Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Coastal Transportation

 

The blue buildings at center are Coastal Transportation's north facility in Dutch Harbor with company freighter Coastal Navigator alongside the dock. Coastal Transportation specializes in palletized cargo, allowing specialized cargo distribution services container carriers do not provide. Photo courtesy of Coastal Transportation.

In a modern shipping industry that relies heavily on moving cargo via container ships, Coastal Transportation, Inc. has carved out its own niche as a unique freighter service. For 32 years, the company has been moving cargo between Seattle and Western Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands, in a way that harkens back to a by-gone era.

"Our vessels in the old days were called stick ships," says George Collazo, Coastal's Port Captain who has been with the company since its inception. "And that means they used an arrangement of masts, booms, and block and tackle to raise and lower cargo off the dock and put it into cargo holds on vessels through hatches that sat on the weather deck. More than 50 years ago, that's the way that all vessels moved palletized and breakbulk cargo. We are the remnants of that."

Coastal operates four of these "stick ships" with scheduled year-round sailings. Vessels average 260 feet in length, with hold capacities averaging 100,000 cubic feet. Each is self-sustaining and 100 percent palletized, enabling a level of speed and flexibility unique to the region.

Northbound cargo typically includes items such as chemicals used for processing seafood, nets, crab pots, pallet boards, food and supplies for cannery workers as well as a range of household items like groceries, and larger items such as cars, that are transported to the various small towns that dot the Alaskan Peninsula. Southbound Coastal vessels take on cargo bound for Seattle, which is generally frozen fish such as Pollock, cod, salmon and crab. It's due to the cargo gear arrangements on the vessels that Coastal freighters can literally take cargo off fishing vessels at any location, whether at any dock, their own Dutch Harbor facility or from ships at anchor.

"We can come alongside a vessel out at anchor by the Pribilof Islands and pull the cargo right out of their cargo hold, and put it into our vessel using cargo gear," explains Collazo. "The cargo gear works enormously fast. Faster than the typical crane you see on some ships, so we can offload and load faster than any kind of crane ship out there."

When the family-owned company founded by Peter and Leslie Strong began, there was a gold rush for King Crab in the Aleutian Islands. Back then, fishing was done on a 24/7, 365 days-a-year basis, and it was unregulated. There was so much fish being caught that even the container ship liners couldn't keep up with it, remembers Collazo.

Other cargo-carrying vessel companies, including one larger than Coastal at the time, which operated similar vessels, jumped on the opportunity to also begin offering transportation services. When the State of Alaska implemented and enforced a new fisheries quota system these companies began to fall by the wayside. Coastal endured, and in fact, has steadily grown, and continues to do so, despite ongoing competition from its larger counterparts.

In the 1960s, the shipping industry moved away from palletized cargo because of the amount of damage that often happened to cargo placed in cargo holds. Containers came onto the scene, which provided more volume, safety and less damage.

The cornerstone of Coastal Transportation's enduring success while competing with large container lines is in the company's mission to provide personalized cargo supervision. "We take an enormous amount of care with cargo," says Collazo. "Once it goes into our cargo holds, we have a chief engineer who is constantly monitoring the refrigeration equipment so if anything goes wrong, it can be rectified underway. And if there's a problem and a bag or box gets damaged, there are five people in a meeting and we're talking for hours about how to prevent that from happening."

Custom-packing orders is another customer-oriented service that also sets Coastal Transportation apart. The company has its own cold storage facility in Dutch Harbor that was completed in September 2015 in order to better serve fishermen. While Coastal's vessels could easily unload cargo when a fishing vessel arrived at the company's Dutch Harbor terminal (the property for the terminal was purchased by Strong in the late 1990s), Coastal realized there was a need to provide cold storage for those times when vessels couldn't rendezvous due to conflicting schedules.

At first, refrigerated containers were used to house frozen seafood. Collazo recalls times when there were 45 refrigerated shipping containers ready to receive frozen product from fishing vessels offloading their cargo at the Dutch Harbor terminal. The seafood would need to sit for a day or two before being transported down to Seattle. However, the containers posed a huge financial concern because of the power needed to keep them running. With much planning and investment, the Dutch Harbor cold storage facility was built.

Coastal's Seattle facility, an old plywood mill, which was purchased in 1989, is located at Salmon Bay Terminal adjacent to the Interbay Burlington Northern train yard. It has its own extensive system of docks, as well as a rail spur that is used for some of the cargo that goes east by rail. Once the frozen cargo is offloaded in Seattle, Coastal's employees custom-pack every order, whether it's going by truck, trailer or rail. "Nobody else does that, which is why we don't use containers," says Collazo. "We can load cargo faster with less damage than when trying to pull it out of a container."

Coastal's new vessel, the Coastal Standard, set to begin service in the first quarter of 2016, has a side port – a hole in the side of the hull with a big steel plate or hatch that covers it so water doesn't get in when the ship is underway. A unique, modern elevator system will be used to remove cargo from the ship – another item that has ties to the days of old.

During the 1930s, cargo shipping elevators consisted of platforms suspended on wire rope from each corner. The wire rope was hung over the pulleys and motors raised and lowered each elevator. The elevator would then be lowered to the height of the docks and a forklift would place the cargo into the elevator, which would move up and down each of the vessel's decks inside the hull as required.

Coastal's modern elevator version has four elevator platforms that move on articulated hydraulic arms, enabling the loading simultaneously and repeatedly, of four items of cargo onto the three different decks that are in the Coastal Standard. For instance, the system can work to offload one cargo hold while back-loading another. The platforms can also work independently of each other or be locked together.

"Instead of stowing cargo in containers which are unloaded with cranes, cargo can be discharged from the side port with the elevator system straight from a ship's cargo hold," says Collazo. "This side port elevator system is an extremely efficient way of loading and discharging cargo. It's simplifies operations, requires less labor, and there is minimal potential for damaging cargo. The system on Standard is the only one of its kind in the United States. Some people look at it as going backwards but because of the cargo trade we're in, it actually makes sense. It's not a replacement for the cargo gear but is part of our specialized equipment, and it can load and discharge even more quickly than we can do it now."

Coastal Trader, Coastal Navigator, Coastal Progress and Coastal Nomad have been enduring workhorses for Coastal Transportation. Each vessel is equipped with a refrigeration room, Mycom rotary screw-type compressors, and refrigeration coils in the cargo holds that do not cause dehydration of frozen product. There are two major advantages of a coil-based refrigeration system over one using blast air evaporators. The capacity-to-surface area ratio is actually larger using coils, and refrigeration coils placed throughout the hold also keeps each hold's temperature more stable.

Coastal Transportation specializes in palletized cargo, allowing specialized cargo distribution services container carriers do not provide. Coastal Navigator is an example of the company's present fleet of boats, which employ "yard-and-stay" cargo gear to lift cargo in and out of the cargo holds. Photo courtesy of Coastal Transportation.

Sailing the Seattle/Alaska run is no easy job for Coastal's seasoned crews and officers as they work in some of the harshest seas on earth. Training is a big part of the job, whether it be for safety, operations or other services. "It's a very specialized trade with its own complexities," says Collazo. "Our officers are all very experienced. We have Captains going on 30 years with this company, so we have a very loyal fleet of personnel."

Customer loyalty has also been long-standing for Coastal over the years. In particular, the cold storage facility at Dutch Harbor was built to address the increased need for maintaining southbound product – frozen fish – at peak quality, which means lower temperatures. "We recognized our customers needed a state-of-the-art refrigeration system and they stuck by us throughout the construction phase, so we're very thankful for that. And for our partners at PacSteve (Pacific Stevedoring) who run the facility on our behalf."

Despite changing times, global economic turmoil and continually facing competition from the giants of the shipping world, Coastal Transportation's unique service has brought history forward with robust ingenuity, and the company looks poised to keep doing the same for years to come.

 
 

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