The great South East Asian maritime industry recovery

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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.

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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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