Safer ferries for the Pacific islands


In April I was fortunate to be able to participate in an excellent regional workshop on ship safety management in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Organised jointly by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the Pacific Community (PC) and the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) of PNG, it was one of the most productive, sensible and realistic conferences I have ever attended. Congratulations are due to all concerned with its organisation.

While the workshop overall was concerned with all kinds of vessel safety, it soon became obvious that domestic ferry safety was foremost in the minds of most participants. That is unsurprising given the Kiribati disaster in January that killed 99 people and the still recent (2012) Rabaul Queen sinking in PNG that resulted in 350 fatalities. Both vessels concerned were owned by serially offending operators!

As I discovered from delving into the Baird Maritime Passenger Vessel Accident (BMPVA) database while preparing for my presentation, the Pacific islands have a terrible record for domestic ferry safety. Indeed, since January 1, 2000, the PC member states have a slightly worse fatality record than either Indonesia or the Philippines, which are, along with Bangladesh, generally regarded as the most dangerous places for ferry travel on the planet. Obviously, this is compared on a per head of population basis. Absolute numbers are not quite so terrifying given the tiny populations of most of the island nations other than PNG.

Even more frightening is the news of the importation of an ancient former BC Ferries Ro-Pax ferry to Fiji and the looming threat of three more. It seems that "political interference" has been a factor in that project.

The first vessel is entirely inappropriate to Fijian climatic, sea and economic conditions. Apart from being 63 years old, it was designed for operation in sheltered waters in a rich country with excellent maintenance facilities and generally high crewing standards. It also happens to be so riddled with asbestos that it could not be sold in North America, even for scrap!

It became obvious as the conference proceeded that political interference was a major problem in many of the island nations. While closely related to comparative poverty, it is a separate but significant factor that severely inhibits ferry safety.

Of course, in unusually archipelagic and comparatively poor nations such as the Pacific islands, Indonesia and the Philippines, the major causes of domestic ferry fatalities remain, unsurprisingly, unseaworthy and overloaded vessels.

Given the shocking safety record of elderly monohull Ro-Pax ships in developing countries – they accounted for 32 per cent of fatalities globally from 2000 to 2015 – there is no doubt that the sale of ancient Ro-Pax ferries such as that to Fiji should be banned. The neighbouring island nation of Tonga knows of their dangers from the bitter Princess Ashika experience. That elderly and wholly inappropriate Japanese Ro-Pax vessel sank in 2009 with 78 fatalities.

An analysis of the BMPVA database also clearly shows that multihull ferries, when properly designed, constructed and maintained, are infinitely safer than their monohull counterparts. Their fatality toll is a tiny fraction of that of monohull ferries on every basis of comparison.

It is, therefore, painfully obvious that new, or at least good second-hand, catamaran or trimaran ferries would be the answer to the safety woes of the island nations. They need not be fast nor complex or sophisticated, just safe, stable, buoyant, reliable and low maintenance. FRP or steel construction should be possible as well as aluminium.

The obvious problem with this proffered solution is relative poverty. The island nations cannot really afford such vessels or the all-important crew training that should accompany their introduction.

There is, however, an obvious answer to that. The island nations and, for that matter, Indonesia and the Philippines are all significant recipients of aid from richer countries. Of course, much of that aid is poorly directed and administered and much is overly aimed at gaining strategic advantage. Donor countries, if they carefully thought about it, could get much better value for their aid dollars.

In the May/June issue of sister magazine Ausmarine I recommended that Australia and New Zealand, as world leaders in the design and construction of fast multi-hulled ferries, should introduce the provision of appropriate ferries into their aid programmes.

Now, having participated in the Port Moresby workshop, I have thought further. Other rich nations around the Pacific Ocean such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Korea, China and Singapore could beneficially modify their aid programmes to incorporate the provision of appropriate ferries to the dangerous archipelagic nations described above.

Not only would they benefit the island inhabitants and tourists, their generosity would start at home by providing business for their own naval architects, ship builders and maritime colleges.

Rather than funding inappropriate cultural centres, roads to nowhere and basket weaving classes that have little or no economic or social benefit, why don't those rich countries re-focus their aid programmes on something more practical and valuable?

Neil Baird

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What becomes of the uncharted?

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.

Caption: Subi Reef, Spratly Islands, South China Sea, in May 2015

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?

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