Saturday, January 8, 2022

Old Ships

In a pre-Christmas post while commenting on the refit for the ConRo ship Oceanex Sanderling I noted that it is a very old ship by current standards (it was built in 1977). On delivery of the Oceanex Connaigra in 2013 the chairman of Oceanex said that the new ship was expected to be in service for 40 years. This is understandable as the added cost of RoRo capability makes for a longer "payback" for the investment. ConRo ships are also much rarer these days as owners concentrate on containers or RoRo but seldom both.

The current economic climate and demand for container ships means that many older container ships are being kept in service beyond the usual 25 to 30 years, since they are demanding and getting huge prices for charters. Bulkers and tankers however rarely last longer than the 25 to 30 years due in part to wear and tear from cargo handling.

Because Canada has a large fleet of ships that serve almost exclusively in the fresh or brackish (semi-salty) water of the Great Lakes/St.Lawrence, and also operate only seasonally there are dozens of old inland ships sailing under the maple leaf flag. Some date from the 1940s and a good many from the 1950s and 1960s. 

Government ships also tend to last longer, largely because politicians find it difficult to commit to new construction but are willing to spend fortunes on refits or extensive rebuilds instead. [CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and CCGS Hudson are living examples].


Another long lasting breed can be ferries, some of which operate only seasonally and therefore experience less wear and tear, particularly on machinery. Holiday Island of 1971 is one of the veterans in this class.

Back in the pre-Confederation Bridge days the Holiday Island and sister Vacationland provided seasonal Northumberland Strait service for Marine Atlantic.Once the bridge was built the Holiday Island transferred from Borden / Tormentine to Caribou / Wood Island and still runs from May to December.

Another veteran is the Trans St-Laurent of 1963.  

Trans-St-Laurent operates seasonally between Rivière-du-Loup and St-Siméon, QC. It does not work in ice, but its route across the St.Lawrence River is in near ocean levels of salinity.

However the current champion seems to be the much rebuilt Radisson of 1956.

Currently in another rebuild, the Radisson is expected to return to service in 2022 for the Société des Traversiers du Québec. It usually runs in the summer on the St-Joseph-de-la-Rive to Ile-aux-Coudres route in brackish waters. However it does fill in on the Quebec City / Lévis run in winter if either of the two regular boats is out of service. (Although operating in fresh water, they do battle ice and are getting on in years too, dating from 1971 and are soon due for replacement.)

The railcar and train ferry Georges Georges Alexandre Lebel which runs year round between Matane and Baie-Comeau, QC and Sept-Iles, QC is another veteran. Built in 1975, it is still going strong, even though it sometimes has to battle drifting ice.

Tour boats and passenger ships, while not ferries in the traditional sense also tend to last longer in the fresh / brackish territory. The Louis-Joliet of 1938 is the champion in this category. It runs short tours out of Quebec City seasonally, in virtually fresh water.

It was originally a Quebec City - Lévis summer ferry, but has been much modified and converted from steam to diesel (the forward funnel is now a dummy). My first ever 35mm ship photo shows the ship in its original configuration.

In the passenger / cruise sector a runner up is the cruise/ferry CTMA Vacancier built in 1973:

It still runs weekly (seasonally) from Montreal to the Magdalen Islands, but is also pressed into winter service in ice, running from Cap-aux-Meules (Grindstone) to Souris, PE.

There are still a half dozen or more true "Lakers" built before 1975 - several with wheelhouse forward - trading on the Lakes and the St.Lawrence River and Gulf as far east as Sept-Iles. Most have been rebuilt over the years, which has extended their service lives by decades.

John D. Leitch dating from 1967 is one of the veteran Lakers. A self-unloader, it was rebuilt with a new mid-body in 2001-2002. It was originally named Canadian Century and renamed when rebuilt. It still carries grain, salt and iron ore, but much less coal than it orginally did.

Excluding all those lakes and river ships, it is rare to find an older commercial ship, operating in salt water, year round. Oceanex Sanderling is therefore almost unique. Adding to its longevity is that it does not carry destructive cargoes, like salt in bulk.


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