Sinking of container ship will delay conversion of Tacoma Tote ships to LNG

The sinking of a 790-foot containership Oct. 1 on a voyage from Florida to Puerto Rico will delay the conversion of two Tacoma-based ships to natural gas propulsion.

The lost ship, El Faro, had been scheduled to move from Florida to Tacoma at Thanksgiving to replace one of two Tote Maritime Alaska ships that sails between Tacoma and Anchorage. That ship, the Midnight Sun, had been scheduled to head to Singapore for a four-month conversion of its propulsion system from oil to less-polluting liquified natural gas.

John Parrott, Tote Maritime president, said that without a ship to replace the Midnight Sun, Tote is delaying the conversion a year. El Faro, then called the Northern Lights, served the Alaska route until 2006 when it was transferred to Florida to serve Tote Maritime A

laska’s sister company Tote Maritime Puerto Rico. Both companies are part of privately held Saltchuk Companies.

El Faro was due to move to a shipyard in late October for reconversion to an Alaska trade ship. In the trade between Florida and Puerto Rico, the ship was equipped to handle both trailers and shipping containers. On the Alaska route, Tote ships handle only trailers and vehicles.

On the Puerto Rico run, El Faro has already been replaced by a new ship, the Isla Bella, the first of two new natural gas powered ships built for Tote in San Diego.

The second of those two ships will join the Puerto Rico fleet next summer, freeing up El Faro’s sister ship, El Yunque, to move to Tacoma while the Midnight Sun is retrofitted. The older ships are smaller than the two Orca-class ships, the North Star and the Midnight Sun, that operate from Tacoma. The older ships can only substitute for the Orca ships during the slower winter months when traffic to Alaska diminishes.

Parrott said Tote is negotiating with the Coast Guard to win its approval for the delay. Part of the reason for converting the ships to LNG is that fuel will help Tote meet new federal emission standards.

The Midnight Sun will drop out of the Alaska rotation for about three weeks in December and January to allow crews to perform required maintenance on the ship.

The Navy, meanwhile, has located the remains of El Faro in 15,000 feet of water east of the Bahamas. The ship apparently sank Oct. 1 when its propulsion system failed as it encountered hurricane-force winds and waves. Thirty-three crew members died.

The sunken ship was built in Pennsylvania in 1975 along with several identical sister ships that served in so-called “Jones Act” trades between United States ports. Federal law prohibits foreign flagged ships from carrying goods or passengers between U.S. destinations. The ships that conduct that trade must have been built in U.S. shipyards and crewed by U.S. sailors.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663,

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