Inland Shipping

The battle for higher convoy efficiency in the Amazonian inland waterways

Independent operators TBL and HBSA go bigger, but preferences remain fundamentally different

One of the main advantages of the convoy approach, which is used in large river basins such as the Mississippi, Paraná-Paraguay and Amazon, is modularity. Barges can be arranged is a variety of ways. In the Mississippi, the most developed and by far largest system in cargo volume, convoys can be made up of as many as 42 or even 49 barges. A Mississippi barge is a standardized, box or raked-shaped unit with a length of 61m, 10.7m of beam and 2,000 dwt. Such large tows, though, are mainly used while navigating upriver, since stopping is easier against the current. (As a side note, you can see high-definition videos of a 6×7 convoy here and a 7×7 convoy here).

However, in the Amazon river system, large convoys are a newer reality and there are specific safety concerns in the straits around the southwest margin of the Marajó Island. As a result, since the deployment of larger, 20-barge dry bulk convoys by Hermasa (now Amaggi) in the late 1990s, most tows in the region add to between 20,000 and 40,000 dwt.

The barges themselves, however, don’t necessarily follow the Mississippi standard size. Cargill and Cianport built fleets with barges of around 3,000 dwt, while Transportes Bertolini (TBL) operates a size around 2,500 dwt. Therefore, a wide variety of arrangements are typically used, including 2×3, 3×3, 4×4, 5×4 and 5×5, depending on the company or the sub-region.

Convoy total cargo capacity approached 50,000 dwt with the deployment of 25 (5×5) Mississippi-sized barges around the same time in 2018 by Amaggi, Unitapajós (JV between Amaggi and Bunge) and Hidrovias do Brasil (B3:HBSA3). The setup provides lower costs per tonne through economies of scale.

Although the 25-barge convoy is currently consolidated as an efficient and safe arrangement, there are two new local developments that could be game changers in northern Brazil.

After a lengthy validation process with the Brazilian Navy, Transportes Bertolini is currently performing the maiden voyage of a 15-barge, 37,000 dwt convoy (3×5), which the company claims will offer superior (and cheaper) performance due to a much more hydrodynamically-friendly form factor. It left Porto Velho on Tuesday 20 and is expected to reach Santarém on Saturday 24.

The convoy’s pusher, which was re-powered using an existing vessel, can reach almost 15 tonnes of cargo moved per kW of installed power. Actual fuel consumption depends on speed, route, weather conditions and other factors, but the number is put forward as a useful proxy.

For TBL, this enhanced propulsive efficiency will allow the company to be more competitive, not only comparing to its current workhorse (the 3×3, 23,000 dwt convoy), but also to the 50,000 dwt convoy operated by competitors.

Transportes Bertolini is known for its preference of simpler, conventional shaft line pushers that are designed and built internally within the group at Bertolini Construção Naval (Beconal) yard in Manaus.

But TBL is not alone. Yesterday (22 April), Hidrovias do Brasil has for the first time made public its plans for a prospective 36-barge convoy.

During the “Hidrovias Day” event, the company’s CEO Fabio Schettino presented the concept, deemed “superconvoy Panamax of the rivers”, with a projected 72,000 dwt capacity and two pushboats already ordered in Turkey’s Uzmar shipyard.

With similar characteristics to the fleet of 8 pushers previously delivered by the same yard between 2014 and 2015, the new convoy’s pushboats could move close to 13 tonnes of cargo per kW of installed power.

However, no further details were presented and no timeline for the deployment of the enlarged convoy was mentioned. If materialized, it should be, by a considerable margin, the largest in Brazil.

During the event, Hidrovias do Brasil also offered volumes and financial guidances for 2021 and 2025, including updates on ongoing investments in the Madeira waterway system and the Santos/salt businesses. One of the highlights was the 2021 guidance of 82% volume growth in the South Corridor (Paraná-Paraguay and Uruguay waterways), on the back of the Imperial acquisition announced earlier in the week.

After reaching R$6,77 intraday, HBSA’s shares at Brazil’s B3 closed at R$6,53 (+0,46%) on Thursday. It is was up +24,4% since the bottom on March 10, but down -13,6% since the September IPO.

The race for higher convoy efficiency remains open. What type of arrangement will be preferred by the clients – the cargo owners – is yet to be seen. This is especially relevant for TBL and HBSA, the two largest independent inland shipping operators in northern Brazil. In a commoditized market such as dry bulk, price is the main consideration, therefore efficiency is king.

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2 comments

  1. The chalanger within inland navigation are not exclusively to increase the convoy dimensions, to reduce the KW/Ton of each arrangement. The transportation also must care about navigation safety and performance. With lack of power and steering controls capabilities will result on more accidents as already happened when the Pusher folowing the river current speed can’t steer properly and crash, as happened years ago with almost complet crew causality, besides barges and cargo losses. The performance shall be measured not as bigger and lower KW/t but as Tons.Km /KW that’s the transportation efficiency and the maritime authorities shall use inland navigation independent experts for advises studies concerning the convoys sizes regulations to support the growing operations for the Amazonian inland navigation race for more performance, with safety for all others local regional inland boats not able to divert any collision route against these bigger underpowered and understeering convoys. The freedom for any convoy arrangement, suitable for the amazing big rivers within amazon can’t lost the safety for all within the waterways.

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    1. Dear Paulo,
      Thanks for your comment, we fully agree with most of the principles you outlined.
      Indeed, kW/t is not the only parameter. Other broader economical parameters are essential, such as total cost per tonne. Additionally and most importantly, maneuvring parameters such as crash stop performance (# of convoy lengths to stop while underway downriver) and turning circle diameter (TCD). The article is not an exhaustive discussion on convoy arrangement optimization.
      In my view, the maritime authorities should enforce clear maneuvering parameters for each river. Non-compliant existing or prospective convoys could use an escort tug or dismember, for example. But that level of objectivity doesn’t yet exist in the Brazilian Normam-02, as you know. This means each operator validates its convoy arrangement individually with the Brazilian Navy, who then amends the corresponding local norms (NPCPs). So what you suggested is already happening, since Bertolini analyzed the new 15-barge convoy at the Numerical Offshore Tank (TPN-USP). Other operators have contracted consulting services in the same institution or similar ones. Hidrovias has not disclosed its strategy for approving the 36-barge convoy, but it will most likely adopt a similar process.
      Regarding the accident between the vessel Mercosul Santos and the Bertolini convoy in 2017, the investigation report did not find “underpowered and understeering convoys” as root causes. It was mainly poor bridge management control in both the pusher and the container ship. The report can be found here:

      https://www.marinha.mil.br/dpc/relatorios-de-investigacao-de-acidentes-maritimos

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