Leading the fast ferry way

Leading the fast ferry way

Buquebús operates passenger and car ferry services across the mighty Rio de la Plata between the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires and the ports of Montevideo and Colonia in Uruguay. As the largest passenger carrier between the two countries and one of the leading tour operators in South America, each year the company carries in the region of 2.5 million passengers and 200,000 cars.

At the helm of Buquebús is transportation industry executive and investor, Juan Carlos López Mena. A native of Buenos Aires and resident of Uruguay, López is passionate about the business, the main objective of which has always been to serve passengers safely, providing greater speed and comfort at sensible prices, and with environmental and social consciousness. It is an objective held dear since the company was formed in the late 1970s as a family enterprise, with a single refurbished ship running across the river.

López entered business as a shirt manufacturer, managing his own production facilities. When Argentina decided to open its borders to the import of global goods, many Argentinean businesses suffered as a result, being unable to compete. Under these circumstances López decided it was time for new challenges. He always loved sailing and was on the water as often as possible. He came to the conclusion that providing a high level of service in the crossing of the river Plate was going to become a good business opportunity. That is how he started with the purchase of the old Ciudad de la Colonia.

It was in the 1990s that López realised the threat to the ferry business of the airlines running between Argentina and Uruguay. If the business was to survive then his ferries had to become faster, easier to access, and more comfortable to travel on than the ships then in service. It was around this time that Tasmanian builder Incat was delivering the world’s first high-speed car-carrying catamarans. With a promise of a vessel capable of loaded speeds of over 36 knots, López and Incat’s Robert Clifford struck a deal which forever changed the passenger and vehicle traffic on the River Plate.

The 74m high-speed ferry Patricia Olivia impressed and soon after her delivery Buquebus began acquiring faster ships with airplane-style seats and spacious duty-free shops to compete with airlines to attract international passengers.

Currently López is president of Los Cipreses SA, which owns Buquebús Uruguay, Buquebús Argentina, BQB Airlines, and the Fundación Buquebús. Among his other pursuits, he is president of the Uruguayan-Argentine Chamber of Commerce and directs the model dairy farm ‘El Talar’ in the department of Maldonado.

Ever the visionary, López joined with Incat again with the 2011 order to build the world’s first LNG-fuelled catamaran, Francisco. On 15 June 2013, the 99m, 1,000-passenger vessel set a world-record speed of 58.1 knots (67mph or 108km/h).

“Our interest in LNG originated in the unavoidable need to look at different ways to fuel our ships,” says López. “Fuel oil has become a scarce product with prices in a continuous uptrend, basically due to reduction of worldwide sources. As it is such an important component of operational expenses we were drawn to analyse available technology that would allow us to continue with high-speed craft.”

It was not only important to see an improvement in the company’s operational costs, but vital to retain and even exceed the crossing times passengers had come to expect, explains López. “The propulsion technology was available in the marketplace and it was supported by innovative companies with strong experience and reliability in the development of engines and ancillary equipment. Considering the power needed to achieve high speeds with large fast craft, we had no choice but to take a controlled risk with the world’s first dual-fuel high-speed ferry to operate on LNG as its primary fuel.” The result of this bold move is “the fastest, environmentally cleanest, most efficient, high-speed ferry in the world,” he adds.

As evidenced through his directorship of the model dairy farm, López places great value on caring for the environment. Aside from the substantial economical benefits of running with LNG, the attraction of a significant reduction in fuel emissions was another factor that prompted López to consider the fuel. “With Francisco, combustion emissions have been reduced by 98%, in marked contrast to traditional fuels,” he says. At the same time, it is estimated that 66 tonnes of LNG production per day is required for the craft’s two daily round trips and this generates 50% savings in operating costs.

Currently, LNG production is located in Argentina, around 60km away from the Buquebús terminal at Cryobox, an LNG production nano-station. Lopez says the facility was designed so that private industry and communities can become their own LNG suppliers: “Until now, major technological barriers and the need for long-term capital investment prevented industries from using LNG as a low-cost and low-carbon alternative to diesel fuel.”

Each Cryobox unit is conceived as a module that can reach a maximum of 12 ton/day (4,480 GGE/day or 7,000 gal/day) of LNG (equivalent to 16,000 Nm3/day of natural gas). This feature allows a flexible installed capacity that can grow at the pace of the demand, through the progressive addition of modules. It is also a ‘plug and play’ module that can be sent to any destination by trailer for immediate commissioning, since it can be installed at a fuelling station and then connected straight to a gas pipeline for distribution – or to a modular treatment plant which allows gas pre-conditioning at a remote natural gas field.

“Production capacity allows us to fuel more than one ship like Francisco, and the modular concept allows future expansion by simply adding more modules of LNG production,” says López. “Sooner or later Uruguay will have its own facilities to produce LNG for the internal market so this will bring an extra source to refuel Francisco and future ships. This is where the future is and without doubt many things will happen in the short and medium term to reinforce the supply based on the advantages of LNG.”

This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2014 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read the full article, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.

Justin Merrigan
By Justin Merrigan
21 March 2014