A WEST Coast South Island company is about to launch a new barge-based bulk distribution and transhipment operation, partly funded under the coastal shipping initiative of NZ’s National Land Transport Program.

WMS Group, which comprises Westland Mineral Sands and West Coast Bulk Logistics, is a miner and exporter of rare earth products and plans to revive the region’s coastal shipping network with the self-propelled barge Manahau sailing from shallow-draught ports Westport and Greymouth.

Manahau, which means “brisk or active” from Poutini Ngāi Tahu, is currently undergoing refit in the ASL shipyard in Batam, Indonesia, to bring it up to RINA class and Niue flag status, supported by Maritime New Zealand. Works include overhauled engines, azimuth drive shafts and bow thrusters, as well as brand new electronics, navigation equipment, accommodation, electrical wiring, and steel plates.

The vessel has a capacity of 7000t (an increase from 6000t following the dock works) and is 98m long. WMS says it is smaller than previous vessels which operated successfully on the Buller and Grey rivers over many decades. Manahau draws between 1.9m and 4.5m fully laden – much less than the previous cement carriers  – and does not require tug assistance. The vessel is specifically designed for river operations like those in Buller and Grey.

In 2022, the Aotearoa Shipping Alliance received NZ$7 million from the NLTP, which partially funded Manahau. Four grants were issued under the NLTP, to Pacifica/Swire, Coastal Bulk Shipping, ASA and MOVE Logistics. The latter has since abandoned its plan for a coastal ro-ro service.

WMS Group says as the lead partner in the alliance, it has privately invested many millions over and above the NLTP funding in the barge and associated logistics system. Westport port is operational, Greymouth will follow shortly, and port staff and storage facilities at Westport have been operational for over one year. WMS continues to invest heavily in both ports.

While some of the operations are new to NZ, such as ship-to-ship transfer of mineral sands, these operations are conducted daily, at large scale around the world, and are well proven, WMS says.

Drydock works on Manahau were completed on 22 February; since then, final fitout and systems testing have been undertaken. All works are scheduled to be completed by the end of March before sailing to NZ unassisted.

WMS Group MD Ray Mudgway said preparing for the barge’s arrival had been “an enormous amount of work, time and money” involving an array of local and global experts to achieve the highest standards in port operations and shipping: “Her arrival will complete a long held and ambitious plan to see shipping and port operations resume on the West Coast.”

Mike Stewart, GM of West Coast Bulk Logistics, said the arrival of Manahau will be transformative for the region.

“Sea transport is a scalable, cost effective and efficient way to move bulk goods such as aggregates and hard rock, and the barge will strengthen regional and national supply chains while giving New Zealand exporters more competitive access to domestic and international markets,” he said.

“The demand for the barge is testament to the market need for this new capability and we are actively working with multiple West Coast businesses who want to export or import through Westport and Grey ports.”