The Great Lakes have long been one of the major shipping hubs for the continental United States. These massive bodies of water provide an effective route for moving cargo across a great distance quickly and are integral to our national freight infrastructure. Even with our advanced nautical technology however, mother nature is still the boss.
When winter ice arrives in the Great Lakes, shipping is brought to a virtual standstill. The many massive cargo ships, known as lake freighters, or simply ‘lakers,’ that ply these waterways put into harbor for what is known as the Winter Layup.
As ice locks up the rivers, canals, and other myriad waterways that connect the lakes to the outside world and each other, ships head in to dock to take on repairs and upgrades.
With the reopening of the Soo Locks in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, on March 25th, the 2016 Winter Layup will come to an end. Even as the final ships reach their temporary winter homes along the shores of the Great Lakes, the industry already has its eye on spring and beyond. With the shipping industry facing an uncertain future, the layup provides a chance for owners and operators to strategize for the coming year.
A Necessary Pause
Many shipping companies are likely to take advantage of the break that the layup provides to try and figure out creative ways to deal with the global shipping slowdown. Others may take the time to refit their vessels with cutting-edge technology to improve efficiency.
This routine annual break provides the perfect window of opportunity to administer the maintenance required to ensure that Great Lakes lake freighters are in “ship shape” and ready to get underway as the New Year commences. The maintenance also creates many jobs in port cities across the Great Lakes region.
According to Adele Yorde, spokeswoman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, “It’s a whole other group of people who work on the ships in the winter. They get them back in shape to be up and running the following spring.”
Whether it’s an IT upgrade or a total overhaul of a ships engine system, ship upgrades have gone beyond routine maintenance. In fact, 2015 was a year that saw, among other things, ships going green, joining the Internet of Things, and generally becoming more connected with the modern logistics landscape.
Technology is making the shipping of freight both more efficient and more competitive, and carriers are working around the clock to keep up with the pace.
Gearing up for the Next Year
As the waterways re-open and the massive cargo ships leave their winter berths in the Great Lakes ports and docks to resume moving raw materials, tools, and equipment from middle America (and Canada) out to sea, many vessels are navigating uncertain economic waters.
By working together with manufacturers, governments, and third-party logistics providers, these ships can continue to move cargo and the global economy forward for another busy season, until next winter, when they return home for another layup.
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