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The 5 Bells (image courtesy Cheetah Marine)

By Samatha Fish 2018-12-30 14:54:02

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2018 edition.)

The shipping industry is undergoing a regulatory sea change with legislation designed to make vessels more environmentally friendly. As a result, today’s workboat market is looking for more versatile vessels that are “future proof” in design and can readily adapt to changing regulations and markets.

And while environmental pressures are one factor affecting the market, another is economic. There just aren’t enough rigs out there to support the global workboat fleet. Charters are few and far between. The traditional market for workboats has dried up, and opportunities must be sought elsewhere. Smaller, more versatile vessels are suddenly in demand.

Flexible Designs

Owners are looking for more flexible designs. Dave Rutter, Business Development Manager at U.K.-based Meercat Boats, says that “The versatility of the modern workboat has increased in recent years. What with new equipment and more thought-out design, workboats are more than capable of mixing it up with vessels normally designed for a specific purpose such as dredging, load-carrying, towing/pushing, even recovering vessels that have been damaged or sunk.”

Using a multirole vessel design, Meercat has a solution for those businesses that require a vessel immediately and also require a bespoke build. “Quite often a client requires a vessel quite quickly in order to service a project they are bidding for,” notes Rutter. “This works well for a buyer as quite often they will not make the purchase unless they’ve won the project. However, options for customizing a pre-built vessel are often limited, which means the vessel will not precisely match the client’s requirements.”

On the other hand, Cheetah Marine has opted to take the more bespoke approach to boatbuilding with its history of trailer-transportable boats, giving them access to all locations. Their latest design is a specialist patrol boat for the Yorkshire and Humber Police’s regional Marine and Underwater Search unit. The second of these specialist vessels, named 5 Bells, was recently delivered.

While acting as a visible police presence, the core duty of 5 Bells is to provide a versatile craft to facilitate the many roles of the Marine and Underwater team, which include diving operations in the North Sea and inland waterways. The vessel follows the success of the smaller, trailerable 7.2-meter Cheetah built for the Cheshire police. With twin 300-horsepower Mercury Rapido outboards producing top speeds in excess of 40 knots, the 10.2-meter vessel can be mobilized rapidly between areas covering the coasts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire together with rivers and estuaries.

Hybrid Solutions

Another U.K. boatbuilder is taking the lead in hybrid technology. Goodchild Marine recently delivered the ORC 136.HY pilot boat to the London Port Authority (LPA), the second in a series.

Tony Birr, Goodchild’s Business Development Manager, notes that hybrid technology brings a lot of benefits to a market in which there is still hesitancy about switching from reliable diesel-powered engines to more environmentally-friendly solutions. The main benefit is extra redundancy, which is important to these types of vessels that need to operate in variable conditions.

The ORC 136.HY was developed from Goodchild’s 136 design. Birr notes that, when looking at hybrid solutions, you need to have an efficient hull form to compensate for the extra weight of the battery system: “Even though batteries systems have been reduced in weight and size, you are still adding two tons, which reduces speed.”

The push from environmental regulations for vessels to be cleaner is now coming from customers as well, who are looking not just for a vessel to be environmentally friendly but also to provide potential cost savings from the new technology. Turkish solutions company NAVTEK, working with TK Tuzla Shipyard, has recently designed the first battery-powered harbor tug, ZeeTug – the first of her type for Turkish owner Gisas. The vessel features a 30-ton bollard pull and fully-electric drive, meaning she will have zero emissions.

Ferhat Acuner, General Manager of NAVTEK Naval Technologies, explains the evolution of battery solutions: “We see that lithium-ion batteries now have enough capacity to be used. We carried out a year of testing with this propulsion setup and more detailed research with the University of Istanbul.”

Gisas was at first simply looking for a hybrid solution but then opted for a fully electric setup when it realized the further cost-savings that could be achieved. It now has an additional four vessels on order. The battery for the vessels has been supplied by Corvus Energy and is expected to have a 10-year lifespan.

Further developments in hybrid technology have seen the Dutch start-up Skoon Energy enter the market with its solution of easy-access energy storage batteries. Founder Peter Paul van Voorst notes that hybrid solutions are a good fit for the offshore and windfarm markets as they need a power supply that is predictable for the long term, which is something batteries can offer.

Skoon Energy recently signed an agreement of understanding with Damen that will see the companies join forces to help supply a changing market. Van Voorst says that “Damen will be able to offer more battery solutions to the market while looking at other energy solutions. This agreement will also allow us to access the wider maritime market.”

Windfarm Vessels

U.K.-based Chartwell Marine, with ten years’ experience in the offshore windfarm market, sees huge potential growth coming from the U.S. offshore market and recently introduced its latest design in crew transfer vessels, the Chartwell 24.

“The European market is fairly saturated,” says Managing Director Andy Page. “However, this summer we did see demand exceed supply. The U.S. market, on the other hand, is just starting out in offshore wind, so it’s very open with only one vessel, Atlantic Pioneer. We are expecting rapid growth over the next five years.”

The Chartwell 24 will have an overall length of 23.8 meters, a top speed of 29 knots and seating for 24 industrial personnel and three to six crew. The catamaran design comes with four engines and a parallel hybrid setup, dependent upon customer requirements. The vessel is specifically aimed at meeting U.S. environmental regulations including EPA Tier 4 emissions standards.

The company is currently in discussions with U.S. yards and owners about its latest design. It also expects that the market for small patrol and pilot boats will grow in the U.S. and is looking to develop hybrid variants of these, which Page notes will be first proven in Europe and then taken to the U.S.

Currently, the company is constructing the first of its latest hybrid patrol boats, aptly named Chasewell 1, at Wight Shipyard. Pages notes that the design has been developed especially for low speeds (under eight knots) for maneuverability, which is where the hybrid-electric part comes in. For high-speed pursuits where more power is needed, it can be switched over to diesel.

Full Orderbooks

Business does seem to be picking up for the workboat market with more international clients talking to each other and trying to address the common ground of regulations and how best to meet them.

Both Cheetah Marine and Meercat Boats say they are seeing more international business with Cheetah now building at an additional location with full orderbooks for both the Isle of Wight and Portuguese workshops.

“A high proportion of our orders for 2019 are workboats for the overseas market,” notes Founder Keith Stevens. “This includes commercial fishing Cheetahs for the south of France, hydrographic survey and university research vessels for Saudi Arabia and charter/dive and sea safari vessels in Portugal.”

Even with Brexit looming over the U.K., Meercat’s Rutter says that “There has been a notable increase in enquiries for vessels from international clients in recent times. Whether this is due to exchange rates, Brexit or more people wishing to buy British products is yet to be determined. However, all are likely contributing factors.” – MarEx

Samantha Fish is a U.K.-based journalist and photographer. This is her first appearance in the magazine.

This article originally appeared in the November-December 2018 edition of The Maritime Executive Magazine.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.