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.