Avalon Freight Services Redefines the Shortsea Shipping Formula

By Kathy A. Smith
Anything but business as usual, trusted partners operate innovative, environmentally correct and cutting edge equipment – in a decidedly niche trade.
A  new freight service began operation in southern California this past April. For the businesses and residents of Catalina Island who depend on freight from the mainland, this new service aims to provide the safest, fastest, quietest, most efficient, eco-friendly and state-of-the-art freight transportation in the island’s history. Customers will also benefit from the use of unique and innovative tonnage built specifically for this niche trade. In doing so, Avalon Freight Services is redefining the concept of short sea shipping.
Deep Roots, Careful Planning
Avalon Freight Services (AFS) is a unique partnership of Seattle-based Harley Franco of Harley Marine and Greg and Tim Bombard of LA-based Catalina Express. For nearly a century, three generations of the Bombard family have been welcoming Catalina Island visitors on board their boats, and now the new, totally green freight service will take the well-known company into a new realm of expanded service. 
“My family has actually been on Catalina Island since 1919,” says Greg Bombard, president and co-founder. The Bombard family have operated the well-known Catalina Express passenger service to Catalina Island for 35 years. Catalina Island is about 24 miles off the coast.
The new AFS mainland facility at Berth 95 in San Pedro at the Port of Los Angeles, boasts a new 7,500-foot warehouse and office facility right next to the Catalina Express terminal, which allows for customers to conveniently drop off freight and board one of the Catalina Express vessels to make the island trip. “The facility also provides consolidating freight for larger customers like us,” says Randy Herrel, Santa Catalina Island Company’s (SCIC) CEO. “It’s worked incredibly well. I’m sure they put a lot of effort into planning it out.” 
Custom-designed vessels have been built, and a new style of self-propelled Landing Craft named the Catalina Provider, which meets EPA Tier 3 emission standards, allows for transportation of freight or evacuation of residents. In addition to Provider, the fleet currently includes one tug – the Lucy Franco – and two deck barges. Rebuilt at Diversified, the tug also had its engines upgraded to Caterpillar Tier 3 units.
“We’re giving Catalina a serious upgrade on the freight business they’ve had over the last 50 years,” says Harley Franco, CEO of Harley Marine Services, Inc., and AFS co-founder. “Everything is Tier 3, fuel-efficient, air quality-compliant, and the type of equipment that we brought in is more efficient and effective and our new warehouse is more secure and more state of the art.” 
Catalina Provider is able to land without adverse environmental impact on any beach on the Island, to deliver anything from camp supplies to fire engines. A new Ramp Barge capable of landing at any beach with its 40-foot-long ramp, is fitted with a 90,000 gallon tank to transport potable water. The Ramp Barge will work with the reliable and completely upgraded 69-foot x 26-foot tug Lucy Franco – purchased from Harley Marine specifically for the new service – boasting 1,500 horsepower and retrofitted engines that meet Tier 3 emissions standards. 
Shortsea Efficiencies Produce Economy of Scale for Catalina
All of this means a faster, one-way channel crossing time of three hours for customers. Additionally, Avalon Freight guarantees the current freight tariff for two years. The current operating schedule covers a minimum of five days a week, year round. This was an important factor that was considered in the rigorous RFP process, which began in late 2012. A lot of discussions with the Avalon community, the Port of Los Angeles, and various marine stakeholders took place before invitations were sent out. SCIC wanted to find a sole provider for the new service. 
Once Avalon Freight Services was selected as the new tenant (granted dock access and warehouse space) in December 2014, research began to secure and build the company’s facilities and vessels to meet the April 1, 2016 launch date.  
“One of the challenges for this service is that it really is a lifeline for Catalina Island,” says Jim Price, partner at Hardesty, LLC, a professional services consulting firm that worked alongside Santa Catalina Island Company to prepare the RFP tender and review bids. “From an economic standpoint, it might make sense to take a much larger vessel and deliver once a week. But it doesn’t make sense for the community.”
Of course, the pairing of two award-winning marine entities with long-held excellent reputations for what they do is bound to bring innovation to the table. “One of the things we wanted to do was make sure that when we brought this service forward, we really took a hard look at what would be the easiest, safest, and quickest way to move freight to and from the island,” Bombard explains. “We transport everything it takes for a city as well as a tourism area to operate – everything they need, from heavy equipment to food to building supplies to fuel to all the different things it takes for a city to operate, we move across the water on our landing craft or barge.” 
Bombard told MarineNews that when researching the feasibility of the landing craft, AFS reviewed successful applications of this kind of vessel in various transportation services in Alaska. The 150-foot x 150-foot Catalina Provider, was built by Diversified Marine in Portland, Oregon, a company that had provided similar landing craft for the Alaskan fleet. 
Catalina Provider can carry up to 12 passengers in addition to a small number of trucks with containers as well as smaller loads. For instance, Bombard says regular customers such as the island’s grocery store transport four or five trailers up to three times a week. “We’ve also got an operator on the island called Catalina Beverage, and they bring quite a few dry and reefer vans with us three times a week,” he says. 
Hotel and restaurant supplies are also trucked over, the odd car is shipped, and even horses. “There are a couple of rides where horses go back and forth, so this makes it convenient for the wranglers to ride along with the horses and keep them calm and be able to work with them,” he adds. Important to customers is also the fact that goods can be loaded and unloaded at both high tide and low tide at Pebbly Beach, where the Avalon building supply warehouse is located.
So Far, So Good …
So far, things have been progressing very well for the new venture. Although no formal review has been carried out yet by SCIC – a six months and annual report are forthcoming – early indications are positive. “What we’ve done is listen to the customers and the City of Avalon and we have heard no complaints on the new AFS service, which is quite remarkable for a city like Avalon,” says Herrel.
Safety and security of passengers and freight is paramount for vessel operations. Preparing for additional capabilities for potential emergency situations is also an important need. Back in 2007, there was a large fire on the Island. Catalina Express high-speed boats were able to move people off quickly, but it was difficult to transport equipment, reports Bombard, who has been working with the LA County Fire Department to test the Catalina Provider as an evacuation vessel. “Once you land on the beach and drop the ramp, it’s like you’ve built a pier,” he says. “With the ramp being that long, it makes it very easy access on and off for firefighting equipment and the trucks.”  
The tug and barge operation takes care of tasks such as transporting gravel and sand. “We find that the barge is better for that type of service, where you can bring a skip loader on or a loader and be able to scrape that stuff off the deck and move it to the shore side a little easier,” says Bombard. “That’s worked out to be more efficient than dealing with the wood deck that we’ve got on the landing craft. But for all other operations, the roll-on, roll-off, the landing craft works very well for us.” 
Smooth Transition, Solid Partner
AFS has worked in close cooperation with Catalina Freight Line (the previous operator) to make the transfer of operations as smooth as possible for everyone involved. In fact, AFS hired many employees who worked for CFL. “Our employee group has been fantastic to work with,” adds Bombard. “Going in, they had a good relationship with existing customers,” says Herrel. “I think that’s why there have been very few complaints. When the customer is happy, that’s a big hurdle.” 
Bombard appreciates the deep experience Harley Marine brings to the enterprise. “Harley Marine is well vetted in tug and barge operations. They keep us up to date on all the latest regulations like Subchapter M. They’ve been a good partner.”
“We’re highly motivated to exceed everybody’s expectations,” says Franco. “And I think the Island people are the real winners here, because they got a safer and nicer warehouse on the Los Angeles side, they have steady, reliable, newer, cleaner, greener equipment making their deliveries, and I think they’ll find that it’s really going to work out for the best for all of them.”
(As published in the September 2016 edition of Marine News)
Marine News Magazine, page 36,  Sep 2016

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