Plenty of reasons for optimism in the fast-ferry market

Plenty of reasons for optimism in the fast-ferry market

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read other articles, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats

The fast-ferry business took a blow in February with the closure of Stena Line’s Irish Sea fast-ferry service between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire. The scrapping of the route brought the curtain down not only on this historic crossing but also on almost twenty years of the company’s revolutionary High-speed Sea Service (HSS) operations.

The HSS was an excellent product that became too expensive due to fuel costs, which rose by 600% since the introduction of the Stena Explorer in 1996. Stena Line’s customers loved the HSS, but naturally did not want to pay more for the expensive crossing. Given that this type of vessel was once heralded as the future of ferry travel, one could be forgiven for seeing the withdrawal of the Stena Explorer as a final nail in the fast-ferry coffin.

Far from it! In fact, a number of operators have in recent months and years continued to develop their services on the high-speed model, proof indeed that this niche market is very much alive.

While the heady days of the 1990s and early 2000s may be long gone, operators such as Buquebús, Mols-Linien and Condor Ferries have all recently taken new tonnage, and interest in large high-speed craft (HSC) from places like Korea and Taiwan continues to grow. In March, for example, Japan will receive a newbuild Incat 85m craft.

In northern Europe, on an Irish Sea without the HSS, the fast-ferry model still has a place. P&O Ferries and the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company are operators of fast ferries and Irish Ferries, whose Austal-built 86m craft Jonathan Swift was in direct competition with Stena’s HSS, continues to offer a fast-craft option on the Dublin-Holyhead service. But does it have a future now that the HSS is no more?

“Although the Jonathan Swift was built back in 1999, her condition is still excellent – largely down to our schedule of just two round trips per day. So, the hull has taken less of a bashing and her engines are very well maintained during her downtime each night,” explains Irish Ferries’ marketing director, Tony Kelly.

“Right now, we have no immediate plans to change our fast-craft schedule but we will always keep matters under review. Now that we have added frequency from having two conventional vessels on Dublin-Holyhead for most of each week, there is a lot less pressure on space.

“The good news is that we have managed to maintain our growth pattern of recent years on the route during 2014 with a highly successful summer season, particularly from inbound tourism from the UK market into Ireland. That trend looks likely to continue in 2015 and we are optimistic that the Jonathan Swift will share in the continued success of our Dublin-Holyhead route,” Kelly says.

On the English Channel, proof positive that the fast-ferry industry still has a beating heart is the introduction of Condor Ferries’ new Austal 102m trimaran, the Condor Liberation, between the Channel Islands and the UK. Following this £50m investment in the Islands, Condor hopes the new craft will enable it to improve reliability, increase capacity, and give its customers a much greater level of comfort.

The two vessels replaced by the Condor Liberation have been snapped up by Greek operation SeaJets. The purchase of the two Incat 86m vessels brings to nine the number of HSC in the SeaJets fleet, making it the largest operator of fast craft by seat capacity in the eastern Mediterranean Sea region. It also means that with six Tasmanian-built vessels, SeaJets is the biggest Incat Catamaran HSC vessel operator worldwide.

In Denmark, the successful Mols-Linien operating model focuses on solely operating high-speed car passenger ferry services. The company operates two Incat 112m catamarans on the 39-nautical-mile Danish domestic route between Aarhus and Odden. The KatExpress 1 and KatExpress 2 entered service in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Each vessel operates eight crossings per day while on the Ebeltoft to Odden route the smaller 91m craft Max Mols runs between four and eight sailings per day.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Incat’s newbuild for Japanese ferry operator Sado Kisen is set to enter service on the 39-nautical-mile route from Naoetsu Port in the Niigata prefecture to Ogi, the southernmost port of Sado Island. Sado Kisen is a longstanding operator in Japan and has a fleet of conventional car ferries and jetfoils. With an operating speed of 30 to 34 knots the new 85m wave-piercing catamaran Akane is Sado Kisen’s first high-speed vehicle and passenger ferry.

In Taiwan, Fujian Strait Ferry Corporation continues to operate the Incat 98m Hai Xia Hao between Pintang and Taichung, while Wagon Corporation has the Incat 112m Natchan Rera linked to the east coast for a service from Keelung to Hualien. Last year, as part of a government route approval process, Wagon conducted a trial between Suao in Yilan County and Hualien.

In South America, Buquebús operates passenger and car ferry services across the Rio de la Plata between the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires and the ports of Montevideo and Colonia in Uruguay. Each year the fast ferry fleet carries in the region of 2.5 million passengers and 200,000 cars and their latest craft, Francisco, is winning even more passengers from competing airlines.

The pioneer dual-fuel Francisco makes the 106-nautical-mile crossing in a little more than 2 hours. The Incat 99m craft is achieving a cruising speed of 54 knots with a heavy load and just a little bit over 85% turbine power.

Aside from the substantial economic benefits of running with LNG, the attraction of a significant reduction in fuel emissions was another factor that prompted Buquebús to consider the fuel. With Francisco, combustion emissions have been reduced by 98%, in contrast to traditional fuels. 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.

When it comes to the construction of small high-speed ferries, Australian shipbuilders have an impressive record of efficiency and innovation and Australian-made ferries continue to dominate the sector. Just as the country leads the way in the production of large HSC, so too it continues to be a leader with custom-built ferries for environmentally sensitive river and estuary systems.

“There is no doubt the small-ship sector is alive and very well, much to the delight of many Australian ship builders,” says Robert Clifford, chairman and founder of Australian light ship specialist Incat.

In Australia Sydney Harbour ferries have called tenders for six new fast catamarans and Manley Fast Ferries, which recently won the tender to be the sole operator of the fast-ferry service from Manley to the city, has called for four vessels.

There are 28 vessels in the Sydney Ferries fleet and the six new vessels will be the first built and acquired for the fleet since four SuperCats were acquired in 2000 and 2001. These new vessels will operate on inner harbour routes from Watsons Bay to Cockatoo Island.

Following the construction of the 34m Mona Roma to carry tourists from the centre of Hobart to the hugely successful Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, Incat is now building two 35m vessels for operations on the River Thames for MBNA Thames Clippers. Designed by One2Three Naval Architects, with assistance by Revolution Design, these vessels will provide rapid passenger transport services in Central London on various routes ranging from Putney in the west to Royal Woolwich Arsenal in the east.

In New York, meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed five new fast-ferry routes to connect the outer boroughs to Manhattan. The new city-wide ferry service is slated to be open for business in 2017.

De Blasio’s office has said there are currently five planned routes: one serving South Brooklyn, one serving Astoria, one serving the Rockaways, one serving Long Island City and the Lower East Side, and one serving Soundview. That leaves out Staten Island, but a sixth route is proposed there – it would run from Coney Island to Stapleton and then on to Wall Street.

So there is plenty of activity in this end of the market. In contrast, looking at the turn of fortunes of the HSS, Robert Clifford is unsurprised by the withdrawal of the craft. “They were innovative, but missed the mark in a number of areas, in particular economy. They missed the right power to weight ratio,” he says. “Aircraft builders know how important weight is, but the mainstream marine industry lags behind. Only the aluminium ship builders have paid attention to weight. At Incat we recognise weight as the enemy.”

As well as the LNG route, Clifford is also looking towards lower-speed lightweight vessels carrying vehicles at lower operational costs. These will be “catamarans with low-power engines that match the speed of the steel ship and cost less to build and operate. The industry has not woken up to this yet but they are about to learn.”

Overall, he is confident about the future for his sector. “Smaller passenger-only craft are in high demand. Asia and the Middle East will see the expansion of larger fast ferries, so I can confidently say that the high-speed industry is alive and will prosper,” he predicts. “So, am I bullish about the industry’s prospects? Yes, I am!”

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Justin Merrigan
By Justin Merrigan
Tuesday, April 7, 2015