By R. Bruce Striegler

“We move trailers, or ‘cans on a chassis’ between B.C.’s Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, and we do it without the driver and the truck,” says Steve Roth, President of Seaspan Ferries. More than half the cargo delivered to the Island arrives on one of Seaspan’s seven ferries sailing out of terminals in Delta and Surrey. “We are a significant player in providing goods and services to the Island,” says Roth. Seaspan’s ‘drop trailer’ ferries leave the Lower Mainland terminals of Tilbury Island on the Fraser River or the Surrey terminal to make a total of eleven round trips per day, each one-way trip taking three hours. The ferries dock on southern Vancouver Island at Swartz Bay on the north end of the Saanich Peninsula or at Duke Point, mid-island in Nanaimo. Business has been growing annually by between two and two-and-a-half per cent, Roth says, with the company moving more than 500 trailers per day and up to 20,000 automobiles per year. A special truck connects to a trailer, hauling it off the ferry for its customers to pick up. It takes just 20 seconds to hook up a trailer. “We expect about the same growth over the next few years, mirroring growth on the Island.”

The company has added its first new vessels in fifteen years. Seaspan calls its new ships “eco-ferries.” They were built to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) or diesel fuel, with a battery as a backup, if needed. Roth said, however, the new “eco-ferries” will use mainly LNG. The new 488-feet ferries are capable of carrying about fifty 53-foot long trailers. The first of the new vessels, Seaspan Swift, built in Istanbul, Turkey, went into service in February 2017, followed by Seaspan Reliant in April. Seaspan Swift was successfully bunkered using a tanker truck to deliver LNG to the vessel. This type of bunkering operation was the first of its kind in North America.

“It’s been a labour of love,” says Roth, “We’re ahead of the curve on this in North America. The technology is what’s complicated. They’re all-electric, so there are no shafts or propellers, for example, we use bow thrusters.” Roth added that with the addition of the new vessels, Seaspan is living out a clear commitment to drop-trailer customers as well as to the waterways in which the company operates. “It’s been a challenge at times, but we’re maintaining our schedule and the deficiency list is falling.” Roth says training has been a significant test. ”If you want to work on one of these new vessels, you have to take this training. The company employs 75 people shore-side, and about 100 mariners.

B.C. LNG producers are finding a small but growing domestic market for natural gas, in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG), in the trucking and marine transportation sectors. Seaspan is not the only company utilizing LNG, as BC Ferries has also turned to dual-fuel vessels, significantly reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the environment. Its three Salish-class ships built in Poland run on natural gas, and LNG is planned for the two Spirit-class vessels being upgraded. Meanwhile, more trucking fleets and public transit authorities, including the Vancouver-area transit authority, TransLink, have been making the switch from diesel to natural gas when they replace buses. BC Transit now has 74 buses in B.C. running on compressed natural gas, and another 46 are expected to be on the road by 2018. TransLink has 45 CNG buses on the road, and another 51 are expected to arrive by the end of this year.

New Duke Point terminal part of a $250 million expansion

In June of this year, Seaspan Ferries opened its new $44-million ferry freight terminal at Duke Point in Nanaimo. The new terminal, with two state-of-the-art hydraulic ramps, replaces an older terminal located just south of Nanaimo’s downtown. The 18-acre, 360-trailer facility will greatly improve both flexibility and efficiency, and Roth says, “The service levels are going to improve because our capacity has increased. This terminal has two working berths capable of handling truck or rail traffic and three lay over berths, which accommodate our fleet of vessels and scheduled service.”

The new terminal took approximately 19 months to build, and consolidates operations from the previous downtown-located operation and the old facility at Duke Point. “The opening of the new Duke Point Terminal marked the latest step in our ambitious $250 million commitment to re-construct our marine terminals and modernize the fleet of vessels that services them,” says Roth.

“We take great pride in the roles we play as a key driver for the regional economy, and trusted partner to the communities we serve, and were thrilled to open a new facility that will improve flexibility and efficiency for our customers shipping between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.”

The company is also replacing more vessels. “We have an RFP out to build two or three new ones, hopefully starting next year. Out of the seven vessels, two are new, the others have significant miles on them,” and Roth adds that the commitment from the parent company, The Washington family group and corporate Seaspan, “Is that we need to replace the older vessels.” He notes that with the work Seaspan Marine is currently handling under the federal government National Shipbuilding Strategy program, the yard is unable to take on construction of the ships, hence the RFP to outside shipbuilding companies.