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The hinterland is just around the corner for PortConnect

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The Tripoli is moored at the quay at the CSP Terminal in Zeebrugge, nearby the OOCL Scandinavia, a 399 meter long container ship that has just docked. This giant of the sea dwarfs the Tripoli. After climbing up to the gunwale, we walk along the containers to the navigation bridge. The ship is at full capacity.
The Tripoli is one of the five estuary vessels chartered and operated by PortConect, a subsidiary of the Port Authority of Zeebrugge. Accompanied by General Manager Olivier Crousel, we visit Captain Kenny Verstraeten. The wheelhouse is located at the lowest level, nestled behind the stacked containers. "This is six layers of containers", notes Olivier Crousel.
We board the Tripoli, an estuary ship, chartered and operated by PortConnect.

Estuary shipping

"Estuary is another word for the mouth of a river, in our case, it's the Western Scheldt estuary. Estuary vessels are inland vessels with enough reinforcement to safely cruise the sea from the estuary. In our case, to reach Zeebrugge", explains Olivier Crousel.

Stricter technical requirements ensure that estuary vessels are 100% safe. "The bow is reinforced, and the freeboard increased. On a laden inland vessel, you sometimes see the waterline go right up to the edge of the ship. Of course that's not possible on the high seas, so we increased the freeboard. We also used more steel, to withstand the wave climate at sea, up to a certain point. Rolling and pitching require higher structural strength."

"We have five estuary vessels flying the Belgian flag available for container transport."

Olivier Crousel

PortConnect has long-term agreements with the owners of five estuary container ships. "The two biggest vessels are the Tripoli and Deseo (400 TEUs), followed by the sister ships Amberes and Euroports (300 TEUs). We recently converted the Polybotes from an estuary roll-on/roll-off ship into a container ship (200 TEUs).
We have five estuary vessels flying the Belgian flag available for container transport", recounts Olivier Crousel.
Olivier Crousel, general manager of PortConnect.

Additional training

An inland vessel crew cannot simply start working on an estuary vessel. Additional training is needed, such as to earn an STCW certificate. For Captain Kenny Verstraeten, that was a conscious choice. "I come from a family of inland shippers. At school, I got the chance to train for estuary navigation. That appealed to me."

Polish colleague Karol Malinowski, who is still completing the estuary navigation training, sums up the differences nicely. "We have to do extra learning and practise for everything, such as survival skills, firefighting, and using rescue equipment. You need a GMDSS SRC certificate to use the marine radio and an ADN certificate for hazardous goods, a Rhine Patent, and so on."

"During loading, we have to make sure the ship doesn't tilt. Stability is critical."

Karol Malinowski

The crew of the Tripoli numbers four: two captains, a first mate and a sailor. Captain Verstraeten enjoys his little slice of the sea. "From the anchorage in Breskens to Zeebrugge, it's up to a four-hour voyage. In a hard north-westerly wind and with the current against you, it can sometimes be slow-going. On the other hand, with the current we can reach ground speeds of 25 km/h. We have to stay on top of wave height forecasts, because we have certain limits to maintain. Safety always comes first."

"During loading, we have to make sure the ship doesn't tilt" adds Karol Malinowski. "Stability is critical. We can make some adjustments with the ballast tanks, but it's best to distribute the containers strategically. This does take a couple of hours a day to work out, including figuring out which containers go where."
The crew of the Tripoli consists of four persons: two captains, one first mate and one sailor.

PortConnect

PortConnect has some 20 clients, mainly large players in the deep-sea container world. ׅ"They give us the jobs", begins Olivier Crousel. "The container needs to go from here, to there. Import containers go from Zeebrugge to Antwerp. Export containers must be delivered by this deadline. And so on."

Chemistry is key. "It's not just cruising around. We have to optimise the loads and make sure we always make closings, otherwise they could miss the ship to the Far East."

A single voyage of a ship like the Tripoli take 400 trucks off the road.

Empty containers are currently all the rage. "Everyone wants them. Volumes from Asia to Europe are so high, it's causing capacity issues. Shipping companies sometimes even leave export containers behind in order to take empty containers. This is because the high exit tariffs in Asia offer opportunities to turn a nice profit."

Working out loading configurations has since become even trickier, due to global congestion. The logistics world keeps turning, and not just on account of the Suez incident. "Export is usually something you can build up. It now often happens that we aren't allowed to deliver containers earlier than seven days before departure."

"In the modal shift, our main advantage is our flexibility. A train is faster, but also punctual. Cargo or no cargo, the train must go, whereas a ship is able to wait."

This also offers impressive environmental benefits. A single voyage of a ship like the Tripoli take 400 trucks off the road.
In Zeebrugge, PortConnect mainly has clients in the outer port: PSA, CSP and recently also P&O Ferries, which now has more LoLo services to Hull (with two feeder vessels).

Geography

PortConnect vessels operate in the Rotterdam-Antwerp-Zeebrugge triangle, from Zeebrugge to the Rhine (Duisburg), to the Antwerp-Brussels Canal and the Albert Canal. "We are currently looking at the potential for service all the way to Liège", adds Olivier Crousel.

In Zeebrugge, PortConnect mainly has clients in the outer port: PSA, CSP and recently also P&O Ferries, which now has more LoLo services to Hull (with two feeder ships). In the inner port, the kiwi fruit season is in full swing. "We sometimes have to help reposition empty reefer containers", explains Olivier Crousel.
Captain Kenny Verstraeten is ready to take all deepsea containers arriving in Zeebrugge to the right destination.

The future

"If the deep-sea disruptions are behind us, we'll look at how we can consolidate operations with our five ships. Each ship could have its own niche, its own cruising area. We'll look at more regular lines."

"PortConnect hopes to have a sixth ship built soon. The design is almost ready."

Olivier Crousel

"PortConnect hopes to have a sixth ship built soon. The design is almost ready. We're aiming for a 600-TEU boat", reveals Olivier Crousel.

In the meantime, Captain Verstraeten has started the engine to catch up. "They start unloading soon, at half past noon."We cruise parallel to the huge OOCL Scandinavia. "Think about that: all 20,000 of those containers have to find their way to their destination", muses the Captain. At any rate, PortConnect is ready.
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