27 JAN 2020 

In 1969, while working for a ship agency in downtown New Orleans, one of the agents announced there was a ship at general anchorage which loaded barges into the vessel! A group took a launch to view the Acadia Forest, the first LASH vessel.

She was quite a sight, at 49,000dwt, with the bridge forward, and an unusual crane on the aft end. It was a gantry type crane transiting the length of the cargo space, working the barges aft. This was a LASH (acronym for Lighter Aboard SHip) vessel, carrying small, box-type barges (lighters) approximately 60 feet long, 30 feet wide and 15 feet high. 

Depending on the specs, a “mother vessel” could accommodate 84 to 89 barges, utilizing the onboard crane. Periodically, empty barges were stacked on the top tier, with the assistance of a shore crane, for the purpose of repositioning empties. A few LASH vessels were able to accommodate some containers.

LASH can be described as an early version of the intermodal concept, utilizing barges instead of containers. Like a hub and spokes, the barges were towed between the mother vessel and many ports and private facilities along inland river and intracoastal systems. In the U.S. Gulf, barges were worked at many ports between Brownsville, TX and Port St. Joe, FL – with the mother vessel calling only one port.

The LASH system was developed by a U.S. maritime architect firm in New Orleans. The mother vessels and barges were built in U.S. and abroad. It is interesting to note the Russians built two nuclear powered LASH vessels, presumably for military use. However, they were restricted from many ports, and not used commercially. LASH operated from 1969 to 2007.

The cargo capacity of a barge was 385 metric tons (mt) and 550 cubic meters. The maximum draft was about nine feet. Average tare weight of an empty barge was 80mt. The mother vessel was able to drop and pick barges at anchorage. The operation required multiple tow boats to coordinate the movement of barges between the vessel and local fleeting areas. This was an advantage at congested ports, where conventional vessels had to wait for a berth.

Most barges were constructed of steel, with three inter-locking steel hatch sections weighing 1.3 mt each. Some barges had a single fiberglass top. A handful of fiberglass barges were built as an experiment to reduce weight, but were never used commercially. Several specialized barges were developed, including a “long steel” barge, which featured a slot in the fore and aft combings, to accommodate cargo up to 60 feet long. The standard barge had a hatch opening of 44 feet.

One American flag carrier operated a fleet of three LASH vessels from the U.S. Gulf to the North and East Coast of South America. As this carrier was a member of the Inter American Freight Conference, and was the sole LASH carrier in the conference, it was dictated that cargo could be loaded to and discharged from barges only at berths which could accommodate ocean going vessels. While this limited the advantage of LASH, it was countered by the fact that the vessel could serve as many as three ports in the same day, and was not subject to berth congestion while working barges at anchorage.

The vessel also had a cellular hold aft of the house, with a self-sustaining container crane, where containers were stowed athwartship. At Houston, the containers were drayed to Barbour’s Cut, where only a “T” shaped pier existed. There was a small fenced area for the containers to be staged overnight for the vessel to arrive. Today, Barbour’s Cut on the Houston Ship Channel is a major container facility.

Another carrier built an innovative terminal in Memphis, equipped with the crane from a LASH mother-vessel. The crane ran on sponsons over the cut in the river, lifted barges from the water, and tracked them into a warehouse to load and discharge in all weather conditions.

An American flag carrier had LASH barges fitted with AC/DH equipment (air condition/dehumidified) and carried ammunition and missiles for the U.S. Military. These vessels could be positioned at strategic locations and remain on station for long periods of time to be deployed as needed. This worked successfully for many years, until the shift to containers. LASH barges were frequently utilized in foreign ports as secure floating warehouses for military goods.

Specialized self-propelled, and towed, semi-submersible feeder vessels were built to shuttle LASH barges across open water to smaller “outports” to limit the amount of port calls for the mother vessel. One of the self-propelled vessels is still in service, as it was seen in 2019 loading an old paddle-wheel boat in the lower Mississippi River.

The barges carried a multitude of break bulk and bulk cargos – including forest products, lumber, steel products, non-ferrous metals, grains, ores and minerals, machinery, vehicles, military equipment, vessel supplies, household goods and project cargoes.

Advantages of LASH

A major advantage of LASH was the ability to load and discharge the barges at inland river terminals and private facilities, in order to reduce inland truck and rail transportation costs for shippers and receivers, to and from deep-water ports. Many breakbulk exporters and importers in the U.S. owned facilities along the Mississippi, Ohio and Arkansas River systems; and realized the advantages of using LASH. A similar scenario with river systems existed in other areas, such as Western Europe.

The LASH system reduced potential claims, since the cargo was not transloaded and re-handled at a deep-water port, after being loaded and secured upriver in a LASH barge.

The costs of loading and unloading the barges at non-union inland river terminals was typically less expensive. And it was cheaper to tow barges for loading at several coastal ports, instead of the mother vessel making multiple calls.

Port costs were reduced with the mother vessel working at anchorage, and not waiting in line for a berth.

LASH offered flexibility. Customers were able to sell and ship smaller quantities of products (especially bulk), in increments of 385 mt, to many different ports, over a longer period of time. Essentially creating a pipeline of product. As opposed to moving larger quantities per shipment, as typically required on a bulk vessel.

Disadvantages of LASH

As the barges were single skinned port and starboard (double fore and aft), sweating was a problem at certain times of the year. A remedy was to line the barge with plywood to separate the cargo from the barge hull this was a cost item.

Rough handling of barges by tow companies caused damage, and claims. A fully laden LASH barge had little freeboard, and sat low in the water – which became an issue in tows which combined LASH and standard river barges (approximately 195 feet long and 35 feet wide) which sat much higher. The barges were not easily incorporated into river tows, so they were placed within the tow with a rake type barge in front.

Some towers would charge much higher rates, or decline to move these barges. This forced some LASH operators to create their own towing companies in the U.S. and overseas. LASH was at the mercy of the towing companies.

Cargo was generally limited to length of 44 feet and height of 13 feet. If cargo did not stow well in the barge, creating dead space, then it was not a cost-effective means of transport for the shipper.

The mother vessels were expensive to operate and maintain. The cranes were slow and susceptible to breaking down. Some of the older vessels had steam turbine propulsion, fueled by bunker C. The diesel propelled vessels were more efficient.

From the beginning, this system caused problems with organized longshore labor, as the vessel could drop and pick up barges with only a few personnel, rather than the 18-man gangs which was the norm at the time.

There were several innovative experiments with LASH barges, none of which were cost effective. Containers were becoming more prevalent, but they did not stow well in LASH barges, since there was no consideration for integrating these two systems. Plans for new generation LASH vessels and barges were created, but never utilized.

In the end, LASH had a finite lifespan, and was doomed to obsolescence at the hands of the container carriers. It was an expensive way to move low revenue cargo. However, it was a very interesting and unique service, and worked extremely well for many commodities and customers. In nearly 40 years of service, millions of tons of cargo were hauled, and many jobs were created. LASH will always have a place in the annals of maritime history.


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