Still young and foolish, my wife Rose and I followed our dream and founded Baird Publications early in 1978. It was to be the start of a long, fascinating and often exciting voyage. Before that year was out our first magazine, Professional Fisherman, was being published monthly to great acclaim from Australia's commercial fishing industry.
The fishing industry had been neglected for too long and had to contend with one, rather biased, government-published trade magazine – an unusual, curiously Australian arrangement. The industry was in desperate need of a publication to fight on its side against malignant bureaucrats and politicians.
While still very much a “mom and pop" operation, working with practically no capital, masses of effort, some judicious risk taking and benevolent suppliers, the business and magazine continued to grow. So inspired by the success of Professional Fisherman were we that we boldly went global with the launch of Work Boat World in March 1982. By then we had also “launched" two of our three sons, so we were very busy!
Fortuitously, although we didn't think so at the time, the editor of the Australian government fishing magazine published some untrue, deceptive and misleading comments about Professional Fisherman which he obviously regarded as a most unwelcome intruder on “his" patch. He refused to retract and apologise so we sued the government. It was an unbelievably successful action and the first by which the Australian Government had been sued under its own Trade Practices Act. In short, our win gave us some very valuable publicity and, eventually, led to the demise of a malicious, government supported competitor.
Probably somewhat over-confident following our big win, in 1983 we moved into the leisure boating or consumer market by launching Nautical News which later became Australian Yachting. It operated in a very competitive market in which a different form of commercial morality prevailed. In the commercial marine market we had become used to 95 per cent of customers being gentlemen. In the leisure market it was more like the reverse.
In 1993, to our great relief, we sold it. Meanwhile, foolishly, we had by purchasing Fishing News, entered the angling business. If anything, it was even worse than the leisure boating sector. We soon sold that publication having learnt our lesson about consumer magazines.
Endlessly searching for new adventures, in 1985 we launched the first of a long series of Seadays exhibitions and conferences. These were “on-water" events aimed at both commercial and leisure boat owners. They were a lot of work but proved to be useful cross-promotional exercises. Running out of steam in 1991, following the stock and property market crashes, we gave ourselves a three-year sabbatical from the events business and moved right out of the consumer market. A very wise decision as things turned out.
Quickly realising that Australasia represented about five per cent of the maritime world and learning fast from our Work Boat World venture, we determined that we needed to go truly global and to cover the full spectrum of the world maritime market. We had to cover commercial fishing globally, as well, obviously, as cargo shipping. Thus, in early 1989, we opened an office in England and in April launched Fishing Boat World. After seventeen fascinating years it was folded into Work Boat World as the commercial fishing industry contracted and the worlds of work and fishing boats became ever more similar.
Always looking for something new to do, in November 1988 we launched Australasian Ships and Ports which, via Asia Pacific Shipping, eventually morphed into Ships and Shipping, a truly global publication which was laid to rest late in 2007 as the Global Financial Crisis started to murder the international shipping industry.
While enjoying plenty of small adventures and excitements, we needed something to really get our teeth into so, in 1994, we revived our events division with the launch of Ausmarine '94 in Fremantle. Before we sold that division in 2013, we had held numerous exhibitions and conferences in Fremantle, Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Dalian, Sharjah, Bahrain and Venice. They were great fun and quite profitable and, most importantly, let us get to know our customers very well. However, they were a lot of work and, as Rose and I neared retiring age, we felt it better to let our successor focus on the heart of the business, magazines and new projects.
Realising that Britannia no longer ruled the waves and that, indeed, Britain hardly had a maritime industry at all, we closed our London office in 2003. We decided it was easier and more economical to operate from Melbourne using phone, email and jumbojet to reach our far-flung customers.
The next few years saw us reduce our magazine fleet to a more manageable two titles. Our old favourite Work Boat World was and is still going strong no matter what the vicissitudes of the world economy and Ausmarine has revived the fortunes of Professional Fisherman which it replaced following the sad and rapid decline of the Australian fishing industry.
Under our successor, our second son Alex, the business is in another growth phase. Alex, who is of the “digital generation" has launched our classified vessel advertising websites: initially workboatworld.com and soon to be followed by fishingboatworld.com. Their objective is to provide ship brokers, builders and owners with an economical, easy-to-use and truly global digital market place to facilitate the fast and economical sale and charter of vessels and their equipment.
Having grown up in the business since stuffing invoices in envelopes from the age of three, Alex has been imbued (some might say “indoctrinated") with its values. Our objectives are to provide solid and economical sales and marketing support for our advertiser customers and to fight tenaciously and strongly for our vessel owner readers whenever they are threatened by malignant governments and similar outside forces. We started with those objectives firmly in mind. They will remain there.
Neil Baird - Co-founder
We continue to hear tales of doom and gloom about the Asian, particularly South-East Asian, maritime industry. Mostly, those tales are based upon the undoubted disaster that is the over-bought and over-borrowed offshore oil and gas sector. That sector, while obviously important, is not the be all and end all of the wider industry. And, even it is showing very definite signs of recovery after too many years of gloom.
Baird Maritime has agreed to join with Reed Exhibitions to organise the Work Boat World Conference alongside Reed's mighty Asia Pacific Maritime 2018 Exhibition in Singapore in mid-March next year. As part of the preparations for that very important event, Reed's marketing people asked me to set out my views on the state of the Asian work boat market for their promotional e-book. Their first question was: “What do you see as some of the opportunities and challenges for the workboat market here in Asia?" My answer is as follows:-
There will continue to be many. First, and most obviously, political. The South China Sea, North Korea, Myanmar and Cambodia stability problems will continue to present challenges. Democratic desires in Hong Kong and Singapore may necessitate changes and Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines will require further stabilising. In its own mild way, South East Asia is something of a sea of instability. That, as usual, will offer both opportunities and challenges in both the naval and maritime security sectors. In other words, more warships and patrol boats.
Environmental factors, earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, tsunamis and epidemics, will continue to require large scale relief and evacuation efforts. These factors reappear relentlessly on almost an annual basis. The vessels required for such work are generally available in the form of warships, seaworthy ferries – particularly large fast ones such as those from Austal, Incat and Damen, and OSVs. The region, generally, is slowly improving its responses to natural disasters. It has the some of the vessels but lacks organisation in the main. Most disaster responses still require outside assistance.
Energy acquisition and creation
Oil, gas, wind and solar and, perhaps, tidal are all important maritime activities now. Asian nations quite rightly tend to avoid the subsidy driven development of energy resources but now that the north Europeans have improved the efficiencies of offshore, wind, solar and tidal power, it seems likely that Asia will start to utilise them absent Europe's development costs. That will mean a whole new demand for specialised service vessels. At the same time, oil and gas will inevitably recover and rig and OSV utilisation will increase in response.
Ports will continue to expand and develop. China's “Belt and Road" concept seems likely to inspire significant additional trade. That will require more and bigger container ships. The land aspects of it will necessitate iron, coal and other minerals so the dry bulk trade will continue to grow again. In the ports, tugs will have to become more powerful and more versatile so as to handle ever larger ships. The latest container ships are now of 22,000TEU size and getting bigger. Pilot boats, line boats and all the working craft of a port will similarly have to get bigger and better.
The Isthmus of Kra Canal proposal has recently been raised again. While it may just be the Chinese and Thais teasing the Singaporeans, it remains a vague possibility. If ever realised, it will require enormous numbers of workboats of every imaginable kind for its construction, operation and maintenance.
Marine construction continues apace with port development, reclamation, dredging, the aforementioned Kra canal, tourist developments and undersea pipelines and cables all requiring dredgers, pipe and cable layers, barges, cranes and other attendant craft. That sector seems destined to continue its inexorable expansion.
Fishing and aquaculture are changing rapidly as the world realises its stocks of wild fish are limited. The fishing industry is having to become far more efficient, economical and less wasteful. A new generation of fishing boats is being introduced in Europe with those characteristics. Fish farming is growing and moving further offshore for environmental and aesthetic reasons. Its equipment and the vessels that serve it will have to get bigger and more powerful. Asia will undoubtedly follow Europe in all these developments.
Passenger vessels, both ferries and cruise, have a very bright future. Cruising in smaller “boutique" ships is becoming rapidly more popular on both inland and coastal routes. We continue to see new vessels being launched. South East Asia, generally, has earned an appalling reputation for ferry fatalities. The Philippines, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia, between them, are responsible for more than 65 per cent of the world's annual ferry fatalities. That has to stop and many new, safer vessels will be required to do so.
I hope that the governments of those four most dangerous countries for ferry travel in Asia will decide once and for all to reform their domestic ferry industries. Nothing less than a complete root and branch removal of most of their existing operators and their unseaworthy vessels will be sufficient. Apart from the vital result of making ferry travel much safer, it would revitalise the ferry building and equipping sectors in the region.
Properly trained crews are and will continue to be a major deficiency in all sectors. Their absence, is, in large part, the reason for the disproportionately high numbers of fatal accidents in the region. All maritime nations in South East Asia will have to do considerably better in terms of training, educating and recruiting competent crews.
There will be much to talk about and learn at Asia Pacific Maritime at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore from March 14 – 16 next year.