For many ports, diversity is critical, and one of the most diversified cargo segments, roll-on/roll-off, does not show any signs of rolling over (no pun intended) to the newest mega container vessel mania. The ro/ro form of ocean transport continues to offer an important resource for cargo handling at North America’s seaports, offering the capability to handle a variety of cargo such as import and export automobiles, large construction and farm machinery and oversized crated equipment. The key is that the scope of roll-on/roll-off, utilizing a variety of vessel styles and handling equipment, presents options that can expand a port’s versatility without extraordinary infra-structure development costs.

It has been well established that containerization is the single most publicized style of waterborne cargo carriage in the world. Steamship lines have recently expanded container vessel capacities, anticipating increases in cargo demand. At the same time, expansion of the Panama Canal to accept the new container vessels has in turn heralded an opportunity for new port facility growth. Until recently, the majority of the containerized cargo carried by these new vessels has been directed to West Coast ports.

At the same time, publicity surrounding the new-found flexibility of the Panama Canal was a signal to East Coast and Gulf ports to ramp up to prepare to welcome the newest class of container vessels. As a result, many of these ports have been hard at it, anticipating a catch-up response to the larger vessels appearing on the West Coast. The completion of the canal widening has gained momentum at East Coast and Gulf ports and some of the newest vessels have already called at the Ports of Savannah, Georgia and Houston.

As the nation’s seaports consider their chance of attaining a position in a container service using the newest super post panamax vessels, many ro/ro users must hope that they will avoid this temptation. The requirements for expanded container service including larger land mass, deeper channels, multiple dockside cranes, additional land based container handling capability and expanded inland access whether rail or truck, will potentially be committed and lost for other valuable cargoes. Many North American ports have continued business as usual including plans to move ahead with container facility modernization. The key question, however, might well be what the impact will be if these resources are not available when ports have the opportunity to create facilities and services necessary to sustain other forms of ocean-borne cargo?

Multi-cargo Approach

The benefits of a commitment to ro/ro cargoes can be significant and in truth, many ports have found a way to accommodate a multi-cargo approach. As a prime example, over four decades ago, a combination of ro/ro cargo and container handling provided an excellent opportunity for the Port of Baltimore. Baltimore’s proximity to the Midwest created a special interest for shippers of not only containers, but ro/ro cargo as well. Import and export automobiles and farm and construction machines were primed to move via the Port.

Beginning in late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Atlantic Container Line (ACL) called at Baltimore’s Dundalk Marine Terminal. The plan was to begin an effort to provide a combination of container handling and roll-on/roll-off cargo using the same vessel. Baltimore’s Midwest connection was critical and as a signature port for roll-on/roll-off cargo today, Baltimore offers service to a number of specialty ocean carriers handling expanded ro/ro cargo volumes.

Originally, automobiles, construction and agricultural machines, large crated cargo, both import and export, were lifted by ships gear or dockside cranes to and from the hold of standard cargo vessels. ACL’s combination vessels were designed to handle a variety of cargo in many forms. A great deal of ACL’s ro/ro cargo, as example, was easily loaded while containers were lifted to and from the vessel’s cells by container gantry cranes. Autos and trucks were driven on and off at the same time by longshoremen. Larger pieces, however, offered a challenge depending upon the size and stevedoring equipment available to handle it.

Over the years, the flow of ro/ro cargo to Baltimore increased significantly. Import and export automobiles, vans and trucks moved in and out of the port on car carriers and flatbed trucks. The early requirements for ro/ro cargo was a pier to accept a ramp, land to park the cargo and motive power to move it into and out of the vessel and on and off heavy haulers and rail flat cars. Eventually, the demand to handle this cargo efficiently led to the development of specialty equipment. Leaning upon ACL’s unique combination, the creation of vessels with drive-on/drive off capability led to increasingly more efficient loading and unloading systems. This included utilizing a combination of terminal handling equipment specifically designed to easily carry cargo on or off of the vessel directly.

One of the most significant developments in ro/ro operations occurred in the late 1960’s. The start-up of Atlantic Container Line’s service, stimulated both the volume and the variety of cargo easily adapted to ro/ro. Today, roll-on/roll-off vessels handle a large variety of cargo including containers, large farm and construction equipment, self-propelled vehicles, and both import and export automobiles. Containers and larger equipment can be carried on specialty trailers, uniquely designed to stay with the vessel after loading or parked on the terminal to be delivered to over the road conveyance. In addition, the internal design of pure auto carriers offer parking garage type design with storage and drive on/drive off handling. On the East and Gulf coasts other ports such as Wilmington, Delaware, Jacksonville, Florida, and Galveston, Texas are among many ports that have expanded their capabilities with larger facilities just to handle import and export vehicles and large farm and construction implements.

Rolling Stock

The requirement to quickly discharge and load larger cargo such as rolling stock, construction machines and agricultural equipment created the need for specially designed conveyance, capable of remaining with the vessel if necessary. Based upon the concept that the trailers could remain aboard the vessel with their cargo if necessary, a small German manufacturer responded with the development of what now are universally referred to as roll trailers or MAFIs. Today, various versions of these trailers adapted to the cargo requirements are regularly utilized.

The first developer and manufacturer of these specialty type trailers was a company named MAFI, an acronym combining the initials of one of the founders. MAFI developed and manufactured what is now referred to as the roll trailer system. Their concept included a special attachment, a “goose neck”, leading from the yard tractor’s fifth wheel to a special aperture on their trailer.

The MAFI system was specially designed to handle large, over-sized objects such as high and wide crates, containers, vehicles, boats, rail cars, heavy agricultural implements and large generators. The trailers were designed to be easy loaded and discharged. The system was relatively simple, the “goose neck” attached easily to the yard tractor’s fifth wheel at one end and into an aperture at the front of the roll trailer on the other. The MAFI was a low-slung trailer with a heavy wooden decking and small, multiple tired bogies. The company, MAFI, was founded in 1957. Their concept revolutionized the handling of just about everything that was set to sail on an ACL or standard ro/ro vessel. The cargo handled on MAFIs includes oversized, heavy objects. MAFI has been supplying roll trailers and other ro/ro tools to the industry since the early 1960’s. Since that time, the acronym “MAFI” has become synonymous for not only MAFI’s products, but roll trailers manufactured by three other companies.

Most roll trailers including those from two other manufacturers, Novatech in Denmark and Buiscar in Holland, can be purchased or leased from representatives in the USA. New Jersey company, Martec International, representing manufacturers opened a division to sell or lease roll trailers and goose necks. Martec represented Novatech. Martec sold its inventory and customer list to container leasing giant, Triton International. Fleets of (Novatech) roll trailers through Triton, Buiscar or MAFI independently, can be found at some of the largest ports in the world.