COLUMN | In search of common sense [Tug Times]
Nobody ever accused me of suffering from common sense, but I hope I can recognise it in others.
One of the joys of writing for Baird Maritime is that my fellow columnists are among the most sensible and experienced maritime writers on the planet. I merely have to lie in my hammock in the dappled shade they provide and let the cooling breezes of their common sense waft over me.
Naturally, I am of the opinion that common sense is far less common than it was in my youth, but I expect old men have been saying that ever since Noah was a boy, so my opinion is hardly original.
Thus, I was delighted to read a speech by Mr Haralambos Fafalios, chair of the Greek Shipping Cooperation Committee, that he delivered in London recently and that simply oozed common sense. He started by giving a summary of the tumultuous events of the past three years, with plenty of perceptive comments such as, “The United Kingdom has still to decide whether it wants to be a great trading nation again or wallow in a post-EU malaise.” But his speech was especially relevant to the towing industry when he turned to environmental matters.
“Fleet renewal and expansion would be more robust if we only knew the fuel that we will be using over the next 20 to 30 years.”
“World shipping has to navigate in this global environment whilst at the same time trying to reduce its carbon footprint appreciably,” Mr Fafalios said. It must never be forgotten that shipping has always made a virtue of creating ever more energy-efficient ships and reducing its fuel footprint.
“But the issue of what future propulsion method will be adopted or what fuel is chosen is still anything but settled. Many companies…are touting the strengths of their favourite fuels but none so far have a real green footprint on a well-to-wake basis. We are still awaiting engine and ship builders to come up with real green solutions.”
Turning to the practicalities, Mr Fafalios rightly states that fleet renewal and expansion would be more robust if we only knew the fuel that we will be using over the next 20 to 30 years, but none of them yet have a global bunkering or cost infrastructure to support the world fleet. He also points out that we must not lose sight of crew welfare, and cites ammonia as a “very dangerous fuel.” He concluded by praising the people who, “‘serve on board and ashore and make Greek and world shipping look so efficient and well-run. Through conflicts, pandemics, bad weather and difficult circumstances, the men and women who are part of the shipping industry are the unsung heroes that make world trade possible.”
I have never met Mr Fafalios, but I find myself liking him a lot.
“Common sense would suggest that the scarcity of accurate pricing models might be exactly because the numbers do not yet provide enticing reading for the average tug owner.”
Meanwhile, tug owners are left scratching their heads about “what future propulsion method will be adopted.” Some larger and braver companies have invested in electric tugs, or dual-fuel tugs, or tugs that will be suitable to run on cheese once commercial quantities are available, but the vast majority of smaller players simply can’t afford to spend money getting it wrong. They need detailed information on capital costs, running costs, and fuel availability before they can afford to take the plunge.
Not long ago I was visiting some new tugs that were fine vessels but entirely conventional with respect to fuel, and I mentioned to the boss that I was surprised he had not considered going electric in light of his being passionate about the environment. He gave me a look of withering scorn (which he must have learned from my wife) and told me that of course he had considered it. Unfortunately, his investigations revealed that such tugs would cost an additional US$2.5 million each, and the batteries would probably have to be replaced every seven years.
With fierce competition in the ports where he operated, and customers who paid lip service to the environment but were unwilling to pay extra for environmentally-friendly tugs, this was a non-starter. Such are the realities, and common sense would suggest that the scarcity of accurate and detailed pricing models might be exactly because the numbers do not yet provide enticing reading for the average tug owner.
“If the spokesperson knew anything about shipbuilding, they might have responded by pointing out that ships built of Chinese steel are not particularly noted for disintegrating in service.”
Meanwhile, reporters continue to peddle maritime drivel without bothering to look beyond what they are told. My sensible colleague Hieronymus Bosch has written about the travails of vessel operator Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) and its new ferries in Scotland (here), but more recently, the former head of Ferguson Marine, Jim McColl, has been widely reported for questioning the fact that four out of six new ferries for the Scottish operator are being built in Turkey. He apparently expressed surprise that the steel for the new ferries is being sourced in China.
“During my ownership of the yard we were specific about not buying steel from China, largely because of issues about quality control,” McColl said. This, presumably, was before his yard went into administration in 2019. Calmac apparently responded to his comments by pointing out that the Turkish builder originally intended to source marine-grade steel from Ukraine but had to look elsewhere after Russia invaded that country.
If the Calmac spokesperson knew anything about shipbuilding, they might have responded by pointing out that almost half the ships currently under construction are being built in China, that China produces quite a lot of excellent steel, that ships built of Chinese steel are not particularly noted for disintegrating in service, and that one of the jobs of the classification society is to ensure that steel used in shipbuilding is fit for purpose. Sadly, that would have required some knowledge of the business.
So Mr McColl’s comments were widely reported, and nobody pointed out their misleading nature. I suppose they played well in countries like the UK where China is vilified at every opportunity. The two ferries being built at Ferguson, which I believe were started under Mr McColl’s stewardship and contain no Chinese steel, are now said to be at least five years late and four times the original cost. Common sense suggests that the Turkish-built ferries will be on time and within budget, and will not disintegrate in service.
Believe me, young reader, there was a lot more common sense about when I was a lad. And I guarantee that, in the fullness of time, you will be saying exactly the same thing!