Why INCHCAPE is the only international agent authorised to handle LNG vessels in Sinopec terminals in Qingdao, China

They can obviously be similar, but no two ports are the same. What makes them different is not just location and cultural influences, but also the type of ships calling and the specific operations needed to accommodate them. Handling LNG carriers at the Port of Qingdao in China, for example, is made more complex both by strict regulations, time constraints and extensive health and safety measures.

We caught up with Daniel Zhang, Inchcape’s Port Manager at Qingdao, to quiz him on how Inchcape deals with these challenges to ensure efficient and smooth operations at the Sinotec LNG terminal, where we handle almost 40 LNG Carrier (LNGC) port calls per year. Here are his insights to help us better understand what’s involved.

What makes Qingdao unique?

“Qingdao is located in Jiaozhou Bay in Shandong Province, and is one of the world’s largest international ports with a 117-year long history. It’s also one of the busiest, with long stretches of deep water and year-round navigation. It comprises the Dagang and Qianwan terminals, an Oil terminal and the Dongijakou terminal, which can berth almost any kind of vessel including the largest mega-containerships and very large ore carriers (VLOCs).”

How long has Inchcape been present in Qingdao and what vessels do we handle?

“Our Qingdao branch was established in 2009 with the objective to cover all vessel activities. We have been handling LNG carriers at the Sinopec terminal since it opened in 2015. Being the only international port agent in China to do so, a lot of emphasis goes on regulatory compliance to ensure the safest possible port calls.”

(from left to right) Inchcape Qingdao team: Evan Sun, Andy Gao, Tom Zhang,  Daniel Zhang, Dennis Huang, Wayne Du

What’s so complex about these procedures?

“LNG terminals are stricter than others due to the increased risk of hazards, including explosions and spills, but what makes things more challenging is the extensive administration required.

“LNGC operations and formalities are extremely time and manpower-intensive and require our utmost attention. This includes making online applications for the different documents necessary to get berthing and unberthing approvals. Local authorities are strict in granting approvals to ensure safety.

“In addition, LNGCs have restricted berthing and unberthing times. They are not permitted to navigate at night, and can only berth or unberth during daylight, and usually two hours before or after low tide in order maintain 1.5 miles’ distance from other vessels as per local practice.

“In order to meet our principals’ and the terminal’s requirements for smooth turnaround and safety, we coordinate with the Shandong MSA [Maritime Safety Administration], pilot station and port authority for safe early berthing and unberthing. This includes during bad weather when local navigation conditions for LNGCs are even more restricted.”

What strengths does Inchcape have that enables us to perform successfully?

“Supported by our Shanghai office and thanks to the hard work and local knowledge of our Qingdao staff, we have built excellent relationships with all stakeholders by delivering high-quality service.

“Detailed procedures were developed and implemented that require four experienced operators to handle every port call. A total of six Inchcape team members underwent in-depth training before being able to handle the first vessel to Sinopec’s expectations.”

How did we earn our special status at Qingdao?

“Handling LNGCs at Qingdao is demanding, and only a few local agencies are allowed to perform these operations besides Inchcape. The authorities set ambitious standards during the extended bidding process, which required consistent hard work from our team.

At the beginning we visited Sinopec on several occasions, to assist mutual understanding of requirements, and to ensure comprehension of the value delivery that Inchcape as a global international shipping agent at their terminal could deliver

“We went on to pass the MSA dangerous cargo application certification exams that are a prerequisite to attending LNGCs. We also got licenses to drive the electric cars used in the terminal. And of course we participated in all local government and terminal meetings to fully understand Sinopec’s requirements.

“We cooperated with the MSA, Customs and other local parties to provide the best possible services, and were eventually recognised as an ‘excellent LNGC shipping agent’. We’ve also solved quite a few tough cases for our principals and the terminal, which has earned us their trust. Even today, we devote as much care to each forthcoming port call as if it was the first, and we have long-term contracts with many oil and gas majors.”

Daniel Zhang, Qingdao Port Manager

How important is health and safety while handling LNGCs versus other types of vessel, and how do we ensure our customers’, and our own, staff stay safe?

“Safety is a top priority for Inchcape no matter the vessel, but is even more important when it comes to LNGCs. Safety requirements are extremely high and even a minor error can have potentially fatal consequences. Measures in place at Qingdao include the use of electric cars to limit the risk of explosions, deploying five tugs per vessel and zero navigation at night.

“Prior to Covid-19 we were required to wear static-free work suits, but since the pandemic hit we have to wear full PPE suits and face masks. Suits are removed and disinfected after each use, and personnel are also disinfected before entering the terminal.

“To ensure customers’ safety we also provide PPE suits to seafarers during crew changes. Our staff and loading master communicate with the vessel master through VHF throughout operations, without boarding, in order to reduce the risk of infection.

“We also hold periodic HSE [Health, Safety & Environment] with the terminal to ensure continuous strengthening of safety measures.”

Quality focus

“It can be challenging for an international shipping agency to develop operations in China, especially with the added complexity of the pandemic, but with a willing and committed team in place we continue to deliver service quality for our customers which benefits Inchcape generally,” Daniel concludes.