Heavy ice delays start of shipping season

Shipping underway | Grain terminals near capacity at Port of Thunder Bay as shipping season starts almost a month late

The 2014 shipping season at the Port of Thunder Bay is officially underway.

The first grain ship of the season arrived at Thunder Bay, Ont., April 22, three or four weeks later than normal, said Tim Heney, the port’s chief executive officer.

MV Algoma Enterprise docked at Richardson’s Current River Terminal and was loaded with 26,000 tonnes of prairie wheat. The shipment, now en route to Port Cartier, Que., was the first grain to leave Thunder Bay since the close of the 2013 shipping season more than three months ago.

“It (ship traffic) is starting to build up now,” Heney said April 25.

“There’s two other ships in port right now and about 20 more on the way, so it’s going to be quite a surge. A lot of ships have been waiting to get in for some time now so it’ll be busy for the foreseeable future.”

Heney said Thunder Bay’s first boat normally arrives around March 25.

This year, heavy ice delayed ship traffic on Lake Superior, creating a backlog of grain at the port.

It was the coldest March ever recorded at Thunder Bay.

There is still two-thirds ice cover on Lake Superior.

The Algoma Enterprise took more than two weeks to travel from Port Colborne, Ont., to Thunder Bay, a voyage that takes three days in ideal conditions.

As of April 25, ice breakers were still escorting ships along some parts of the route.

Incoming ships are making the trip to Thunder Bay in convoys of two to four.

“It’s been a stubborn year,” Heney said.

The opening of shipping lanes did not come a moment too soon for the port’s terminal operators.

Grain terminals were at or near capacity by the time the first boat arrived.

“I think there was some concern before the season opened that (terminals weren’t going) to be able to receive any more cars, but I think, now that the ships are here, that fear has passed,” Heney said.

Rail service to the port has been increasing consistently over the past few weeks, from 870 cars a week in late March to 1,200 cars a week by mid-to-late April.

Despite the late start, Heney said the port should have no problem surpassing last year’s grain volumes.

With a record backlog of prairie grain still waiting to be moved, shippers are anticipating a busy year.

“I think we’ll have a better year than last year, that’s for sure.”

About 5.5 million tonnes of grain were shipped through Thunder Bay in 2013, down a million tonnes from 2012.

Heney said 20 lake-sized vessels are currently lined up to move grain out of Thunder Bay.

Larger salt water vessels will also begin arriving in early May.

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