Building a new laker
Interlake contracts with Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding for new U.S.-flag laker

Building a new laker

Six hundred thirty-nine feet. Squared cargo holds with larger hatches.

Advanced front-mounted, self-unloading equipment.

The new River Class laker being built for The Interlake Steamship Company is the first U.S.-flag Great Lakes vessel to be built in 35 years. Steel is on order and cutting will begin at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin later this summer.

The cutting, welding and equipping process will take place over four years. When launched, the laker will add cargo capacity to Interlake’s family-owned fleet of nine self-unloaders. The ship will move raw materials to support manufacturing throughout the Great Lakes.

“This is a big project for us,” said Mark Barker, Interlake President. It’s the company’s first new ship construction since 1981, when the William J. DeLancey, now sailing as Paul R. Tregurtha, was christened.

The decades between were spent maintaining and upgrading the fleet

  • 1997: Steamer J.L. Mauthe converted to the self-unloading barge Pathfinder. Tug Dorothy Ann completed in 1999 to round out the ATB pairing.
  • 2006: Lee A. Tregurtha and Charles M. Beeghly, now Hon. James L. Oberstar, repurposed with highly automated diesel engines.
  • 2012: Kaye E. Barker repowered.
  • 2015: Oberstar outfitted with freshwater exhaust gas scrubber technology.
  • 2016: Herbert C. Jackson repowered, James R. Barker and Lee A. Tregurtha retrofitted with exhaust gas scrubbers.
  • 2017: Mesabi Miner outfitted with exhaust gas scrubbers.
  • 2018: Paul R. Tregurtha sailed with newly installed scrubbers.

After 100 years in business, Interlake operates nine vessels. Before the most recent scrubber installation and the cost of the new ship, the company had invested more than $100 million in modernizing its fleet. The ships haul about 20 million tons of raw materials annually, including iron ore and flux stone for the steel industry, stone for the construction industry, coal for power generation and salt for de- icing roads and highways.

Going big by building small. While Interlake is known for its 1,000-footers, investing in a River Class vessel gives the company increased flexibility at the region’s tightest docks.

“We had demand for the vessel and we were able to come up with the business that would justify building the new ship,” Barker said. “It gives us a forward-boom boat that will benefit our customers. She’ll fit into some of our current trade patterns, doing similar work as the Pathfinder and even the Jackson.”

The laker is the result of countless hours of analysis and design—all of which began with a drawing of an articulated tug-barge (ATB), a more modern version of Dorothy Ann/Pathfinder. By drilling down into the details of customers’ needs and docks to be used, Interlake moved toward the self-unloading River Class vessel in partnership with Bay Engineering in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

This design was used to shop shipyards. And when Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding became the shipyard of choice, the shipyard’s Vice President and General Manager, Todd Thayse, asked for the opportunity to review the plans and make recommendations. During this process, major vendors were chosen.

“We looked at the design to make it more streamlined and reproducible,”
Thayse said, noting the work reduced man-hours, some costs and transferred the responsibility of working with the major vendors from Interlake to the shipyard. “Shipyards have relationships with major equipment and steel providers. We are able to leverage those relationships for better pricing and better align deliveries.”

A determined direction. The new ship will be unique in the Interlake fleet—able to load and unload where aft-mounted self-unloaders can’t go. She’ll offer the efficiencies of new technologies, including remote-controlled gates, advanced fire detection systems and automated ballast system. The ship will be equipped with technology Interlake has used on its repowered vessels, like automation for engine, trending and logging operations.

“We always put the highest amount of automation we can in ships, which includes remote-controlled gates and automated ballast system,” Barker said. “The minor nuancing is part of a greater result.”

For example, remote gate operation eliminates the need for crew to be in the tunnels working gates. The programmable automation will lead to a more systematic, efficient offload.

Other nuancing includes:

  • Squared cargo holds to maximize space and better accommodate non-bulk cargo, such as steel and other project cargo
  • Multiple hatch covers measuring about 80 feet—larger than typical covers— to help align the load at the dock with the cargo holds
  • A flap rudder and bow and stern thrusters to increase maneuverability for tight river docking
  • Two 16-cylinder Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) engines to produce 7,800 shaft horsepower, a horsepower comparable with Interlake’s larger vessels
  • A propulsion system meeting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Tier 4 and International Maritime Organization Tier III certifications
  • A single-screw, 18-inch diameter, Kongsberg, controllable-pitch propeller producing a speed topping 15 mph
  • An integrated propeller and rudder to provide the best water flow and the most efficient use of horsepower
  • One 940-kilowatt, ship-service diesel generator, two 2,500-kilowatt shaft generators and one 274-kilowatt emergency generator powering the ship, with the shaft generators minimizing the need for auxiliary engines while underway

All aspects of the vessel were looked at to ensure a low environmental impact to the Great Lakes and to those who work aboard. The hull has been optimized for efficiency and all systems have been designed to ensure low energy consumption.

At the shipyard. The team at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding is in gear. It has mapped out a timeline for each phase of ship construction, including hiring the hundreds of laborers who will join the project. The streamlined process folds into its other builds, which includes a self-unloading barge for another Great Lakes carrier, VanEnkevort Tug & Barge.

“Both of these projects come along in a timing which is perfect,” Thayse said, noting that it’s a key time to involve experienced shipbuilders and the new generation of workers who will be involved. “Young people are being trained as the elder statesmen leave the industry. It’s a time of passing the torch.”

The shipyard has varied newbuild, conversion and repair experiences. It has handled Interlake’s conversions in recent years and continues to build and repair tug-barge units, dredges, dredging equipment, automated loading carriers, ferries and offshore support vessels. It also handles a percentage of the region’s winter work on the Great Lakes fleet.

“We’ve been building self-unloading, self-propelled full ships here since the 1980s,” Thayse said.

The single-ship contract will move forward with cutting and welding over the winter. In 2020, the vessel will be erected in the drydock and be floating and moved to a dock before the winter ship maintenance projects come into the yard.

The next era. With the decisions made, there’s much work to be done. To build her in the Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding docks is a big win for the yard, a point of pride, according to Thayse, bringing the yard back to its roots of building the freighters still sailing the system today.

For Interlake, construction of the new ship also represents the next era for a company that’s been a part of the region since its 1883 founding as Pickands Mather & Company. While the ships and cargo have changed through the use of new technologies, the company’s new investment represents its belief that Great Lakes shipping will continue to serve as the backbone for American manufacturing for many years to come.

“We’re part of this industry for the long
haul,” Barker said.

Janenne Irene Pung
Great Lakes/Seaway Review