Saturday, 22 May 2010

Youngest round the world sailor returns home

Sixteen year-old Jessica Watson returned home after a 210 day, 23000 miles solo around the world voyage at sea to become an instant heroine, earlier criticism mostly forgotten. Australia came out to welcome Jessica and her boat “Ella’s Pink Lady” back into Sydney harbour in droves; media helicopters buzzed overhead, people had filled up beaches, Sydney’s waterfront and the Opera House. There was even a sky-writing plane that wrote ‘Jessica’ across the sky. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier Kristina Keneally came out to receive Jessica, even as she was delayed by two hours struggling with a torn mainsail and heavy swell. The Prime Minister hailed her as the country's "newest hero".

The 16-year-old became the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world. Jessica is still too young to buy the champagne that was popped to herald her record; in any case, all that the tired but overwhelmed teenager wanted to do was sink into a "big, non-rolling bed and eat some fresh food". Her parents helped Jessica as she disembarked, a little wobbly at the knees. "As a little girl, people don't think you're capable of these things, they don't realise what young people, 16-year-olds and girls are capable of. But it's amazing what you can do," said the girl who has yet to finish school- and is looking forward to getting her driver’s license!

There is still some saying that the record is not official. For one, they say, Jessica did not sail enough to the north of the equator, as the World Speed Sailing Record Council indicates, to make this a true round-the-world voyage. The Council had withdrawn the ‘under 18 category’ after worldwide criticism and controversy about young teenage sailors being exposed to risks at sea.

To most Australians, however, Jessica is the real thing. Jessica is not fazed by all the controversy either. "Call me immature, but I've actually been having a bit of a giggle over the whole thing. If I haven't been sailing around the world, then it beats me what I've been doing out here all this time!" she wrote in a blog when at sea. She also said that she was overwhelmed by the welcome in Sydney, and that it was a "mega mega under-exaggeration" to describe her return as "the most amazing day". Among the highlights of her trip, she said, was the sighting of a blue whale.

Jessica has been sailing since she was eight, but she ran into a lot of criticism, as did her parents, when she sailed out of Sydney Harbour last year. Many said she was too young; many were concerned about her safety, especially after she had collided with a ship on a practice run earlier. Nevertheless, she embarked on a remarkable voyage through the South Pacific, across the equator, south to Cape Horn, across the Atlantic Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope, then through the Indian Ocean and around southern Australia.

The teenager is now a celebrity. A book, True Spirit: The Aussie Girl who Took on the World, is to be published later this year, and some are already calling for Watsons Bay, the last bay she saw as she left Sydney on October 17 last year, to be renamed ‘Watson’s Bay'. At that time, there were only a handful of spectators who had come to see her off.


Monday, 17 May 2010

Cruise Control

The port of Kochi has withdrawn the discount it was offering cruise ships, says Livemint; the report says that even though Kochi hosted a record 44 ships in the last financial year, making it India’s largest cruise hub, the port submitted to the Tariff Authority for Major Ports that there “wasn’t much demand for cruise ships”. “There is no steady growth in cruise traffic as well as vessel related income for the last three years due to concessional vessel related charges for cruise vessels,” the port told the regulator. “Hence, the concession is being withdrawn.”

The 33 percent discount the port was offering earlier had not stopped operators grumbling about charges. Louis Cruise Lines had stopped using Kochi as its homeport three months ago saying that costs were too high. Louis Cruise was paying around $73,000 every week to Kochi port, a senior official told Livemint, when its cruise vessel, the MV Aquamarine, used to stay there for about 15 hours a week.

The Aquamarine sails from Kochi to Colombo, Sri Lanka and the Maldives for an “unparalleled discovery of the aquamarine waters off the coast of Sri Lanka and the idyllic island of Maldives”, the company claims. It has a passenger capacity of 1200 and boasts of 525 suites, four bars, an outdoor pool and a casino, besides the usual facilities guests have come to expect from Louis Cruise, the fifth largest cruise ship operator in the world. Rumours are that she was even modified to include a cricket pitch for Indian clientele!

Observers say that many cruise companies are now finding the infrastructure and charges at many Indian ports to be a handicap to the kind of operations that they are used to elsewhere. The industry hardly had off the blocks in India two years ago, after easing of Central Government policies that problems first surfaced in Mumbai and Goa, resulting in a withdrawal of services by operators. Amongst other reasons, cruise ships were being docked at the coal terminal in Murmagao. “It’s like standing in a coal mine,” an executive for a cruise line had said then.

The Central Government’s attempts to promote the cruise industry in India will be ill served by such decisions. It has been just a year since the government allowed foreign ships to carry passengers between Indian ports without a licence. There have not been too many takers there, for reasons already mentioned. Kochi, really, is the only bright spot left for the industry in India. Let us hope that this move will not materially affect its lustre.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Industry Snapshots

Russians selling cruise missile systems in freight containers, according to media reports. The Club K Missile system is housed in a forty foot freight container says Concern orinformsystem-Agat, the marketing company selling the deadly weapon. The container looks like a normal FEU from the outside, but it houses four deadly missiles that can be launched from anywhere- ship, lorry, truck and train included.

The manufacturer of the missile system, Novator, has apparently shown a dramatic movie at the Defence Services Asia exhibition in Malaysia, where Club-K containers on ships, trucks and trains are used to attack enemy installations with cruise missiles. Iran and Venezuela have reportedly shown interest in the system, a move that has the Americans worried.

Observers are also concerned that the missile system will push the envelope in weapons infiltration and proliferation. Security concerns are quite a separate and equally compelling matter, since detection is extremely difficult. Reuben Johnson, a defence consultant, says, ‘You cannot readily identify what's being used as a launcher because it's very carefully disguised. Someone could sail off your shore looking innocuous then the next minute big explosions are going off at your military installations.'

The Club K will enable commercial ships to attack naval vessels or hit land targets. IHS Jane's Defence Weekly analyst Robert Hewson described the product as an “unwelcome” development to Fairplay. “Containerising a missile in such an overt/covert way, I don’t think anyone has done this before,” he said. “Why does someone want a strategic weapon that can be hidden in a container?”

Indian Government supports Indian shipping by giving first preference to Indian bottoms. “It is proposed in the draft action plan, that to promote Indian shipbuilding sector, we may give the first right of refusal to Indian-built, Indian-flagged vessels and second right of refusal may be given to the other Indian-flagged vessels,” R.K. Sen, assistant director in the shipbuilding and repair division of the ministry of shipping, wrote in a recent circular inviting comments from DGS, as reported by LiveMint.

This means that public sector companies like ONGC, BPCL et al may be the first to support Indian built or flagged vessels. Mint reports that this may be a short in the arm for private shipyards like ABG, Bharati, Larsen and Toubro and Pipavav, as presumably more ships will be built in India.

However, the newspaper quotes a shipping company executive apparently opposing the move, saying that “Indian shipyards are still not up to the standards of international shipyards and could not cater to the requirements of Indian demand. It will take at least 10-15 years for Indian ship makers to reach global standards”.

Other industry watchers say that the government’s move is overdue, and that India needs to support the sector in the same way as the Chinese do, with easy credit and logistical support for the maritime and shipbuilding industry. Others say that the Indian government, which had announced plans of divestment in the Cochin shipyard, may be looking at boosting the sector for better valuations before divestment.


Panamax container ships on their way out? Yes, says Germanischer Lloyd (GL) head Hermann Klein, who told a media gathering in London that the upgrading of the Panama Canal, with new wider locks, is likely to force owners to rethink issues of efficiency of present Panamax container vessels. The new wider locks are slated to be opened in 2014.

Dr. Klein thinks that year would be the start of the phasing out of the current lot of Panamax box ships, presently built to a tall, narrow and long design to maximise cargo while still being narrow enough to pass through the Canal. Unfortunately, this makes them a little less stable; a problem that is solved presently by each vessel keeping ballast of up to 15% of its cargo capacity on board. The GL boss told journalists that carrying the additional deadweight raises fuel consumption: once the new locks opened, owners would have options that would allow them to build new wider ships that did not need the ballast kept in, and these would be considerably more efficient. The older vessels may not be economical on other routes for the same reason.

In any case, said Dr Klein, vessels would now have to be built more fuel efficient, more environmentally friendly and with an eye on service speeds. GL has long been a proponent of slow steaming for container ships, strongly urging the industry to look at container ship service speeds of 14 knots, and Dr. Klein said the new builds should see owners crunching the numbers and installing engines of lower power than exist today; he expected that IMO's new, ‘Tier 3’ rules on nitrogen oxide emissions, will “make heavy fuel oil impractical as bunkers and so merchant ships will have to use distillate fuel from 2016”.

Internet as retention policy, suggests North P&I Club, saying that young seafarers today expected the same online access that they got at home. “Faster turnarounds in port and restricted shore leave mean life on board can become increasingly lonely,” says Tony Baker, chief of loss prevention at North. “Improving the ability to get online can have significant benefits for crew morale and well-being – but it needs to be managed properly.”

The club says that mariners would be happier employees if improved internet access at sea offered regular contact with family and friends, highlighting research that said that living conditions and the quality and cost of communication on board were major factors with youngsters looking at a seafaring career. "‘Young seafarers now expect to have similar internet connectivity when at sea as they do at home," says Baker, pointing out that better internet setups will help in seafarer training, reduce accidents and allow managers better access to the ship and the crew. "Continual professional development programmes rely on a significant amount of on-board training and supervision, much of which could be done online," Baker said.

The club realises however, that present prohibitive installation and running costs need to be carefully factored into business plans, and that there are legal issues if the ship’s computers are found to contain inappropriate material, downloaded from the internet or not. Liverpool arrested five seafarers last year for having pornographic material on mobile phones and computers on board. North says shipowners should amend seafarer contracts so that the rights of individuals and management can both be protected to cover such eventualities.