Mediterranean-based ferry group Baleària has continued its LNG conversion programme, embraced digitalisation, earned a coveted certification for preventing Covid-19, and will soon put a new fast ferry into operation
A lifeline to the several destinations in the western Mediterranean and Caribbean, ferry group Baleària is steadily resuming operations after putting the pandemic, damaging though it was, to good use by pushing ahead with the conversion of some of its fleet to LNG.
In the interim, Baleària has also earned a world-first, Bureau Veritas certification that confirms its vessels and terminals to be as free as possible from Covid-19. In fact, the certification is tougher than the guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation and even by Spain’s health authorities.
“Travel by ferry is more able than any other to guarantee safety since the large spaces available on board allow distance to be maintained between passengers,” explains Baleària president Adolfo Utor. Just in case though, a company-wide committee monitors the anti-virus programme daily.
The highlight of the resumption of operations will be the arrival of the new €90M (US$107M), LNG-powered fast catamaran ferry, Eleanor Roosevelt. 80% finished in the Armon Gijon shipyard, the ferry is due to start operations late in the season after inevitable pandemic-induced delays. Claimed to be the world’s first high-speed ferry to be equipped with dual-fuel, reciprocating LNG engines, the 123-m long, 28-m wide ferry will be one of the biggest of its kind in service anywhere, transporting up to 1,200 passengers and 500 cars at an operating speed of 35 knots.
Baleària returns to action after mothballing most of its 32-strong fleet. Just 12 ferries kept sailing during the pandemic, albeit within the regulations established by destination countries. In the Caribbean, for example, the group kept passenger routes open between the Bahamas and Fort Lauderdale during a part of July until borders were closed. Thereafter Baleària has been operating a twice-weekly cargo service, the company told Passenger Ship Technology.
Having made a public commitment to LNG, Baleària has pushed on with a timetable of converting nine vessels by 2021 at a heavyweight investment of €380M. The latest – and sixth – vessel to get the LNG treatment is the ropax Sicilia which in August was converted at the WestSea Viana yard in Portugal and is now equipped with an LNG tank of 425 m3 capacity, good for a range of 1,100 nautical miles. The MAN9L48/60 engines were switched into the 9L51/60 dual-fuel versions. And in July, Bahama Mama became the fifth in the fleet to be retrofitted – or ’re-engined’ as Baleària puts it.
Announcing a switch to LNG is one thing, making it happen another. In the last two years, Baleària has been installing all the essential bunkering infrastructure. Based on multiple truck deliveries, it is a pioneering system in Spain and has been put in place in Barcelona, Huelva, Valencia and Algeciras. At Gibraltar’s Gibdock shipyard, for example, two storage tanks with a capacity of 280 m3 provide the fuel for Bahama Mama, enough to power the ferry for 750 nautical miles on its regular, four days a week run between Denia, Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca.
Overall, the conversion to LNG requires deep pockets. According to Baleària’s latest financial statements, of the €380M earmarked for the LNG programme, €72M went into conversions at an average of €12M per ship. Not all the money is coming from Baleària’s resources – the EU is subsidising 20% of the cost of the conversions.
Disappointingly, the arrival of the pandemic followed a good year. An important operator, especially in the Med, in 2019 Baleària carried nearly 4.5M passengers and cargo was up 5% for a turnover of €452M. (Cargo normally accounts for about 40% of revenues.) Then, like that of other ferry groups, revenues nosedived. Between mid-March and 21 June, there were hardly any passengers and revenues fell by about 70%. And in late August, borders were still closed in some normally busy routes such as Morocco, Algeria and the Caribbean. Consequently, the board has decided not to pay a dividend “in order to strengthen the company’s position in response to Covid-19.”
Even so, the firm’s EBITDA, an important benchmark of the overall profitability of a business, was up 19% to €84M. “The company sees this as an indicator of the strength of its business model,” it reported. “This figure meant that net profit rose by 5% to €29M. Both these numbers highlight the company’s solvency in overcoming this crisis.”
Baleària sets considerable store on what it calls “social cash flow”, a term encompassing a broad portfolio of benefits and resources – cash and otherwise – that the shipping line distributes among stakeholders within the region. For instance, the group prides itself on the fact 81% of its suppliers are local. In 2019, social cash flow was measured at €623M. Staff numbers grew by 7% to a total of 1,800.
The group also pushed on with its digitalisation programme, a strategic project Baleària sees as going hand-in-hand with the adoption of natural gas “so as to continue making the group more competitive.” Essentially, digitalisation is about developing a ’smart’ fleet whereby embarkation and disembarkation of passengers is automated. Similarly, the logistics of cargo operations in port are being streamlined through digitalisation. In 2019 six ferries went through the programme.
The company is mining all this real-time data for insights that facilitate “swift and effective decisions,” notably in the areas of safety, preventive maintenance, commercial efficiency and sustainability.
Mr Ator is particularly proud of the LNG-powered fast ferry. Designed by the Australian firm Incat Crowther in close collaboration with Valencia-based engineering firm Cotenaval, the vessel will be the outcome of considerable R&D. Wärtsilä is responsible for the engines, propeller system and gas plant. Norway’s Marintek-Sintef did the hydrodynamic testing and Bureau Veritas conducted the classification. The integrator of all the technology was engineering firm Altran.
Spain’s Oliver Design, specialising in ship architecture, produced the interior configuration, overall look and decoration. The spaces are split up into several bars, a market and food court, kindergarten and outdoor terrace. Even dogs have their day – kennels are provided.
Builder Astilleros Gijon is no stranger to high-speed ferries, with four built to date including Mar de Cies, a 32.5-m long, 10-m wide catamaran. Also designed by Incat Crowther, it carries 400 passengers at a service speed of 25 knots for Spain’s Mar de Ons line.
For Eleanor Roosevelt Incat Crowther deployed its latest technology. “The passenger cabin is isolated from the hull by rubber mounts, which significantly reduce the transmission of noise and vibration,” Incat Crowther technical manager Dan Mace told PST. “[We] also completed a route analysis including the specific sea conditions in which the ship will operate. The design of the hull shape and centre-bow were optimised for comfort in these conditions.” A third central hull houses an America’s Cup-type technology – a retractable T-foil that will be deployed to smooth the vessel’s ride.
It takes serious power to propel such a big ferry at these speeds, and it comes from no less than four of Wärtsilä’s four-stroke 16V31 main engines, each pumping out 8,800 kW, that drive four Wärtsilä LJX 1500 waterjets, two gas generators and two diesel generators that deliver the electricity.
Not a company to rest on its laurels, Baleària is already looking beyond LNG. Mr Utor eagerly awaits the arrival of entirely CO₂-neutral fuels, such as biofuels and hydrogen, as he embraces an environmentally pure Mediterranean.
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