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Picture a fully loaded cargo ship, roughly the size of a Wal-Mart, skimming across the Atlantic like a well-powered runabout.

This not-a-boat, not-a-plane phenomenon is about to become a reality with a revolutionary new vessel known as the FastShip. It could do for cargo what the Boeing 707 did for trans-Atlantic passengers 37 years ago.

"It's like going from the propeller plane to a jet plane," said Collister Johnson Jr., president of FastShip Atlantic Inc., an Alexandria, Va., company that has purchased the license on the ship's patented design and plans to begin building the vessels later this year. "It's a real technological advancement that will revolutionize the shipping industry."

Indeed, Fast- Ship is the first major breakthrough in shipping since cargo was first placed in metal boxes, known as containers, nearly 30 years ago. Using advances in hull design, water-jet propulsion and gas turbine engines, the FastShip is designed to zip through 50-foot waves at 40 knots, cutting the standard weeklong Atlantic crossing time in half.

"The technology is absolutely superb," said Clifford M. Sayre, a transportation consultant and retired DuPont Co. vice president who managed the chemical giant's distribution system. "If it does what they believe it will, FastShip will change the world."

The marine wonder, proponents say, could help the dying U.S. merchant marine regain its competitiveness on the high seas, giving ocean transportation the speed, reliability and frequency it now lacks. U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena has called FastShip's technology "vital to the nation's economic future."

In a rapidly expanding global economy, FastShip aims to grab a niche market by offering cargo service that is faster but more expensive than conventional ships and slower, but less expensive, than planes.

"It comes along as the industry is looking for ways to move products faster," said Mr. Johnson, a former chairman of the Virginia Port Authority. "This is the age of global sourcing, the just-in-time age. It's the '90s."

By siphoning off time-sensitive and high-value cargo -- ranging from lobsters to Lexuses -- Fast Ship hopes to capture up to 7 percent of the North Atlantic market from steamship companies and particularly from airlines. FastShip, Mr. Johnson said, can carry up to 10,000 tons, or roughly 100 times the cargo of a Boeing 747 -- and four times cheaper.

But it also hopes to lure business from companies that want to move high-priced cargo faster, but can't go by air.

For Volvo, it now takes 38 days to move a shipload of cars from Gothenburg, Sweden, to Jacksonville, Fla. FastShip says it can transport the same cars in eight or nine days.

For the consumer, that means getting a customized car much quicker. For a shipper, like Volvo, it could dramatically cut inventory costs associated with keeping the expensive cars on docks and ships.

Working in conjunction with Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Ocean Engineering, FastShip Atlantic, plans to launch four ships on a Philadelphia-Zeebrugge, Belgium, route in 1998.

The vessels will cost around $180 million to build, or more than double the cost of a large freighter, and $100 million a year to operate. While no small doubt exists about the fledgling company's ability to find a large enough market, most believe the ship will perform as billed.

Giant turbines, similar to those on Boeing 747s, will power water-jets that will propel the 753-foot cargo vessels at an average speed of 37.5 knots. Both sophisticated computer testing by MIT and and tank tests with 20- to 30-foot models confirm that FastShip's technology has indeed defied the traditional precepts of ocean engineering.

In late July, the company will conduct its first open ocean test with a remote-controlled model.

So what took so long?

Never known for rapid change, the maritime industry has long been dominated by the century-old rule put forth by naval engineer William Froude: as ships gain speed, the resulting increased pressure tends to sink the stern.

Consequently, larger freighters still chug along at speeds not much greater than the clippers of the 1800s. Even with nuclear power, aircraft carriers, the fastest military ships, can travel about 40 knots, or roughly the same speed envisioned for FastShip.

But FastShip defies Froude's law.

"We had to break the rule of ocean engineering," said Mr. Johnson.

FastShip uses a hull design perfected by British marine architect William Giles more than a decade ago. More than 1,000 smaller ships under 200 feet -- ranging from America's Cup yachts to boats used by Maryland bay pilots -- use the hull design.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Giles came to the United States and helped form Thornycroft, Giles and Co. Inc., which used recent technological advances to adapt the hull design to larger ships. The company was granted a patent on the technology in 1991.

Within months, Mr. Johnson heard about the idea when Thornycroft contacted him while he was chairman of the Virginia Port Authority. Two years later, after leaving his post at VPA and a full-time executive job with Wheat First Securities Inc., he became president of FastShip Atlantic Inc.

Unlike conventional ships, Fast- Ship won't use propellers. Instead, eight giant General Electric jet turbines, specially designed for such a marine application at a cost of more than $40 million, will power five oversized water-jets made by the Swedish company KaMeWa.

The tremendous thrust lifts the stern, enabling the semi-planing hull to zip along at 40 knots. In effect, the FastShip will ride on its own wave.

Cargo is stored entirely under deck. MIT's tests indicate that the ship would remain steady on the turbulent North Atlantic in winds up to 115 miles an hour and waves 70 feet to 80 feet high.

"This is going to happen," declares the 49-year-old Mr. Johnson.

But will it sell?

"It does appear to be technically feasible, but is the market there?" questioned Bill Fallon, general manager of port sales for Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "The jury is still way out on that question."

With steamship companies building larger, somewhat faster ships themselves, FastShip officials say they're more likely to tap the air freight market or, with trade booming, to provide transportation for entirely new markets.

Mr. Johnson believes the revenue potential is enormous -- $600 million to $700 million a year even with four ships.

The company has attracted private investors but has no plan to sell stock publicly. It will soon apply to the U.S. Maritime Administration for a government-backed loan to build its ships.

Mr. Johnson's foray into the transportation world began in 1985, when he quit his law practice and helped start the now-defunct Presidential Airlines at Washington Dulles International Airport. Ultimately, the business was torpedoed by United Airlines, Dulles' hub carrier. But it taught Mr. Johnson a lot about transportation -- and even more about starting a new business.

"I concluded that if I ever got into a start-up business again, I'd do it with something that had a proprietary advantage," he said during an interview at his Alexandria office overlooking the Potomac River.

Already, the venture has a home.

In exchange for exclusive right to be home port to FastShip, the Delaware River Port Authority in Philadelphia invested $7 million in FastShip and has agreed to build a $75 million terminal. And a Philadelphia investment group, headed by Thomas J. Holt Sr., who owns a stevedoring company, has invested $3.8 million in the company.

The terminal, a critical part of FastShip's technology, will feature a new loading system where containers will be lashed onto a train of steel pallets that float just above the ground on a cushion of air. A single rail will guide the pallets, pulled by a tractor, into the ship through its stern. The system can load or unload a FastShip in four to six hours.

In the highly competitive port industry, Philadelphia was one of -- several cities, including Baltimore, that considered investing in the project.

"We did seriously look at making the upfront investment to get the service to Baltimore, but there were a lot of ifs," said Linda Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration.

"There are some who see this as the Federal Express of the seas and others who can't see how it will possibly work," she said.

FastShip predicts that its home port will reap enormous benefits; even with four ships it will carry the equivalent of 300,000 20-foot containers a year. That compares with a total of 530,643 that moved through the entire port of Baltimore last year.

Increased volume at the port of Philadelphia could mean lower trucking and rail rates throughout the port, increasing business for other steamship lines as well, Mr. Johnson said.

FastShip is also exploring the possibility of having the ships built at Philadelphia's soon-to-be closed Naval Shipyard, a prospect that could create several thousand jobs.

While FastShip ultimately could expand its fleet to perhaps 100 ships, it is never likely to replace the conventional cargo vessels or become the industry standard, even in a rapidly growing global economy.

But that doesn't diminish the enthusiasm of Mr. Johnson and others as the company prepares to build the world's fastest cargo ship.

"That's the excitement," said Mr. Johnson," to know you're on the cutting edge."



... ... ... ... ... ... TG-770 FastShip ... ... ... ... Freighter

Speed ... ... .. .. ... 37.5 knots ... ... ... ... .... 18-24 knots

Capacity ... ... .. ... 1,360 teu* ... ... ... ... ... 3,500-4,500 teu*

Atlantic crossing time ... 3.5 days ... ... ... ... ... 7-8 days

Cargo stored ... ... ... In hold ... ... ... ... ... .. In hold and on deck

Loaded by ... ... ... .. air-cushion train ... ... .... crane

Ports served ... ... ... 8-12 ... ... ... ... ... ... .. 2

* Equivalent of a 20-foot container

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