An improbable voyage from Ningbo to Rochester…via Erie Canal

By: | Issue #661 | at 03:36 PM | Channel(s): Projects  Maritime Project  

The Erie Canal, one of America’s oldest manmade waterways, again proved its worth. A dozen oversized brewery tanks make the trip from Ningbo, China to the Genesee Brewery in Rochester, New York. Is this a new beginning for the old waterway?

In the midst of a $40 million modernization effort, New York’s venerable Genesee Brewery ordered 40 new tanks for more than $2 million from Chinese brewery equipment manufacturer, Lehui. A dozen of these tanks, used in fermentation, measured 60 feet tlong by 20 feet in diameter. That meant major transportation challenges for the state’s oldest brewery, located in Rochester.

A barge passes through the Eric Canal in New York with brewery tanks for Genesee Brewery.
A barge passes through the Eric Canal in New York with brewery tanks for Genesee Brewery.

Conventional thinking would lead the tanks through Canada and the St. Lawrence Seaway to Lake Ontario. But moving barges or ships through Lake Ontario has serious monetary and logistical issues. The novel solution, offered and executed by logistics provider and project cargo specialist Welton Shipping, transported the tanks from the Port of Albany on barges to Rochester via the Erie Canal. Yes, that Erie Canal, the one we sung about as kids, about a mule named Sal and low bridges, everybody down.

“The Erie Canal was something you learned about when you were growing up,” said Mark Fabrizio, the director of project management and continuous improvement of Genesee Brewery’s parent company, North American Breweries. He admitted to some initial skepticism. “Our initial response was ‘really?’ We were quite surprised it was an option.”

During the summer, the canal is full of pleasure craft, but not barges groaning under the weight of stainless steel tanks capable of brewing 2,000 barrels, or 62,000 gallons, of beer.

“The canal hasn’t been used like that for a long time,” added Henry Hui, Welton’s vice-president and the person who conceived the plan and led the project. “At the end of the day, I helped a lot of people save a lot of money on this one.”

Celebration

The operation was conducted this past May, in part over Memorial Day weekend. It brought out hordes of spectators along a 225-mile canal route that stretched from Waterford, NY, up the Hudson River from Albany, to Gates, NY, just outside Rochester.

“It just took on a life of its own,” said Fabrizio. “The locks had thousands of people celebrating when the barges came through.”

Fabrizio described a 45-minute traffic jam when he was returning home from the brewery. Cars were jammed up near a lock so drivers could take a look at the barges.

The brewery tanks move demonstrates how meticulous planning, so critical in project cargo, can lead specialists down paths not normally taken. Welton, based in New York City, has moved large tanks before, including those used in petrochemical plants. The logistics provider is preparing to assist Guinness with moving tanks to a new brewery being constructed in Baltimore. And, Welton has barged cargo up the Mississippi River.

But according to Hui, the Genesee project was by far the most complicated tanks-related move it has undertaken. “I studied this route for more than six months,” he said, measuring the way pretty much inch by inch. “I studied it up and down.”

North American Breweries had initially come up with two options. They subsequently rejected both. The first called for the tanks to be shipped in pieces and assembled at the brewery. That would have added to the expense, however, with a questionable result. “Welding onsite is never really as good as a controlled environment,” Fabrizio explained.

Transporting via the Saint Lawrence Seaway and then Lake Ontario presented other problems, both Fabrizio and Hui said. For one, the waterway shut down over winter. The barges had to be lake certified, which would have added to the cost. But a far more serious issue was where the tanks could have been discharged once they reached Rochester, said Fabrizio.

That underscored the biggest obstacle to the move. “They were just too big to go over the road,” he said. “We never would have got a permit.”

Then, along came Welton, which Hui said, invested thousands of dollars in planning even before landing the contract.

The brewery tank on this Chipolbrok vessel travels up the Hudson River to the Port of Albany.
The brewery tank on this Chipolbrok vessel travels up the Hudson River to the Port of Albany.

By using the canal, Welton was able to unload the tanks at a maintenance yard, a site less than five miles from the brewery itself. And, Fabrizio said, it was a straight shot. “There was one turn,” he said. “It was as simple a transport as you could get.” The move itself came off remarkably smoothly. “Quite honestly, it was an amazingly well choreographed process,” said Fabrizio.

Ningbo to Rochester

The tanks, manufactured in Ningbo, China, were trucked to Shanghai, where they were loaded onto the breakbulk ship Wladyslaw Orka, owned by Chipolbrok, a line that does a lot of project moves. The tanks were shipped to the Port of Albany, where they were unloaded. There, they had to wait about two weeks because the canal was late opening due to a spring storm that had clogged the canal with debris and raised water levels.

The barges themselves were sunk low enough to place the tanks onboard and clear the locks, sometimes, both Fabrizio and Hui said, by inches. The journey took eight days. The barges, which sailed in two batches, could travel only during the day and were sometimes reduced to a crawl by any number of pleasure boats.

But that slow pace was worth it.

“This was a unique circumstance,” said Fabrizio, who added that the move added historic perspective to the brewery itself. “The brewery is turning 140 years old and we were using a 200-year-old transportation system, one that for all intents and purposes had been forgotten about.”

Would Fabrizio recommend the canal to others in the same logistics boat, so to speak? Absolutely, he said. “I think it is one of the most effective and efficient ways of getting something into Rochester,” he said.

“In the end, it went without a hitch, almost like clockwork.”

American Journal of Transportation