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TOTE’s SS Great Land is towed away to the ship breakers after illustrious Tacoma career

Post by John Gillie / The News Tribune on March 15, 2013 at 6:28 am |
March 14, 2013 5:26 pm

A ship whose arrival in Tacoma in 1976 put the port in the big leagues is headed for the scrap yard.

The SS Great Land, a 790-foot, roll-on-roll-off trailer ship, left the Blair Waterway berth Wednesday under tow. The 38-year-old ship is destined for a ship breaker’s yard in Brownsville, Texas where it will be cut apart for scrap metal.

TOTE's SS Great Land is towed away to the breaking yard in Texas
TOTE’s SS Great Land is towed away to the breaking yard in Texas

The Great Land’s initial call at Tacoma in 1976 was celebrated as a major victory for the port over its rival Seattle in becoming the gateway to Alaska.  The ship’s owner, Totem Ocean Trailer Express, had been operating at the Port of Seattle, but sought a quicker turnaround time on its journey between Puget Sound and Anchorage.

The Port of Tacoma won TOTE’s business when Tacoma longshoremen demonstrated they could load and unload the Great Land in just 14.5 hours compared with the 18 hours that same process the job took in Seattle.

The Great Land and its sister ship, the SS Westward Venture, were designed to carry up to 386 trailers and 126 vehicles on the 1,500-mile trip to Alaska’s largest city. The ship was literally a waterborne parking garage for over-the-road trailers.

The trailers were driven onto the ship via a series of ramps and chained down to the internal decks.

TOTE’s arrival in the Port of Tacoma emboldened the Port of Tacoma to compete with Seattle for more Alaska and international shipping lines.  In the early ’80s, Sea-Land Service, which provided both international and Alaska container service, moved to Tacoma.

Both TOTE and the domestic remnants of Sea-Land, Horizon Lines, still operate from the Port of Tacoma providing about 80 percent of the service between Washington and Alaska.

Both the Great Land and the Westward Venture and a third ro-ro ship, the Northern Lights, were retired from the Tacoma-Alaska service in 2002. TOTE replaced those ships with two new, larger vessels, the North Star and the Midnight Sun.

The older ships used steam boilers for propulsion. The newer ships use diesel engines, which are more fuel efficient.

SS Great Land being moved from its Blair Waterway moorings
SS Great Land being moved from its Blair Waterway moorings

According to TOTE, the Great Land was chartered to Matson Lines for three years for service between the West Coast and Hawaii.  The ship also served  on military charters from 2005 through 2010.

“She was very popular. She had 200,000 square feet of decks, and they could carry almost anything from armor to hazardous materials,” said Phil Morrell, TOTE’s vice president of  marine and terminal operations.

The ship has been tied up unused at the TOTE terminal on the Blair Waterway for the last two years. It last served as a substitute for the newer TOTE ships in the Alaska trade in 2011 while those ships were drydocked.

The Great Land was one of handful of ro-ro ships built at the Sun Shipbuilding shipyard near Philadelphia in the mid-70s.  At the time, they were the largest and fastest such vessels built.  Because they were built in an American shipyard with American labor, they met the legal  requirements for service between American ports.

Most of those ships were used in the three major American trades, Alaska-Puget Sound, Hawaii-West Coast and Puerto Rico-East Coast.  The Northern Lights is now engaged in the Puerto Rico trade under a new name, El Faro.  The Westward Venture was scrapped in Texas last year.

The Great Land’s nearly 40 years in service was not without its incidents.  In the early ’90s, the ship sunk at its Tacoma dock during maintenance when a sea-valve was mistakenly left open.  The ship was sealed up and pumped out and rehabbed at Seattle’s Todd Shipyard.

Rough weather in the Gulf of Alaska once literally created a crack in its hull plates that extended from one side of the ship to another.  The vessel limped into port and was repaired.

“She served the community well,” said Morrell. “It’s kind of sad to see her go.”

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