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Bully on Breakbulk: The Future Looks Bright for Ports Invested in Heavy Duty


Bully on Breakbulk: The Future Looks Bright for Ports Invested in Heavy Duty

Breakbulk refers to the type of shipping of cargo or goods that cannot fit in standard-size bins or containers. This cargo is instead transported in bags, boxes, crates, drums, barrels, other handling equipment, or is simply rolled, lifted, or pushed onto a ship or barge.

Examples of common breakbulk goods include reels and rolls, steel girders, structural steel, heavy or oversized goods, manufacturing equipment, construction equipment and vehicles. 

Then there is the shipping of liquids (think petrochemicals) that rely on tankers. In these post-pandemic times, when container shipping remains in a topsy-turvy state, some ports and terminals are seeing upticks in the breakbulk and liquid sectors.


Heading into the 2022 navigation season, which began in March, operators within the St. Lawrence Seaway were . . . wait for it . . . buoyant. How could they be anything but, having come off a 2021 when the handling of iron ore was up 26.63% from the previous year and seeing 1,589,000 metric tons of iron and steel pass through represented a mind blowing 99.16% increase year-over-year.

The St. Lawrence Seaway, which is named after the river that flows 2,300 miles from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, is a series of locks, canals and channels that are managed by the Canadian St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. and the U.S. Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. They market themselves together as “Highway H2O.” 

Shippers and other maritime industry leaders will come together at the 17th annual Hwy H2O Conference, the only yearly event dedicated to St. Lawrence Seaway business development, which is scheduled for Nov. 15-17 at the Hilton Toronto Airport Hotel & Suites. This year’s theme is “Path to a Sustainable Waterway.” (Go to for more information.) 

Attendees should be whooping it up because, by the time the 2023 navigation season begins, there is every indication the mood along Highway H2O will remain . . . here it comes . . . buoyed. Between the start of the shipping season and the end of July, the system moved 514,000 tons of grain, marking a nearly 37% increase compared to the same period in 2021. The increase was attributed to ongoing demand for U.S. grain amid food shortages caused by the conflict in Ukraine.

Hot grain helped offset seasonal cooling for liquid bulk (think petrochemicals), but so far this year, the St. Lawrence Seaway system’s ports have seen significant increases in general cargo, dry bulk, agricultural exports, renewable energy material imports, and iron ore and coal exports. This is critical in the region that includes eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and 107 million people who rely on the $35 million the system pumps into the economy annually. If the region was a country, it would have the third largest economy in the world with a GDP of $5.5 trillion.

 “The Great Lakes Seaway marine transportation system is critical infrastructure,” says Craig H. Middlebrook, deputy administrator with the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., “and remains vital to keeping commerce flowing without disruption in order to support North America’s agricultural, manufacturing, construction, energy, and mining industries.”


Increases in crude oil and refined products exports helped the Port of Corpus Christi move a record 46.4 million tons in the Q2 and 90.1 million tons for the first six months of 2022, which are the most in a fiscal quarter and half year in the Texas institution’s 100-year history. 

Keep in mind that these records fell shortly after the port announced tonnage records in Q1 and for all of 2021.

Corpus Christi, which also saw increases in the liquid natural gas (LNG) exports and dry bulk cargo imports in the latest tallies, is close to completing improvements that will make it the deepest and widest ship channel in the entire Gulf Coast. 

The 52.4 million tons of crude oil shipments in the first half of the year represented a 12% increase over the same period in 2021, the previous record first half. Refined products amounted to 15.8 million tons, or a 26.6% jump year-over-year, the 3.9 million tons of dry bulk cargo represented a 21.5% spike, and LNG shipments soared 11 % to 8.1 million tons. 

“These numbers are a testament to the role the Port of Corpus Christi and its industry partners play in the global marketplace, providing certainty in uncertain times,” says Charles W. Zahn Jr., Port of Corpus Christi Commission chairman. “With additional developing initiatives in hydrogen production and Carbon Capture Utilization and Sequestration, the future continues to look bright for the South Texas Coastal Bend and the great State of Texas.”


The Georgia Ports Authority says the Port of Brunswick’s East River Terminal handled 902,000 tons of breakbulk cargo in 2021, while the Mayor’s Point Terminal took care of 88,380 tons of forest products last year. 

This spring, the GPA announced plans to increase breakbulk capacity at both terminals. A third Brunswick terminal, Marine Port, also handles breakbulk.

The East River and Mayor’s Point improvements are part of a $150 million GPA project that also aims to increase vehicle handling at Brunswick’s deep-water auto terminal, Colonel Island. After the Port of Baltimore, Brunswick is the second busiest hub for roll-on/roll-off cargo in the U.S., having moved 650,000 units of vehicles and heavy machinery in 2021, a 10% increase over the previous year.

The project includes a fourth Colonel Island berth that will include a concrete deck and a system of mooring dolphins to extend ro-ro vessel berthing space from 3,355 feet to 4,630 feet. Completion is expected in late 2024.

“Home to more than 20 automaker brands, Colonel’s Island is poised to become the Southeast’s premier auto port,” says Joel Wooten, the GPA’s board chairman. “With more room to grow, better connections to inland markets, and an operation dedicated to ro-ro cargo, Colonel’s Island is the region’s busiest gateway for autos and machinery.”

The GPA is also adding 360,000 square feet of warehousing and 85 additional acres of land for auto processing, expanding the terminal’s annual capacity from 1.2 million to 1.4 million vehicles. The new pavement and buildings are to be completed next year.

Near-dock storage areas will be upgraded at Colonel Island to better accommodate heavy machinery used in agriculture, construction and warehousing operations, the GPA says.

Georgia’s deep-water ports and inland barge terminals support more than 496,700 jobs throughout the state annually and contribute $29 billion in income, $122 billion in revenue and $3.4 billion in state and local taxes to the Peach State’s economy.

Ports Face ‘Big Ships, Big Challenges’: White Paper

Long Beach, CA – The deployment of the latest generation of mega-containerships “presents physical, financial and operational challenges that must be met by port authorities across the country” according to the Port of Long Beach’s Acting Deputy Executive Director, Dr. Noel Hacegaba.

Even for ports that will not see the mega vessels call at their ports any time soon, the arrival of the larger ships is creating a cascading effect in which the ships being replaced by mega vessels are being deployed in the smaller trade lanes,” says Hacegaba in a new white paper, “Big Ships, Big Challenges.”

The average size of container ships, he says, has grown considerably in recent years and the trend is likely to continue for years to come.

“Although 18,000 TEU [20-foot equivalent unit] vessels are the largest in service currently, ships that carry more than 10,000 TEUs are still considered large and have limited options with regards to trade lanes and to ports that can accommodate them,” he writes.

Hacegaba said the industry is turning to the larger ships because they reduce operating costs for shipping operators, and they help meet regulatory requirements to decrease in potentially harmful emissions.

According to the white paper, ports around the country are spending $46 billion in capital improvements, including $4.5 billion invested at the Port of Long Beach. Shipping companies “are ordering larger ships to meet demand, while cutting the operational costs they would otherwise incur by sending cargo on multiple trips.”

As a result, ports of all sizes “are struggling to ready themselves to handle the larger vessels.”

Hacegaba states that regardless of a port’s size, they face a demand to handle a larger class of vessels. In the coming years it is projected that smaller vessels will be put out of services to make way for larger ones. But the largest ships will go to the biggest ports, while today’s larger ships will switch to smaller ports.

For the vessel operators, “the major investments in larger ships is straining their resources. So ocean carrier alliances and consolidations are also being forged as a result,” he says.

While this is not new to the maritime industry, Hacegaba points out that they are “providing financial uncertainty for port authorities.”

The newly aligned or consolidated vessel operators may move to different ports, while a smaller port may spend millions on fixing its infrastructure, and then lose a major tenant. In addition, smaller ports that don’t upgrade infrastructure because of their struggle for funding may face losing business as small-sized fleets are phased out.

The maritime industry “is ever evolving as technologies improve,” he concludes, with port authorities “playing a primary role” in educating both the industry and the public in potential changes.

“Ports must be built to handle larger ships and be prepared when shipping alliances do not go in their favor. As the maritime industry and how goods are moved change, so must ports if they are to be ready to handle the next generation of larger ships.”