By Keith Norbury

A panel of industry experts will share its candid insights in Texas this fall on the movement of breakbulk and project cargo on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.

The occasion is a panel discussion, titled “Wind and Steel: Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway Overview,” taking place at the Breakbulk Americas Conference in Houston in late September.

Participants on the panel, including carriers, cargo owners, and other industry stakeholders, were still working on their presentations as this edition was going to press. Consequently, specific details about what they’ll be talking about weren’t available.

However, moderator Vince D’Amico, Manager, Market Development, St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., said in an interview that the panel discussion should provide good content, especially for customers and carriers who haven’t had the opportunity to use the Seaway system. “We’re quite excited to have the panel together to talk about their experiences, be candid (about) what works, what they find challenges with, and why they’ve been mainstays in moving their cargoes throughout the Great Lakes,” Mr. D’Amico said.

The 50-minute session is scheduled for September 28 at 3 p.m. According to the conference website, the speakers include the following:

• Jonathan Lamb, President of Lake Superior Warehousing, the managing agent of Duluth Seaway Port Authority’s general cargo facilities;

• Dennis Pfeffer, Liner Manager for Fednav International’s FALLine liner service;

• Ed Bastian, Director of Global Sales for BBC Chartering;

• Emmanuelle Zagaria, who heads the logistics department at Enercon Canada Inc.;

• Robert Drew, Global Logistics Manager for Tata International; and

• BJ Dykstra, Logistics Manager for Nordex/Acciona Windpower.

The conference takes place September 26 to 29 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

System reaches 150 million people

When it comes to breakbulk and project cargo, the Great Lakes/Seaway system has had great success, Mr. D’Amico said. And the system’s success in accessing manufacturers and the Midwest market “has been instrumental in companies’ success in importing and exporting cargoes.” That includes the steel industry, wind energy projects, and retooling projects for manufacturers. “We have a great breadth and a great access to over 150 million people within an eight-hour drive of the Great Lakes,” Mr. D’Amico said. “As well, we provide easy, consistent, and safe access for those shipments to take place.”

St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) and its U.S. counterpart, Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC), are also members of Highway H2O, an industry group that has been a mainstay at the Breakbulk America’s conference since its inception, Mr. D’Amico said. Since 2004, Highway H2O has also held an annual conference of its own. This year’s version takes place Nov. 16 and 17 at the Hilton Toronto Airport. For information about that conference, visit

Hands-free mooring for locks

One thing the Seaway managers will be promoting at both conferences is a hands-free mooring technology being installed on Seaway locks and which is expected to be in full service in 2018. The trade-marked MoorMaster system, from Switzerland-based global engineering group Cavotec SA, employs remote-controlled vacuum pads instead of mooring lines to hold ships securely as the water level rises and lowers in a lock, according to a description accompanying a Youtube video of the system in action. The system eliminates the safety hazards associated with handling steel cables, said Bruce Hodgson, Director of Market Development for SLSMC. It also means ships won’t have to be fitted with steel wire fairlead systems in order to use the locks. “Effectively it opens up access to the canal to a much larger number of ships,” Mr. Hodgson said.

Eight of the Seaway’s locks are on the Welland Canal, which is entirely within Canada and connects Lake Ontario with Lake Erie. Seven more locks are between Montreal and Lake Ontario, with five of those in Canada and two in the U.S. On the St. Mary’s River between Lake Huron and Lake Superior are four Soo (or Sault) locks on the U.S. side. They are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“However the system is a binational system in the true sense of the word,” Mr. Hodgson said, adding that the Seaway corporations on either side of the border are “working collaboratively for the safe passage and the efficient passage of vessels between the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

Seaway competes with Houston

Tim Heney, CEO of Thunder Bay Port Authority, noted that Houston is the Seaway’s greatest competitor for breakbulk and project cargo. “It’s the biggest breakbulk port in the U.S. We believe a lot of the material that goes there could come here more economically,” said Mr. Heney, who is not taking part in the panel discussion. “It’s just that people get into trading patterns and they don’t change.” Mr. Heney said that the introduction in recent years of liner services on the Seaway, such as by Netherlands-headquartered Spliethoff, should facilitate such change.

“That’s the one thing Houston had that we didn’t was liner services,” said Mr. Heney, who visited Houston frequently when his daughter attended graduate school there. “So once you get that, you can get the smaller shipments and getting to be competitive on more items.”

The Seaway, because of its locks, is limited on the size of vessels it can accommodate. That keeps container ships out of the system but it doesn’t hamper movement of breakbulk and project cargo vessels because those ships are usually smaller. “You get a load of wind turbines, you’re not going to load up a Panamax with those,” Mr. Heney said.

European plants that make wind turbines are also often situated on rivers with their ports accessed via a lock system, Mr. Heney said. As a result, smaller Handysize vessels — which have capacities of less than 35,000 dead weight tonnes — will carry those types of projects cargoes even to Houston.

The annual winter closure as Seaway waters freeze is the biggest challenge, Mr. Heney said. However, even that isn’t a big problem for breakbulk shippers. “They’re project-related and they’re planned quite a ways out,” he said.

Billions invested in capital projects

Mr. D’Amico said that while ice does form on the lakes, the system closes primarily for maintenance and ongoing capital improvements. Since 2009, capital investments and committed capital investments totalled C$7.1 billion on the Great Lakes/Seaway system, according to January 2015 report prepared by Martin Associates for a coalition of Canadian and U.S. Great Lakes-Seaway maritime industry stakeholders. Of that total, C$4.1 billion was for vessels, with C$1.75 billion for ports and terminals, and C$1.25 billion for waterway infrastructure. Most of that money — C$4.7 billion — is from the private sector. The public sector share is just under C$2.4 billion.

Of the public sector share for ports, terminals, and waterway infrastructure, most of that is from Quebec and Ontario, C$996 million and C$1.2 billion respectively. Each of the two provinces is contributing more than all of the eight Great Lakes states combined (C$814 million).

The system is “critical” to the economies of both countries, the report noted. “Every year, more than 160 million metric tonnes of raw materials, agricultural commodities and manufactured products are moved on the system.” How much of that is breakbulk and project cargo, the report doesn’t say. The SLSDC 2015 annual report doesn’t break out figures either. However, the report does note that breakbulk cargoes “represent the highest-value goods moving through the Seaway System and has been the fastest growing cargo sector over the past five years.”

Figures in the SLSMC 2015-2016 corporate summary reveal that general cargo volumes declined 15.4 per cent in 2015 to 2.7 million tonnes from 3.2 million tonnes the previous year. Total cargo for 2015 was 36.3 million tonnes, 9.1 per cent less than in 2014. That total is only for cargo that traverses the locks on the Welland Canal and on the St. Lawrence between Lake Ontario and Montreal. It doesn’t include the approximately 120 million tonnes that travel between ports elsewhere on the system without transiting those locks.

It takes 8.5 sailing days to traverse the entire 2,038 nautical miles of the Seaway from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minn., according to the SLSDC website. Since it began operation in 1959, the Seaway has moved over 2.5 billion tonnes of cargo with an estimated value of US$375 billion.