Navigating the Amazon

Epic Gas In Brazil

Epic Gas has been trading on the Amazon River since 2016, with six LPG vessels plying this trade over the intervening period. Chartered by Petróleo Brasileiro S.A., the vessels, Epic Barnes (7,200cbm); Epic St. George (5,000cbm); Epic St. John (5,000cbm); Epic Boracay (7,500cbm); Epic Borinquen (7,500cbm) and Epic Baluan (7,500cbm), have to-date safely performed 106 voyages in Brazil of which 97 voyages were on the Amazon River. These vessels call at Belem, Manaus and Coari, which are key ports along the Amazon River. Belem is approximately 1,261 nautical miles from Coari, and a round trip takes about two weeks.

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Navigating The River And The Seasons

Shifts between the dry season and wet season in Brazil bring about dramatic changes to the Amazon River. In some areas, water levels rise more than 14 meters above regular water levels and completely change trading patterns between Coari and Belem. During the wet season (December to July) a vessel sailing between Belem and Coari must make an additional stop in Manaus to wait for its berthing schedule at Coari, due to a lack of anchorage space. Once berthing space is available, vessels will then sail for about a day to reach Coari, where they are loaded with cargo before sailing to the port at Belem for discharge. The passage from Coari to Belem lasts about four days and two to three pilots are employed to assist with the navigation.

 

During the dry season (August to November), water levels in the Amazon River drop and trading patterns change. Smaller vessels with smaller drafts such as Epic St. George are used – these smaller vessels load at Coari and discharge at Manaus or at Codajás, a port located ten hours away from Coari. Ship-to-Ship (STS) transfers are also common during the dry seasons, with Epic St. George loading at Coari and discharging its load into larger vessels such as Epic Baluan at Codajás, which then sail onwards to Belem for discharge

Perks Of The Trade

The Amazon represents over half of the planet’s remaining rainforests and comprises the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world, with an estimated 390 billion individual trees divided into 16,000 species2. The Amazon River is the largest river by discharge volume of water in the world, and by some definitions it is also the longest. The river and rainforests are also home to immense biodiversity - fish such as the red-bellied piranhas, the Tambaqui (Giant Pacu) and Pirarucu (Arapaima Gigas) are part of global popular culture due to documentaries and movies3.

Surrounded by lush tropical rainforests, the view from onboard is the envy of many. The vessels regularly cross a passage called “The Meeting of Waters” or Encontro das Águas, one of the main tourist attractions of Manaus. The dark waters of the Rio Negro and the pale sandy-colored (whitewater) of the Solimões River meet, and for six kilometers the two rivers’ waters run side by side without mixing due to differences in temperature, speed and water density.

Epic Gas speaks with Captain Francis P. Marañon, Master of LPG Carrier Epic Baluan to understand more about his work onboard an LPG carrier and trading in the Amazon River.

Epic Gas [EG]:Tell us about yourself and how you became a Captain with Epic Gas?

Captain Francis P. Marañon (FM): I am the ninth of 11 children in my family. I graduated from high school in 1991 and a seafaring career was a popular profession in my community. I graduated with a Bachelor in Science and Marine Transportation (Honors) from the Visayan Maritime Academy in 1994. I started sailing in 1995 as a deck trainee and have since sailed on many types of vessels - container vessels, oil tankers, chemical carriers, pressurised, semi-refrigerated, refrigerated and ethylene vessels. In 2011, I was promoted to the rank of Captain and in 2016, I joined Epic Gas and have not looked back.

 

EG: How did you end up becoming an expert of the Amazon River? What is it like sailing on the Amazon River?

FM: Being on the river like the Amazon is not unusual to me as most of my years sailing in Europe, UK and France were always on rivers – such as the Scheldt, Rhine, Rouen, and inland Japan and China. The Amazon River is of course special, as it is home to amazing wildlife and is flanked by dense rainforests. The Amazon River is a “monstrous” thing – very dominant in the community, very long, and constantly changing. On the Amazon River, you see ferry boats; small barges crossing from one place to the other carrying passengers and cargo; and local fishing boats trying to catch freshwater fish for food and for sale. During the wet season, you can encounter uprooted trees taken away by rushing river currents.

 

EG: What is the favorite and least favorite part of your job?

FM: I enjoy ship handling and maneuvering - it is truly an art to use whatever means within your control so that you work with and not against Mother Nature. Water currents in the Amazon River flow at three to five knots and we must take this into consideration during berthing/unberthing operations and STS transfers. My least favorite part must be the insects – which come in all sizes and range from harmless to a fast-pass to the doctor’s office. While sailing along the river or at port, a lot of insects try to join us onboard. There are spiders, mosquitos, flies, and insects whose bites can cause burns and swelling.

We are currently at the end of the dry season. Even experienced pilots, some of them with more than 20 years under their belts, seem to be surprised by the changes in the river. This year, Solimões River created a brand-new area with shallow waters. There are only a few passages, surrounded by banks, which remain passable to vessels. Along these narrow passages, the river currents have a strong effect on our vessels as we pass. The river currents, which are currently close to five knots, will create squats, bow cushions and bank suctions, and these are unique conditions that we must understand and work with to always maintain sufficient keel clearance. This demands a lot of experience from the bridge team and pilots. We always try to avoid meeting other vessels in shallow and narrow areas by communicating closely with vessels that are close by, typically one of the vessels reduces speed so that we can pass safely. Pilots, the Brazilian navy, and private surveyors constantly monitor the depths of waters all over the Amazon River. Precise position fixing and using parallel indexing by radar are important tools to help us with navigation as the river constantly changes. We also monitor pilot helm orders and advice, and plan our passages accordingly. Each voyage is a unique experience, and we who sail on one of the largest rivers in the world are very lucky.

 

EG: Any thoughts on your relationship with the local community?

FM: I strongly believe that what we do is meaningful - we provide safe transportation of clean energy through the Amazon River, and this energy powers the basic needs of the local communities. Ports along the Amazon River which service our vessels provide jobs to the locals as well. Practically, we play our part by making sure we minimize garbage production onboard, ensure proper containment and dispose of all garbage correctly and as per all regulations.