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Will the reefer trade go bananas over new design for larger-capacity vessels?

Will the reefer trade go bananas over new design for larger-capacity vessels?

A new conventional reefer ship design, potentially offering considerably higher loading capacity and far quicker port loading times, has been launched, targeting the banana trade between Latin America and Europe.

The design – the result of the co-operation between veteran industry executive Birger Lindberg Skov, managing director of Reefer Intel, and one of the world’s largest ro-ro vessel operators, Stena – brings to the reefer trade the quarter stern ramp loading system often used in the ro-ro sector, particularly on pure car and truck-carrying vessels, and would employ the cassette cargo handling technology pioneered over the last decade on ro-ro vessels carrying Scandinavian paper exports.

Presenting the new concept at last week’s Cool Logistics Conference in Rotterdam, Mr Skov said that for those banana shippers that wanted to remain in control of the end-to-end supply chain, investment in the conventional reefer vessels would be necessary as those in the existing fleet were ageing and becoming increasingly inefficient, particularly given the current trend for slow-steaming.

“The reefer fleet is ageing and its vessels are hampered by very slow loading and discharge operations, which are also very manpower-intensive,” Mr Skov said.

Although there has been some use of side loading technology for loading pallets onto conventional reefer ships that have been partially modified, the principal means of loading banana pallets is ships’ gear craning them into the holds, and then using gangs of stevedores to re-stow the banana boxes. Mr Skov claimed this operation typically lasted 24-48 hours.

In contrast, the new design would see pallets loaded onto cassettes which are then hauled up the quarter deck by translifters (pictured below) or terminal tractors and onto the vessel’s four ro-ro decks, interconnected by fixed ramps and stowed in blocks.


The vessel is also fitted with cranes to load reefer containers onto its weather deck –  these two loading operations are able to be performed simultaneously, whereas on current conventional reefer vessels, loading containers can only take place once the main holds are loaded and the hatch covers replaced.

The new vessels would have a capacity of 11,500 high-cube pallets, or 621,000 banana boxes – with two-thirds loaded on cassettes and the remaining one-third in reefer containers. Mr Skov claimed this represented a 45% increase in carrying capacity over conventional reefer vessels of similar size.

Stena RoRo managing director Per Westling said that the port turnaround times would be reduced by 50%, while also employing a vastly reduced workforce on the ports.

“All you need is six drivers for the translifters and a few pointers, and the whole vessel can be turned around in 12 hours” he said.

The main result of this is that it gives the shipping operator more opportunity to slow-steam because extra time is built into the sailing schedule, thus dramatically reducing fuel bills and operating costs by up to 40% per cargo unit.

The reduced port turnaround time would also allow a service operated by these ships to insert extra port calls. Today, a conventional reefer service between Latin America and Europe typically calls at two or three exports ports – Moin Costa Rica, Guayaquil in Ecuador, and Santa Marta and Turbo in Colombia among other – and two import ports in Europe, most commonly Dover and Antwerp.

However, Mr Skov said the increased efficiencies would allow a call at Hamburg to be included, as well as a call at US east coast port on the return leg, which would allow the operator to attract backhaul cargo, such as automobiles to Jacksonville or Brunswick.

However, the concept came under attack from container operators, who argued that the way the container shipping sector had already won so much market share from conventional ships proved that container shipping offered exporters better logistics cost throughout the entire cold chain.

“The reefer ships have lost ground to containers, but not in the banana trade from Latin America to Europe, which is what this vessel is aimed for,” Mr Skov replied. “Today, conventional ships still have 72% share of that trade.”

Kevin Bragg, managing director of Ecuadoran fruit producer Bonita Europe, responsible for around 8% of the banana market in Europe, said that with the wider Panama Canal due to be opened shortly, the vessel’s size – 119 metres long with a beam of 29 metres – could be too short in the future to provide sufficient economies of scale compared with container vessels.

“It needs to be bigger, but then, in order to fill the vessel, you would have to get two or three producers together to charter it, and they will fight like hell.

“Having said that – the design’s fantastic,” he said.

However, Mr Westling said there was no technical reason why the ship’s dimensions were based on existing conventional reefer vessel size, but “there is no technical obstacle to building this 25-30% bigger”.