Simplicity and safety concerns mark bulker carrier evolution
It is a simple concept: a floating box that carries large quantities of a commodity from its producer to its user. Yet the bulk carrier’s evolution into today’s reliable workhorse has not been straightforward.
Bulk carrier design has been traced back to the 1852 when the steam-powered coal carrier John Bowes went into service. But until the end of the Second World War, it was the Great Lakes that saw most of the world’s bulk carriers, supplying steel mills with iron ore. It was there that the first self-unloader, went into operation, in 1902.
It was the discovery and exploitation of commercially viable high purity mineral deposits in Australia, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as the growth in the thermal coal market, that drove the bulk carrier’s development. Before that, cargoes would usually be bagged at the port and the sacks stacked on pallets and carried aboard by crane. It was a time-consuming operation that clearly had no future once international bulk trades developed.
Basic design features were established early: double bottoms arrived as early as 1890 and the familiar triangular shape of their ballast tanks dates back to 1905. Bulk carriers were also among the first ships to benefit from diesel propulsion, most notably in Selandia – often incorrectly credited as the first diesel-powered ship – going into service in 1912.
Both ship and engine were built by Burmeister & Wain of Copenhagen which, in the early 1980s, was to pioneer another bulk carrier design innovation when it delivered the Panamax bulk carrier Danelock, the first of a series built to its fuel-saving BC60E2 design. When The Motor Ship featured the ship in 1981 it mentioned that one of its novel features was its hull, which had been designed to be built almost entirely from single-curvature plates, a feature that is now commonplace in modern bulk carriers.
Its delivery came just a few months after the loss of the OBO Derbyshire, which was overwhelmed by a typhoon and sank in September 1980, with the loss of all 44 on board. It had been carrying 157,000 tonnes of iron ore and was not found until 1994. Its loss was attributed to heavy seas entering the forward spaces and eventually Hold No 1, creating a domino effect as successive bulkheads collapsed.
During the years that followed, many other bulk carriers were lost and it was clear that there were fundamental safety problems that must be solved; in 1990 and 1991 alone, a total of 40 bulk carriers were lost, along with 300 lives.
A pivotal report, Ships of Shame, was published in Australia in 1992, prompted by the loss of six bulk carriers off Western Australia between January 1990 and August 1991. Its findings were devastating, with every industry organisation coming in for criticism.
It sparked much work by class societies and others, leading to a new Chapter XII being added to SOLAS in 1997 specifically to address bulk carrier safety. For a start, bulkheads had to be stronger, and not just on newbuildings: the bulkhead between Holds 1 and 2 on existing vessels had to be strengthened to withstand flooding in Hold 1. Cargo handling practices had to improve and, for some ships, loading restrictions would be imposed. Enhanced surveys were also introduced.
IACS developed common structural rules for both bulk carriers and tankers, which were adopted in December 2005 and went into effect on 1 April 2006; all IACS members were required to enforce them.
As a result of these initiatives, structural failure is no longer a major cause of bulk carrier losses, but cargo failure and liquefaction continue to cause losses for dry bulk shipping.
What of the future? Bulk carriers may seem to be at the simpler end of the ship innovation spectrum, but EEDI rules and charterer requirements may drive changing. During the 2019 Nor-Shipping exhibition, class society DNV GL and Japan’s Oshima Shipbuilding signed a long-term strategic cooperation agreement to carry out R&D into a range of new bulk carrier designs.
The first was dubbed the Oshima Ultramax 2030 and is expected to have an EEDI figure just half that of comparable current designs. It will achieve this by incorporating a range of technologies, including LNG fuel, an optimised hull shape, a hard sail, solar panels and batteries.
These technologies will be valuable not only when the ship is at sea but also in port, a statement by DNV GL said at the time. A typical ultramax spends nearly half its time either waiting or loading/unloading, during which time the solar panels and batteries will provide much of the ship’s power.
If these innovative vessels do eventually go into service they will provide the serve as example to the wider shipping industry that any ship type can benefit from imaginative technology and design. As The Motor Ship marks its centenary, the bulk carrier is just one design generation away from its bicentenary in 2052. If the Ultramax 30 and its successors are an indication of the direction bulk carrier concepts are moving in the 21st Century, they seem set to be as much a game changer for the industry as John Bowes proved to be in the 19th.
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