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
The oil price has crept up slightly and OSVs are starting to be placed in charters that are measured in years rather than months. But for the most part these contracts are going to newbuilds, which leaves quite a number of older craft at anchor. What options does an owner have to bring these boats in from the pasture put them to work?
I've previously written about using OSVs for offshore patrol and even for seabed mining so this month I've gone a step further. After some careful thought I've come up with some completely impractical uses for a variety of offshore support vessels that an owner or charterer might leap at only if the price is right.
Some of the offshore construction vessels have found work in the decommissioning of old rigs but there simply isn't enough work to keep them all occupied. Even if we include some of the offshore wind projects, which by and large prefer dedicated vessels rather than oilfield refugees, we still have too many floating around bone idle.
One possible use is in the South China Sea, constructing islands like those that China has produced but for the other claimants who can't afford something of quite the same scale. For this scenario I'm obviously not talking about building runways for large cargo aircraft or a wharf that can resupply an aircraft carrier and support fleet.
I'm thinking a small concrete "island" only a few metres across so that a nation can claim that they qualify for the territorial status using China's legal interpretation of man-made islands as a precedent. This lump of concrete needs to sit only a few metres above the high-tide mark and can then be supported by an array of steel structures around it that can be a helipad, a small wharf (possibly floating) and some form of barracks.
The Philippines currently uses a grounded landing craft to support their territorial claim to one reef so a structure as proposed here is likely to be more popular with those stationed aboard. In an extreme case the construction vessel could be repurposed as the island and base itself which would allow a desperate owner to remove an asset from their balance sheet.
Perhaps a large-deck platform supply vessel or even an anchor handler could find work in the fishing industry as a mothership providing fuel and reefer containers to fleet of smaller dedicated fishing boats. Depending on the type of catch a “cheap and nasty” process plant could be installed on the open deck of a PSV to produce fish meal from the bycatch or the offcuts from other processed fish. Alternatively the process plant could do the entire processing on behalf of the other vessels from fresh catch to frozen fillets.
A further step into the fishing realm could see an anchor handler operating as longliner. Can you imagine how many hooks could be strung off an AHTS winch? Has anybody ever studied the feasibility of a 50- or even 100-kilometre longline? Although some sectors of the public might not like the idea perhaps this could be the first step into what I have now decided should be referred to as “mega fishing” – factory fishing simply doesn't convey the same sense of scale.
On the other side of the fishing industry are the eco-“warriors” a la Sea Shepherd. They already operate a fast crew supply vessel for long range patrols in the Southern Ocean but perhaps an operator might be willing to offer a FCSV of their own to these types.
Given that Sea Shepherd vessels have a history of obtaining mysterious bumps and scratches and even losing an entire bow section in the case of one boat, an owner might want to check up on their insurance policy before handing over the keys. Does third party liability extend to pirate boarding actions?
And for the truly out there and extremely hypothetical re-use of a diesel electric OSV is to put one to use as a floating, power-neutral Bitcoin miner. Anchored in a location with decent current or tidal flows, the electric propulsion could operate in reverse and generate electricity. Even in moderate tides or currents of two to three knots a few hundred kilowatts or even over a megawatt should be achievable which could go to operating a large bank of containerised computer systems that are designed to crunch the numbers that make the magical Bitcoins.
Perhaps a few months ago this idea wouldn't have seemed so outlandish (I lie, yes it would have seemed outlandish even then) and the idea of putting one of the many out of work OSVs into this type of job could have at least potentially paid some bills to keep a care-and-maintenance crew aboard. The computers would have the benefit of water cooling which should require less energy than using traditional fans or air-conditioning.
If the boat is anchored in a tidal zone with intermittent power, the operator could either go for a large bank of batteries to store a bridging charge or alternatively, could simply power down the computers as the power supply drops and then bring them back online as power increases with the changing tide.
Have you got any ideas to help the out of work OSV fleet?