The great South East Asian maritime industry recovery

671fe58af5845f33e7786dd608484c8d Xl

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.

Featured Story

0d0b9768606906ecbede75ff1c429569 xl

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?



Latest News