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Streamlined, elegant, speedy ... cargo ships

A freighter that will halve transatlantic crossing times is being built by a British inventor, writes Hilary Clarke
The final touches are being made in America to a $1bn (pounds 621m) deal to finance the world's fastest ever cargo ship and fulfil a lifelong dream of a British engineer.

David Giles, 63, who started his career designing aeroplanes, first hatched the idea to build the super-fast ship, which does not slow up in bad weather, more than 20 years ago. His ambition has almost reached fruition and the ship is expected to deliver its first cargo in 2002.

"This ship will do as much for the movement of goods in the global market as the jet airliner did for the movement of people," Mr Giles said. The losers are likely to be the air-freight companies and the established shipping lines.

The US Maritime Administration is funding the bulk of the project to the tune of $875m. Investment bank JP Morgan is assembling a consortium of private investors and the total finance of more than $1bn is expected to be completed before the end of the year.

Rolls Royce is currently bidding with General Electric for the contract to build the engines and a decision is expected soon. With plans afoot eventually to extend the service to about 40 ships with services also crossing the Pacific and connecting ports in Asia, the FastShip could prove lucrative for whoever wins the contract. The initial fleet of four vessels will be built at a shipyard in San Diego, California.

Developed by the Philadelphia-based FastShip, which Mr Giles founded, the FastShip will be able to cross the Atlantic in 93 hours compared with the current average of 160 hours. Two ports - one in Cherbourg, France and one in Philadelphia - are being developed to unload the cargo on to lorries and trains in six hours compared with the current average of 48 hours. The builders say the ship will cut the cost of transporting a ton of goods from Europe to America from $3,300 to $400.

Although cargo would take a couple of days longer to reach its final destination with the FastShip than if it had travelled by air, there would be few restrictions on the size and the density of the cargo, Mr Giles said. The company is also planning to cash in on the growing transatlantic trade in high-value goods being generated by e-commerce and is developing a system to link the ships directly to distributors and warehouses.

"We are not trying to be all things to all people. We are concentrating on high-value, time-sensitive goods like automo- biles, computers and specialist chemicals," said FastShip president Roland Bullard. The FastShip will also be attractive to exporters of perishable foods like orange juice and mangoes.

Mr Giles, whose father was a yacht designer on the Solent, first hatched the idea for the FastShip in 1975 and has been working on the project since 1988. He patented the design in the US in 1989.

"We didn't just go to the shipping lines, because they are very conservative and have billions of dollars invested in the present container ship market. So we decided we had to do the whole thing ourselves," he said.

He rallied all his own funds together to invest in the project, re-mortgaging and then later selling his house to muster $1.5m to enable him to set up in the US. In 1991, Mr Giles had the good fortune to meet a Swedish man named Rune Svensson, now retired, but who was then the president of Volvo Transport. "The more we spoke the more we saw the potential," said Mr Giles. But he still needed a lot more funding to launch his dream ship. "We weren't just thinking of designing a boat but setting up a whole new transportation industry."

A meeting with the Philadelphian authorities turned out to be the answer to Mr Giles's prayers. Trade into the port of Philadelphia, once one of the busiest on the East Coast, had virtually dried up since the advent of container ships in the 1950s and 1960s. The trade unions there had refused to co-operate with the new regime. In February 1994, with Mr Svensson at his side, Mr Giles met the local mayor, Ed Randell, officials from the Delaware Port Authority, and the head of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp, Vince Fumo.

"He said: `how much do you want, $10 million? You've got it'. That wouldn't have happened in England," Mr Giles said.

In the event, Delaware Port Authority coughed up $7m and a local shipping entrepreneur, Tom Holt, who had brokered a deal with the unions on containers, threw in $3m.

"The whole deal was done within four months," said Mr Giles. The money was start-up capital for technical development and market research.

The basic design of the vessel is being carried out by Osprey UK, based in Emsworth, Hampshire. The structural design is being undertaken by the Copenhagen-based company Ship Tech. The French harbour authorities are providing the necessary investment to equip the Cherbourg port for the FastShip.

Meanwhile, Mr Giles is happy to leave the running of the company to Mr Bullard. "The crazy inventor can't be expected do everything himself," he said.