The renewal of Europe’s ageing short sea fleet finally seems to be really taking off. Scandinavian and, over the last year in particular, German shipowners are investing heavily in newbuild dry cargo vessels for short sea. In addition to our Northern Dutch shipyards like Royal Bodewes, Ferus Smit, Thecla Bodewes and a few other smaller shipyards, ship design companies specialised in short sea are playing a major role in the design of a new generation of energy-efficient short sea vessels. However, many of those ships are not built in the Netherlands or Europe, but in Asia, especially China and India. And this doesn’t bode well for preserving shipbuilding in Europe.

In every issue of SWZ|Maritime, SWZ|Maritime’s editor-in-chief Antoon Oosting writes an opinion piece under the heading “Markets” about the maritime industry or a particular sector within it. In the July-August 2023 issue, he discusses how sustainable short sea ship design is experiencing a boom, but with many of the shipbuilding orders disappearing to Asia, there is a downside to this upturn.

Over the past summer months, there was finally a fair amount of positive news for Dutch shipbuilding. First of all, of course, the allocation from the National Growth Fund of EUR 210 million for the implementation of the Maritime Master Plan. A Cabinet decision with which Rob Verkerk, chairman of the Nederland Maritiem Land Foundation, the umbrella organisation that devised the plan together with its supporters, is ‘very happy’.

In addition, with the desire to save the climate and make shipbuilding more sustainable, many ship designers and builders, especially also Dutch ones, are energetically and enthusiastically designing “greener” ships. These use less fuel, which means they emit fewer emissions and/or can easily switch to alternative, cleaner fuels in the near future. However, designing these kinds of systems and fitting them requires a lot of extra investment. This simply makes new ships more expensive than traditional ones. This increases the pressure on prices, causing investors to look harder and harder for cheaper yards.

And these yards are no longer to be found in Europe, but at their closest in Turkey and further afield in East and South Asia. The more environmentally friendly and therefore more expensive a ship is, the more often it will be built in China or India.

In addition, the history of capitalism teaches that competition leads to a “follow the leader” effect: if one shipowner sees how his competitor with a ship built in China is beating him to the punch with lower rates, others too will feel compelled to invest in “greener” ships that can be assembled, read built, more cheaply in China and India.

Also read: ‘It took a war to put Dutch shipbuilding back on the agenda’

Technology transfer

The sad thing is that the innovative knowledge needed for this, often developed with considerable European and national subsidies, is being provided by the Europeans themselves. So to all the fine, hopeful news about new, more environmentally friendly ship designs, there is also a bitter aftertaste when it turns out that construction ends up in China or India.

This will give politicians their desired sustainability, but there is a risk that as one of the last shipbuilding sectors, building short sea ships will also disappear from Europe. This is exactly what has happened to tankers, bulk carriers, container ships, car carriers, and multipurpose vessels over the last fifty to sixty years, and, finally in the last decade, to ro-ro ferries and cruise ferries.

European shipbuilding is thus in danger of losing the competition on all fronts with the much cheaper producing Asians. Due to a lack of orders, shipyards in Europe are closing down, which in many cases means there is not even the capacity to build the required ships in Europe anymore. Without production capabilities in the EU, any innovation we develop here is a free gift to Asian yards.

Cartoon by Hans de Wilde/SWZ|Maritime July-August 2023.

So upfront, this is not the fault of European ship designers. They are just doing a great job and need to make money to be able to continue existing. It is ultimately the shipowners and their lenders who place the newbuilding orders in China and India.

The most recent announcement in early August of a hefty order for short sea vessels is that of Leeuwarden-based Frisian ÈTA Shipping. The order for six dry cargo vessels of type ÈTA 6700 with an option for another ten vessels has been awarded to Chinese shipbuilder Taizhou Sanfu Ship Engineering on the Yangtze River.

The vessels will be owned by Rotterdam-based Mare Balticum, part of the Mercuria Mare Balticum Gamma Group, a major energy and commodities trader based in Switzerland, with ÈTA as a minority shareholder. In addition, ÈTA will get management of the vessels.

Also read: Shipping decarbonises, but will Rotterdam industry survive?

Maximum efficiency

What makes this ship design special is its commitment to maximum efficiency. The modular design of the ÈTA 6700 means that there is no main engine, but an electric motor drives the propeller. Electricity is provided by generators that can run on conventional or low-carbon fuels. It is also possible to connect a renewable energy source, such as batteries and fuel cell technology that can run on green hydrogen, methanol or ammonia. Zero-emission solutions can be added or replace the originally installed generators.

The name ÈTA comes from the Greek letter η (èta), the symbol for efficiency. ‘We estimate that it takes less than a day to remove the existing power generation system and replace all or part of it, without a shipyard being involved,’ explains co-founder Sam Gombra. ‘The design of the ÈTA 6700 has been achieved without compromising speed or carrying capacity and at comparable new-build costs to conventional vessels. It has a carrying capacity of 7400 tonnes, but is just under 5000 gross tonnes and can reach 10.5 knots fully loaded at a power of less than 900 kW. This makes it the most efficient Ice 1A ship in its reference group.’

Also read: Mercuria and ÈTA Shipping to build at least six short sea vessels

Flexible design

Groningen-based Conoship International is achieving success with its design for a particularly flexible short sea vessel to be converted in the future, the CIP 3800 DWT. Norwegian shipowner Wilson ASA signed a contract for six of these vessels with an option for eight more. They will be built at Cochin Shipyard in India.

They are powered by electric motors combined with diesel generator sets. If required, they can also be fitted with two Econowind Ventofoils on the forecastle for wind-assisted propulsion. The special feature of the hull design lies in the so-called ConoDuctTail, a tunnel and nozzle with a large propeller diameter. Together with the optimised hull lines, this ensures high efficiency and low fuel consumption. The ship is designed to allow switching to other fuels. As a shipowner with the largest short sea fleet in Europe, Wilson is an important customer for Conoship.

In early August, it was announced that German shipping company Vega is also having ten vessels built in China according to the Conoship 3800-DWT design with the same options. The vessels for Vega will be built by China’s Sinomach Group.

Also read: Northern Dutch shipyards compete for major fleet replacement

Open-top vessels

Besides Conoship, designers such as Groot Ship Design (GSD, Leek) and DEKC Maritime (Groningen) are also heavily involved in the renewal of Europe’s short sea fleet. In late June, the first of ten open-top ECO 9000 DWT vessels designed by GSD for Germany’s Briese Shipping was launched at Dayang Offshore Shipyard in China. Details about this vessel were not disclosed.

Also delivered in China is the fourth of a series of five vessels, the Wilson Flex III. The I, II and IV are already sailing in Europe and were built according to GSD’s Hanse Eco design. The series is a joint project between Wilson and Germany’s Rhenus-Arkon Shipping.

DEKC is responsible for the design of four vessels that Delftzijl-based Amasus Shipping is having built at Turkey’s Bogazici. These are open-top vessels of 4100 DWT suitable for transporting wind turbine blades as well as containers, bulk cargo and breakbulk. The vessels will have diesel-electric propulsion that can easily be converted for other fuels in the future.

Meanwhile, Damen Shipyards is also continuing to book orders for the recently redesigned Combi Freighter (CF) 3850, including three for Turkey’s Feyz Group. The CF 3850 has a deadweight of 3850 tonnes and measures 89.70 by 12.50 metres and can reach a speed of over 10 knots when fully loaded. With its relatively small engine (1104 kW), the CF also consumes relatively little fuel. Damen Yichang Shipyard in China builds the vessels.

At the end of March, Samskip, founded in Iceland in 1990, but now headquartered in Rotterdam, announced it is having two hydrogen-powered vessels built at Cochin Shipyard in India. These ships were designed by Norway’s Naval Dynamics.

Also read: Plenty on the table, but inland navigation is in motion

Many old ships

All in all, there are some sixty ships for European short sea shipowners being built in Asia. That is a sizeable proportion of the 202 (May figures) ships European shipowners have under construction or on order, according to German research firm Toepfer Transport. Europe’s short sea dry cargo fleet comprised 2974 ships in May, according to Toepfer, and in April, 26.79 per cent of the fleet was over thirty years old and therefore in dire need of replacement.

Picture (top): A short sea vessel leaving the Port of Rotterdam (by Niels Johannes, Wikimedia Commons).