Spirit of Tasmania’s newbuilding project at Finland’s Rauma Marine Constructions (RMC) shipyard represents a first for the Tasmania-headquartered ro-pax ferry operator, which has hitherto relied on the second-hand market. The operator’s existing vessels, which connect Devonport with Geelong in mainland Australia, were completed by the then Kvaerner Masa Yards (now Meyer Turku) for Superfast Ferries 25 years ago. However, both Spirit of Tasmania I and II were refurbished from stem to stern in 2015.
“Our current vessels are operating very well,” says Bernard Dwyer, CEO and managing director of TT-Line Company, which operates the only two ro-pax ferries that connect the Australian mainland with the island state of Tasmania. “We are not offloading these vessels because they are too old but simply because they can no longer cope with demand. We have very long booking lead times and long waiting lists with demand far exceeding supply.”
Reviewing fleet size and fleet configuration to eventually design a newbuild from the keel up has been a very long process that started in 2009. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Spirit of Tasmania’s initial two-ship contract signed with Germany’s Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft (FSG) yard in spring 2018 became void in February 2020 as the financially beleaguered shipyard was struggling to obtain export guarantees. Concurrent with the mutual cancellation of the FSG contract, a memorandum of understanding was signed with RMC, the Finnish yard that had earlier been shortlisted for the project. Two months later and the world was in Covid-19 lockdown. This was why the Tasmanian Government requested TT-Line Company to reconsider building in Finland and rather explore local procurement and manufacturing options, making decisions that presented the greatest opportunity for local and Australian manufacturers. Spirit of Tasmania ultimately signed a firm contract with RMC in April 2021 and, as Dwyer explains, “we’ve always been driven as a company by using local products and services.”
Indeed, many materials will be manufactured in Tasmania and Australia to be shipped in containers to Finland. “We are pushing very hard on just about everything we look at,” says Dwyer. “For the sea trial purposes, most things will either need to be sent to Finland or the yard will need to put their equivalent weight onto the ship. For example, mattresses, Tasmanian artwork and wooden tabletops will only be installed once the ships are here, but their weight will be replicated to undertake as accurate sea trials as possible.”
The new ro-pax ferries, to be named Spirit of Tasmania IV and Spirit of Tasmania V, will be about 40 per cent larger than the ships they replace, and also boast a third dedicated car deck. The new vehicle deck configuration requires new linkspans with a third level giving direct access to the upper car deck, Deck 7. An industry first, direct triple deck access will reduce port turnarounds significantly, something which is crucial during the peak summer months when the ships do ‘doubles’ (when they perform both day and night crossings).
“In the summer our current ships need about three hours to be turned around in port,” says Dwyer. “With the three-level linkspan and an auto-mooring system we want to get this down to 90 minutes. With their 26-knot service speeds, crossing times on the newbuilds will be similar, so it’s the port times that need to be reduced to fit a return sailing or a ‘double’ in a 24-hour period. This also guarantees a fixed 18.45 departure and 06.00 arrival, whether it’s a morning or evening departure. Currently we cannot fit a return sailing in a 24-hour period, so every day you’re creeping up the departure and arrival times.”
In October 2022, TT-Line Company moved its mainland terminal from Melbourne’s Station Pier to Geelong, Victoria’s second largest city. Dwyer says the new Geelong operation is a change for the better.
“Firstly, Geelong is not as congested as getting into Melbourne’s Station Pier,” he explains. “It was often gridlocked with trucks stranded in a 90-minute traffic jam within a kilometre of the terminal, trying to get in. From our point of view, we have gone from a one-hectare site to a 12-hectare site. Operationally it is a much better facility, not only for us but also for users with improved passenger facilities and a 24-hour freight yard allowing our customers to drop off and pick up their freight units at any time of the day. We haven’t seen a decrease in passengers at all – in fact we have seen an increase in travellers with caravans and campervans because it is a lot easier to get to the Geelong terminal.”
So, how about the terminal on the other side of Bass Strait – will new facilities also be provided in Devonport? “This is a work in progress,” says Dwyer. “We are in a transition period and just like in Geelong, we are building a three-level linkspan that fits both generations, albeit the third level is of no use for our current ships. When the first new ship arrives during the second quarter of 2024, we will move from berth one to three which is in the same area. It matches the Geelong land space, also avoiding a bottleneck. A lot of land reclamation is being done by TasPorts.”
Designing a ship from scratch in close cooperation with the naval architects of Foreship and Figura’s Richard Nilsson, the Swedish interior designer also responsible for the makeover of Spirit of Tasmania I and II, was a new experience for TT-Line Company’s management and newbuilding team. Unlike a second-hand ro-pax, a purpose-designed newbuild doesn’t come with a lot of compromises or shortcomings.
“Little details can make a big difference,” says Dwyer. “We will have Australian power points instead of European ones which we had to modify on the second-hand vessels. Separating cars from trucks through the third vehicle deck and the third-level linkspan is another example. The height of the freight vehicle decks will be increased to 4.8 metres, a new requirement in Australia. The new ships will be wider, so we will have wider lanes which is something where we are a little bit cramped today. On the freight side we have designed the newbuilds for lock-in trestles which is a way better lashing solution. It cuts down risk of injury for our crew but also makes it much more efficient to load and discharge. All lashing points that secure trailer trestles were manufactured in Tasmania and shipped over to be installed at the builder’s yard.”
As for the accommodation, Dwyer prefers to keep things under wraps although he hints that services that were taken away after the refurbishment of Spirit of Tasmania I and Spirit of Tasmania II, such as à la carte dining, may come back. The décor of the new ships will reflect the look and feel of Tasmania.
“We are very excited about it,” he says. “Richard [Nilsson] travelled around Tasmania with us and the unique scenery of its four different regions – the west coast’s rugged wilderness, the east coast with its beaches, the metropolitan side with the island’s capital on the south coast and the pasture or grazing land on the north coast – are replicated in the interior design.”
The new Spirits will be the first large ro-pax ferries in the Southern Hemisphere to boast dual-fuel engines. Beside four Wärstilä’s 46DF four stroke dual-fuel main engines, the 212-metre-long and 31-metre-beam vessels will also have three Wärtsilä 20DF dual-fuel auxiliary engines and Wärtsilä LNGPac fuel storage, supply and control systems.
“It’s something we are really looking forward to,” says Dwyer. “The engines are future-proofed to burn alternative green fuels such as new biofuels. Together with Wärtsilä and RMC we try to understand the future fuel market, so we have tried to make that as open a base as possible as we don’t want to hamstring ourselves. In Australia the question is what fuel types are available rather than what the best fuel type is. There is LNG supply in Tasmania from a Westbury plant, but it is not big enough to sustain all of the operators on the Bass Strait. The facility would need to be upgraded or we’d look at other alternatives, potentially on the mainland. We have an LNG supply contract for the first ship, but it will not be using LNG for the whole voyage.”
As part of the new port infrastructure in both Geelong and Devonport, cold ironing facilities will guarantee zero emissions and less noise in port. While the hybrid element is gaining importance in Europe, the new Spirits will not have a single battery pack. “It wasn’t considered purely because of the speed requirement and the distance of the run,” says Dwyer.
Spirit of Tasmania IV is slated for delivery during the first quarter of 2024, with sister ship Spirit of Tasmania V to follow in December. As the new ships come in, the 1998-built ones will be retired from the fleet. The first vessel will leave the fleet about a month after the introduction of Spirit of Tasmania IV, a scenario to be repeated when Spirit of Tasmania V is introduced.
"Our brokers will put the vessels on the market in September or October,” says Dwyer. “Already now there’s a lot of interest from Europe but not necessarily from Mediterranean operators. Our ships have a great reputation, and everybody knows that we maintain them in the best way we can.”
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.