments in technology. ACL’s software network, ATLAS, operates throughout the entire Grimaldi and ACL networks, to ensure efficiency and control of cargo operations and customer service.
In 2008, ACL began to evaluate innovative new designs for its next generation of ships, the Generation 4 vessels (G4s). This innovative Danish design successfully solved the problem of high ballast on CONRO vessels. Virtually all CONRO vessels until then had stowed containers on deck and lighter RORO cargo under deck. As a result, most of the weight rides high on a standard CONRO vessel, requiring a great deal of ballast for stability. ACL’s new design puts all the RORO cargo amidships, and stows the containers in cells fore and aft of the RORO section. This results in cargo replacing ballast and much more efficient use of vessel space. After four years of planning, ACL chose a Shanghai-based shipbuilder to construct the new G4’s.
The G4 is the largest RORO/Containership (CONRO) ever built. Its design increases capacity without significantly changing the dimensions of the vessel. G4s are bigger, greener and more efficient than their predecessors. Container capacity is more than doubled at 3,807 TEUs, and ships contain 28,900 square meters of RORO space and space for 1300 vehicles. The RORO ramp enables simultaneous loading and discharge of oversized cargo. RORO ramps are wider and shallower and decks are higher (up to 7.4 meters) with fewer columns, enabling much easier loading and discharge of oversized cargo. Emissions per TEU are reduced by 65 per cent. The fleet continues to employ cell-guides on deck; a feature that will allow ACL to extend its enviable record of never having lost a container over the side during the last 30 years.
The first G4, Atlantic Star, joined the ACL fleet in the Fall of 2015. The remaining four G4 vessels, Atlantic Sail, Atlantic Sea, Atlantic Sky and Atlantic Sun were delivered throughout 2016-2017. In a formal ceremony, Atlantic Sea was christened by HRH Princess Anne in Liverpool at the Cruise Liner Terminal. This was the first Royal ship christening in the Mersey since 1960.
The G4 vessels will dramatically improve ACL’s competitiveness on the North Atlantic and expand its oversized cargo service from North America to other parts of the world. ACL deploys unique ships, goes to unique ports and carries cargo that others cannot carry. Combined with Grimaldi’s expanding service network, the G4 fleet will enable ACL to provide more diverse services as a container and RORO operator for many years to come.