Having known Robert Clifford for more than fifty years and having followed the fortunes of his company Incat since he founded it in partnership with the late naval architect Phil Hercus in 1977, I know a lot about his travails and challenges with governments, navies, partners and bankers. I also know that he can be brave, blunt, forthright, obstinate and adamant. However, those characteristics, which I regard as valuable in an entrepreneur, are balanced by far-sightedness, absolute honesty, impressive managerial and engineering efficiency, and amazing imagination and determination.
I should make clear here that, although I once published a company history with and about Incat, the company has never been a significant customer of Baird Maritime. Indeed, I often wish that they had been far more significant. So, I write here in a sense of fairness and economic rationalism rather than dependence or obligation. I believe that what the Tasmanian government has done to Incat was both unfair and irrational.
I have also heard considerable comment and gossip about Incat over 40 years and all over the world. Much of it, from actual or potential competitors, has been ill-informed and often poisonously vindictive. Interestingly, almost all of them have departed the fast ferry market. Some northern hemisphere-based naval architects and maritime regulators have viciously tried to put Incat and its main competitor, Austal, down. I have never noted such vindictiveness elsewhere in the shipbuilding industry except, perhaps, from certain German shipbuilders with respect to the Chinese in the early 1990s.
As well, I have travelled on innumerable ferries of all shapes, sizes and types on all continents except Antarctica, and I don’t imagine there are many ferries there. They include all manner of large and small conventional monohull ferries as well as catamarans, hydrofoils and hovercraft – probably well over 1,000 vessels all up. I have enjoyed travelling on most versions of Incats since 1980. I have also visited and inspected more than a thousand shipyards worldwide. I have studied ferry safety for a doctorate and am widely acknowledged globally as an expert on that subject. I know from those studies that aluminium catamaran fast ferries are almost incomparably safer than their conventional, single-hulled steel ferries.
Putting that history, experience and my bona fides into perspective, I have great difficulty in understanding the virulent antipathy towards Incat and Robert Clifford that has been displayed over the years by Australian, particularly Tasmanian, politicians, bureaucrats, naval officers and journalists. Is it the “tall poppy” syndrome? Is it cultural cringing? Is it because, “A prophet is not honoured in his own land”? This is despite Robert Clifford putting Tasmania far more prominently on the world map than anyone since Errol Flynn! He has been a major employer in the state for 40 years but that never seems to be appreciated.
So, why has Tasmania so firmly rejected Incat’s bid to replace the current pair of Bass Strait ferries in favour of Finnish ships that will use mostly 1980s technology and cost roughly double – after massive subsidies – the Incat alternative? Further, at about 48,000 GT it will be a big, bulky, inefficient ship to push through the water. It will use a lot of fuel and pollute heavily, even if, as claimed it has dual fuel engines using, hopefully, very low sulphur fuel oil and/or LNG.
Incat has proposed a pair of 160- to 180-metre, aluminium high-speed catamarans that could be powered by LNG-fuelled or even electric engines. Given hydro-electric-powered Tasmania’s clean green claims, what could have been better than the latter? It is, Incat claims, perfectly feasible. It is also, obviously, the future of ferry shipping. What a showcase of Tasmanian skills and technology such amazing ships would be.
Instead, the Tasmanian government has reverted to the dark ages and chosen what it considers is the “safer” vessel utilising ancient design and technology that result in less safe and less environment-friendly technology that will take nearly twice as long to cover the route.
It is little wonder that Australian shipbuilders, generally, are reluctant to bid for government jobs. From bitter experience, they know that dealing with our bureaucrats is expensive and very frustrating.
Of course, we hear all the old ill-informed, if not outright dishonest, objections to Incats from Tasmanians, of all people. They would benefit far more than anyone from the successful implementation of the big Incats, yet many of them still refer to the 74-metre, 3,000GT, SeaCat Tasmania of 1990 as the “spewcat” or “vomit comet”. That is as ridiculously unfair and dishonest as comparing a Short Sandringham flying boat with a Boeing 747. The next Incat ferry to be built will be 120 metres and 13,000 plus GT. Believe it or not, we have mobile phones now! Vessel design, construction and power have developed at a frenetic pace over the past thirty years.
I travelled with my family on the maiden commercial voyage of SeaCat Tasmania across Bass Strait. It was blowing 50 plus knots from the south-west and many passengers were sick including several who I noticed were sick while we were still tied to the wharf at Port Welshpool! None of my family suffered any ill effects. Indeed, we all enjoyed the adventure.
Having since travelled on many Incats in many parts of the world, I can confirm that increases in size are accompanied by significant improvements in ride quality just as in my Short Sandringham and Boeing 747 analogy. On my most recent voyage in the Aegean Sea on a twenty-year-old, 91-metre Incat in October 2019, we experienced similar weather to the rough Bass Strait trip and I did not notice anyone being sick. Modern technology, such as the development of ride control, has combined with vastly greater size to improve comfort levels astoundingly.
It is hard to imagine who in Tasmania benefits from such a dishonest campaign against Incat, yet it has continued for years. The Royal Australian Navy has, despite its very satisfactory experience with HMAS Jervis Bay, maintained a similarly illogical stance against Incat. It, also, is incomprehensible.
Even the relevant Tasmanian unions have supported the Incat bid. They obviously have little faith in the state premier’s astounding claim that, “We are unapologetic about taking the action required to consider and secure opportunities for Tasmania and support Tassie jobs”.
What utter tosh. The claimed AU$50 million (US$) of “offset” work for Tasmania is a drop in the ocean compared with the AU$850 million (US$) proposed to be spent in Finland. Perhaps Premier Gutwein meant “Finnish jobs”.
The dishonest whispering campaign, fortunately, has not prevented Incat from enjoying the custom of the United States Navy. Similarly, in the commercial world, Incat has, and continues to, enjoy enormous support from owners in Europe, Asia, North, South and Central America. Incat is a massive exporter. Its orderbook is extensive. I often wonder why Robert Clifford even bothers to talk with Australian governments, especially the local Tasmanian one. Commercial customers are infinitely easier to deal with.
The ignorant Tasmanian government rejection of Incat’s breakthrough proposal for Bass Strait is unlikely to hurt the company commercially. However, it is a very disappointing example of a state government shooting itself in the foot by declining to participate in a huge generational leap forward that would really put it on the world map as an innovative, technologically advanced centre of excellence. Its decision shows, with complete clarity, why governments should never be involved in business.
Its decision, frankly, is insane. The best thing the Tasmanian government could do for Bass Strait is, after giving three years’ notice, simply close down their ferry line and allow free enterprise operators to fight for the business. Tasmanians and tourists would then gain a much better service at lower cost.
In such a case, they would almost inevitably be travelling on large Incats.
Wake up, Tasmania! Show the world what Tasmania and Tasmanians can do. Don’t send your jobs to Finland.