New TOTE vessel arrives at Port of Tacoma

Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) officially welcomed its newest ship to the Port of Tacoma on Monday.

The Midnight Sun, the first of two new vessels, arrived in Tacoma on Saturday. Its sister ship, the North Star, is tentatively set to arrive in Tacoma in late July or early August, according to Davelle Mack, TOTE public relations.

The $160 million Orca class vessels are larger, more maneuverable and better able to handle the extreme conditions that are part of making weekly round-trip voyages to the Port of Anchorage (Alaska) all year-round.

The new vessels are 839 feet long – about 50 feet longer than the current ships – and 118 feet wide.

The two ships are larger than the company’s current ships, and carry 50 percent more freight, with room for 600 trailers and 200 automobiles.

Twin diesel electric propulsion plants similar to those used in modern cruise ships provide power for the vessels.

Fitted with six generators and two propulsion motors, the ship can achieve a speed of 24 knots.

Twin propellers and rudders make the massive ships easier to maneuver, no small improvement when it comes to confined and current swept port waters.

The hulls of the ships are strengthened in areas where they will come into contact with ice in the frigid waters of Anchorage’s Cook Inlet.

A turtle-back design covering will protect trailers on deck from the stormy seas of the North Pacific.

Some other amenities include a centralized computer system connected through a fiber optic link that helps the crew run the ship, and a tandem crossed ramp system for safer and more efficient loading and unloading.

All of these improvements and changes are meant to contribute toward TOTE’s primary mission: getting necessary goods to Alaska.

“We’re basically a lifeline for Alaska,” said Phil Morrell, TOTE marine superintendent, who is responsible for day-to-day operations of the ship.

TOTE and other shipping companies carry consumer-type, time-sensitive cargo to the people of Alaska, Morrell explained.

TOTE’s 66-hour schedule between Tacoma and Anchorage every week has allowed the lifestyle of Alaskans to match that of people in the continental United States, he said.

“It’s allowed the standard of living to increase,” Morrell noted.

Alaska’s dependence on shipping was demonstrated during last year’s labor dispute and West Coast port lockout, Morrell said, because a lot of products in Alaska have a shelf life of between three to five days. The lockout lasted 10 days.

“They’re used to continuous service,” he said.

The ships were built by National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. of San Diego, which in December of 1999 won a $300 million contract to build two new trailer ships for TOTE.

The two new ships are meant to replace three older vessels, the Northern Lights, the Great Land and the Westward Venture.

The Northern Lights has been called to load military cargo for delivery for operations in the Persian Gulf.

When both new ships have been delivered and begin daily operations, the Great Land and the Western Venture will be put to other uses, with one being sent to TOTE’s sister company Sea Star Lines. As for the other ship, options are still being looked at – including transportation of humanitarian goods.

TOTE will keep one of the current ships to fill in in case of a breakdown of one of the new ships.

“Our intent is to keep all these existing vessels employed,” Morrell said.

The Midnight Sun will be loaded with cargo tonight and depart for the Port of Anchorage early tomorrow morning.