Fair winds and following seas greeted El Coqui — hailed as the future of modern maritime trade with its cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas engines and cutting-edge technology — as she sailed Oct. 20 from Jacksonville with cargo bound for Puerto Rico.
Crowley Maritime Corp’s newest cargo ship is among the world’s first, and very few, combination container/roll-on-roll-off vessels powered primarily by LNG. Along with sister ship Taino, El Coqui was designed from the keel up to meet the needs of Crowley customers shipping container cargo, motor vehicles and equipment between the mainland United States and Puerto Rico.
El Coqui was christened at the JaxPort Cruise Ship Terminal during a morning ceremony Oct. 20. Those attending included a special assistant to President Donald Trump, members of Congress, Crowley officials and employees, including the ship’s crew members and their families.
The ship reflects innovation and represents an investment in time, expertise and more than $550 million. It is a cornerstone for the company’s vision, said Tom Crowley, owner, chairman and CEO of the 126-year-old Jacksonville-based company. The company’s ships served Puerto Rico for 60 years.
Crowley said the company has achieved what many people, including experts, have talked about — using LNG as a fuel — but very few have done.
“So this really is, in terms of the world map, one of the first and I think most sophisticated LNG supply systems in the world,” Crowley said. “It will become the standard … and we have set the stage for how to do it.”
El Coqui also has national significance and implications for the economy as well as defense and homeland security, Alexander B. Gray, special assistant to to the president for the Defense Industrial Base Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, told the Times-Union before the ceremony.
“This is the cutting edge of technology for the future of the maritime industry. Moving to liquefied natural gas is what’s going to keep our maritime industry competitive for the next 20, 30, 40 years,” Gray said.
Gray noted Crowley — a privately held family and employee-owned company — has invested about $3 billion in the domestic maritime industry over the past decade or so, including $500 million in Puerto Rico, where it has 300 resident employees, and the 85-acre Isla Grande Terminal in San Juan.
“That’s tremendous. That’s jobs. That’s economic growth,” said Gray, adding there also is the national security impact. “The mariners who crew this ship and the skilled workers who maintain it are for national security. These are the same folks who in a crisis support our military. So there is a huge economic security and national security imperative.”
Gray also said one way the United States can stay competitive against countries such as China in the maritime trade is to have the most technologically advanced ships in the world. Moving to an all liquefied natural gas-powered ship “is how we can maintain our competitive edge.”
“So, absolutely, this is going to be a model in the maritime industry,” he said.
Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who represents the U.S. territory in Congress, told the crowd El Coqui is more than just the Spanish name for a beloved frog native to the island. The maritime industry is the lifeblood of Puerto Rico, she said.
Length: 720 feet
Deadweight capacity: 26,500 tons
Speed: 22 knots
“This industry represents everything in our economy. When you live on an island, you depend on ships …” said Gonzalez-Colon, noting ships such as El Coqui will help ensure the future of the island and its economy.
Manufacturing pharmaceuticals and medical devices constitute 42% of Puerto Rico’s economy. El Coqui and ships like it will get those items to markets off the island faster and in a more environmentally friendly way, Gonzalez-Colon said.
“I want to thank the Crowley family for that investment, and the whole maritime industry for being there for our island and helping us in the most difficult times,” said Gonzalez-Colon, referencing that Crowley ships were the first to arrive with aid after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
El Coqui is the first of two vessels built as part of Crowley’s Commitment Class Project. Built by VT Halter Marine Inc., based in Pascagoula, Miss., the ship “is a centerpiece of Crowley’s industry-leading supply chain solutions,” according to the company.
With the Commitment Class Project, the company says it is making a $550 million investment intended to transform its cargo shipping and logistics services between the mainland and Puerto Rico — “creating a new level of speed, efficiency, reliability and eco-friendly operations.”
The vessel and sister ship Taino, which is about to begin sea trials, were designed from the keel up especially for service between the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico. Both vessels are equipped to carry containers ranging from 20-foot standard to 53-foot by 102-inch-wide high-capacity units, with room for up to 300 refrigerated containers.
The ships also are designed to provide “world-class vehicle transportation via completely enclosed, ventilated and weather-tight decks spacious enough to accommodate a mixture of nearly 400 cars and larger vehicles.
Although primarily fueled by LNG, the Commitment Class ships also can operate on traditional ultra-low-sulphur diesel oil.
El Coqui Capt. Nick. St. Jean and the crew of 21, along with the entire Crowley Team for both it and Taino, recently received international recognition with the Shoreside Team of the Year Award during the 2018 Safety at Sea Awards ceremony held by Safety at Sea International magazine in London.
U.S. Rep. John Rutherford (R-Jacksonville) said El Coqui and Taino represent an exciting new chapter for Crowley, JaxPort, northeast Florida and Puerto Rico.
“We are seeing American innovation at its best,” said Rutherford, who also emphasized the importance of the Jones Act and his commitment to supporting it. “We are going to continue to grow and make northeast Florida the logistics hub of the Eastern Seaboard.”