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Universal Cargo System – an alternative to constantly bigger ship sizes and hugely expensive investments in ports

FREBS Marine International Ltd believes that its "Universal Cargo System" concept of a semi-submersible mothership/feeder barge system for any type of cargo offers a more productive, cost-effective and "greener" alternative to building bigger and bigger ships requiring massive investments in port infrastructure, handling equipment and landside connectivity

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The FREBS Universal Cargo System (UCS) concept - Freeland Rapid Express Barge Systems – is the brainchild of Michael Freeland, who has worked on ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary supplying the Royal Navy worldwide. Freeland’s ideas were once described by the Ministry of Defence as "too futuristic," but as he points out, semi-submersible dock ships are in widespread use today in a number of sectors – military, offshore, heavy project cargoes, yacht transportation, etc.


Spending billions of dollars on bigger ships and extending ports to cope with them is not the answer, Freeland is convinced. UCS can reduce the need to build and expand ports and docks, ensuring savings in land use and avoiding major capital dredging and ongoing maintenance dredging. It solves the problem of congestion in major sea ports, provides faster turnaround time and reduces port handling costs.


It is an entirely modular system: the FREBS mothership can be configured for panamax, new-panamax (NPX) or post-NPX size, and the shallow draft, float-in/float-out barges it carries in transoceanic voyages can be increased in number and/or size accordingly.

FREBS mothership in outline - note the wave-piercing hull design
FREBS mothership in outline - note the wave-piercing hull design

The larger version of the mothership, for example, would be bigger than anything sailing the ocean today, providing ultra-low slot costs transoceanically, but its self-propelleed barges could access many ports in a range, avoiding the need for transhipment in a base port using giant cranes on heavily reinforced quays, avoiding feeder costs and, depending on location, overland transportation costs.


The barges would serve exactly like feeder ships today, but without the need for transhipment.


The barges, say up to 600 TEU in container version, could access any inland river port without the need for transhipment to barges or rail in the sea port. Think, for example, of the potential savings in time and money along the Rhine corridor. Think of all the money and political controversy that could be avoided in Hamburg by never having to deepen or widen the Elbe Fairway again. How about avoiding congestion in Felixstowe by sailing up the River Orwell to Ipswich?


Freeland, who is based in Hampshire gives a local example of where he believes his UCS could score. Southampton is the UK’s biggest new vehicles export port, and has 100 acres of expensive port land devoted to the business, but even so it needs to build upwards. Earlier this year ABP announced an investment of £15M to its eighth multi-storey garage to create storage space for another 3,000 vehicles. (This contract has just been awarded to Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure, by the way, and will take nine months to complete).


He argues that multi-deck FREBS ro-ro barges could be used to hold cars and other rolling loads in relatively small graving docks, while service frequency for exports would be unaffected. This solution would be less expensive and free up port land.

Another multi-storey garage going up in Southampton - is this really the right way forward?
Another multi-storey garage going up in Southampton - is this really the right way forward?

The system’s modularity means that the barges can be configured for any type of cargo – containers, rolling loads, bulk of any kind, logs, timber, and so on. At all times the cargo is inside the hold of the mothership - no more containers lost overboard; no more timber stacks collapsing into the sea. The common element of the barges would be the bottom areas – propulsion, fuel and ballast tanks.


Barges, having been unloaded in a graving dock, can be re-loaded with full or empty containers and moored offshore awaiting a mothership, so freeing up valuable dock space.


There is even a "disaster relief" geared barge design possibility. This could have a helipad, a hold with containers with emergency supplies handled by a bargeboard rail-travelling gantry crane, and space for a floating field hospital.


Around 80% of the mothership’s top surface area can be used to harvest solar energy. This can be used to charge electric propulsion to the barges, including power for reefer cargo, and necessary power to the mothership while it waits for its next load of barges.


Freeland is supported by Stephen J Line, an independent consultant with a background in corporate finance. He says that various financial models could be applied for the FREBS concept. The expensive element is the mothership, but the self-propelled barges are relatively inexpensive and within the scope of many players in the global supply chain.

Deepwater berth with giant cranes and much less expensive FREBS shallow water barge dock
Deepwater berth with giant cranes and much less expensive FREBS shallow water barge dock

For Line, the biggest challenge is to get the "big hitters" in the shipping, ports and shipbuilding sectors to think differently about where their industry is headed. One major shipping line has an "incubator fund" and a leading ports grouping has a "dragons’ den" for potential investment in new technologies, but it’s very hard to "get a foot in the door."


For Line and Freeland, UCS is disruptive technology. Maybe that’s the problem - the big players today have too much tied up in the status quo to want change. On the other hand, marginalised smaller, uncongested ports, without the depth or space to accommodate mega-ships and the massive cargo surges they create, are brought back into the game, and the cargo owners who suffer from port delays and congested inland distribution are the ultimate gainers.


The FREBS UCS approach is very similar to the Sea Tech mothership/barge concept of Sweden-based Sea Technology AB, reported on by WorldCargo News in November 2012. Again, the idea is to take advantage of transoceanic scale, but without the downside. The Sea Tech designs have since been scaled up to take advantage of NPX.


In addition, Sea Tech already had a 15,000 CEU mothership/barge PCTC concept based on Panamax, almost twice the intake of the latest 8,000 CEU PCTCs that take advantage of NPX.


Finally, in March 2017, Gerald Fisher, Managing Director of US-based Sea Horse Shipping, Ltd, produced a video illustrating the problems of today’s mega-ship model and promoting the use of its semi-submersible mothership and flo-flo barge system (which is based on the Jumbo Barge Carrier - WorldCargo News, July 1997, pp34-35) as the solution. At the time of writing, this has had over 15,000 views. Fisher is going over the head of the existing maritime container logistics chain and aiming directly at cargo owners.

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