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Warp Speed On The High Seas

Industries: SHIPPING


The world's shipping lines are racing to put ever-larger superfreighters to sea. But naval architect David L. Giles thinks this preoccupation with size is a fight among dinosaurs. No matter how big cargo ships get, they will always lumber along at roughly 20 knots. For landlubbers, that's 23 mph.

What shippers really need in today's instant-satisfaction markets, Giles insists, is greater speed. So he wants to launch a sleek new breed of freight-

er that marries jet-ski technology to a novel hull design 100 feet shorter than a conventional superfreighter. These jet ships could slice through mountainous waves at full speed and cut transatlantic voyages in half, to less than four days. They would charge up to twice the ordinary rate for sea freight, thus making up for their higher fuel costs. Says Giles: "This ship is going to do for the movement of things exactly what the Boeing 707 did for the movement of people."

ATLANTIC EXPRESS. Giles has made believers out of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have performed computer simulations on his design and recommended improvements. MIT aeronautics professor Robert W. Simpson says Giles's startup, FastShip Atlantic Inc. in Alexandria, Va., could become the Federal Express of seagoing cargo: "It's going to be a very big business."

FastShip Atlantic has many a league to go before that happens. The biggest ship launched so far is a 23-foot-long model, whereas working vessels would stretch to 863 feet. And while the company has $11 million in the bank, it needs $800 million to build four ships and have some working capital. Traditional shipping giants aren't investing in FastShip--Sea-Land Inc., for one, concluded that fast freighters were uneconomical after building eight of them, called SL-7s, in 1971 and 1972. It sold them to the Navy.

FastShip Atlantic executives vow to torpedo doubters by starting construction of the first ship by mid-1996. By 1998, they assert, FastShips will be whisking Bose stereos and Kodak film to Europe, with Volvos making the trip back. By shrinking their in-transit inventory costs, manufacturers could save money even after paying premium rates, says David B. Merchant, transportation director for Eastman Kodak Co. Volvo Transport Corp. bets it could cut $300 million from its inventory in a single stroke by switching to FastShip.

These would-be customers aren't surprised by the shipping industry's cold shoulder. In the global shipping cartel, whose members meet to fix rates and service terms under antitrust immunity, "there isn't a lot of incentive for creativity," says Roger W. Wigen, 3M's transportation policy manager.

The technology works, at least in prototype. In trials in July in Guteborg, Sweden, the 23-foot model plowed through seas that loomed as large as 75-foot waves would to a full-size ship. "It exploded the wave--dissipated it," crows Giles. The FastShip has a deep, V-shaped bow and grows flatter, even slightly concave, toward the stern. This prevents the stern from squatting down at higher speeds, and virtually eliminates the heaving in heavy weather that can crack normal hulls.

The latest design of the propulsion system calls for six General Electric Co. turbines--modified models of the engines on 747 aircraft. Instead of propellers, the turbines would drive five so-called waterjets, which suck in water from inlets beneath the hull and use spinning blades to pump it out the stern at high speed. The side jets would help steer, while the big middle one, driven by two turbines, is strictly for power. Waterjets already drive fast ferries plying the North Sea. FastShips would cruise at 35 to 37 knots, or close to 43 mph.

Coupled with drive-through doors in the stern for speedy loading and unloading of cargo containers linked together in air-cushioned "trains," the results would be impressive: Door-to-door deliveries across the Atlantic would shrink to five to seven days. Conventional ships take 14 to 35 days, partly because they usually unload at several ports. A FastShip would shuttle between two ports, carrying only 1,416 20-foot cargo containers, vs. as many as 6,000 in the latest containerships.

PLAN B. To realize the full benefits of the FastShip concept, ports would need special docks. That can get expensive. But Philadelphia officials, eager to boost their maritime business, have pledged $7 million to help get FastShips under way--and $75 million for a new terminal. The port's leading cargo handler, Thomas Holt Sr., has chipped in $4.1 million for one-third ownership of FastShip Atlantic. The port of Zeebrugge, Belgium, is expected to spend about $50 million to accommodate FastShips. A German shipbuilder, Meyer Werft in Papenberg, is negotiating to build them in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

FastShip Atlantic will soon ask the U.S. Maritime Administration for $600 million in loan guarantees as the anchor for private funding. If that fails, Plan B is to seek major financing from some big shipper that's willing to break the mold.

FastShip isn't the only fast ship project around. In July, a Japanese consortium tested a small prototype of a waterjet-powered freighter designed to carry 150 20-foot containers at more than 45 knots. Dubbed the Techno-Superliner, this miniship is aimed at short hauls around Japan and later to the Asian mainland.

Giles is unbowed by the uncertainties. He believes he is heeding the advice of his famous father, the late yacht designer Jack Laurent Giles, who urged him never to waste time on projects that wouldn't succeed. His dad's maxim: "If you sink the boat, you drown yourself." Of course, Giles won't have to worry about his FastShips sinking until he manages to get them afloat.By Joseph Weber in Philadelphia, with Ariane Sains in Stockholm and Edith Hill Updike in Tokyo

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