EDITORIAL: New business

Keppel AmFELS adds ships to its operations at local port

There’s something romantic about the christening of a ship, of some dignitary smashing a bottle of champagne against the glistening hull of a new vessel before it’s launched on its maiden voyage.

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, Rio Grande Valley residents might get to see such a sight at the Port of Brownsville, if Keppel AmFELS choose to hold such a ceremony when they launch the first ship built in South Texas.

A longtime mainstay at the port, Keppel AmFELS traditionally has used the local port to build oil rigs and platforms that are used to extract oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico and other open-water venues. Shipbuilding, however, is another arm of the global giant’s enterprises, with existing shipyards in Brazil, China and the Philippines specializing in tugboats, container ships and other specialized vessels.

The local facility in April held a ceremonial keel-laying ceremony for the M/V George III, the first of two 774-foot-long container ships it already is building for Honolulubased Pasha Hawaii. It and the second ship, the M/V Janet Marie, are expected to be completed and delivered next year, and the contract carries an option to build two additional ships in the future.

Each ship reportedly has a contract price of around $200 million, and Pasha states that each ship will be able to carry up to 2,500 20-foot containers. They will run on liquefied natural gas and boast some of the most hydrodynamically efficient hulls in the world, meaning that it will take less fuel to move them. In addition to containers, they also will ship cars, trucks and other rolling vehicles across the Pacific Ocean.

Shipbuilding is just the latest new feature at the Port of Brownsville, where in recent years local shipbreaking companies have expanded their capacity and secured contracts with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Maritime Administration and various commercial enterprises. Port officials report that about 85 percent of all the nation’s ship recycling business is done in the Rio Grande Valley.

With new businesses expected, including three LNG distributorships and a possible steel fabrication plant, the future looks bright for the port, which each year reports new records for tonnage shipped and revenue earned.

It also marks a reversal for shipbuilding in Texas and along the Gulf Coast. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the Texas coast was a major supplier of maritime vessels during World War II. The war’s end and the growth of air freight reduced demand, and subsequently the manufacture, of new ships. In 1963, 23 shipyards operated in Texas; by 1980 the number was down to 10, and they focused primarily on ship repair and building oil rigs.

We welcome the new shipbuilding operations at the port. At some 2½ football fields in length, we assume drivers along the South Padre Island Highway will be able to see the progress of these two ships, and we look forward to the day they are towed out into the open sea for the first time.