China has won an influx of ferry orders on the back of strong European collaboration with consultants, manufacturers and designers
The rise of China from nowhere, to now stand out as the world’s leading builder of ropax ferries is remarkable.
For decades European builders have held the leading role in constructing ferries and have dominated cruise liner orders. But the destination of roro/ropax construction has dramatically altered direction.
China should never be underestimated in its ambition to construct the most sophisticated designs. The ambition has been there for many years and great progress has been made in each decade on a variety of vessel types. Co-operation with European and especially Scandinavian designers has been the key to export success. It was in early 2016 that a determined bid was made to secure export roro business but the considerable success could never have been anticipated.
Currently roro construction is booming as owners realise there is a great need for change globally in facilities and propulsion demands from new environmental legislation from the start of 2020. The ropax export orderbook in China has risen from nothing to 33 large ferries in under three years. Of these, 25 are for export and will join the fleets of Stena Line, DFDS, Gotland and Viking Line with more options attached which are likely to be exercised.
What lies behind the success of China in winning such ground-breaking business? Scandinavia exhibits a strong influence not only with ownership but also the respective designs of the vessels. Reputable yards in China will always produce well-built vessels but inevitably there is a drawback because vessels are delivered later than originally scheduled. Owners never really confirm this, but there must be provision in the contracts for certain slippage. In the case of high-specification ropax units, interior fitting is a crucial ingredient for passenger comfort. Indeed, there are often delays to such vessels in European construction. China is no stranger to building ferries for Chinese services but these are to lower Asian specifications.
Only two European-owned ropax ferries have previously been built in China, for Sweden’s Gotland – Visborg and Gotland which were both delivered from Guangzhou Shipyard International, Guangdong in 2003 and are still in service. It is fitting therefore that Guangzhou should receive repeat orders in November 2014 and June 2015 for two similar upgraded units that will carry 1,650 passengers compared with 1,500 guests on their older predecessors.
Both newbuildings will take nearly four years to build, underlining the sophisticated high-grade design. Guangzhou Shipyard International was due to deliver Visborg in September this year and its sister ship in January 2019. Despite worries over late deliveries, studies of the Gotland newbuildings convinced some owners of China’s construction potential. Both Gotland newbuildings will incorporate dual-fuel LNG-ready propulsion. Another inducement for potential clients is cheaper pricing in China over Europe, although with such high-specification vessels, the gap is probably quite narrow. Price considerations fall largely on the interior decor of the vessels which, these days, are as large as some cruise liners with luxury accommodation to match.
Forging links with Europe
Winning so many orders for highly technical vessels has been accomplished by forging agreements with European designers and consultants. Scandinavian companies particularly are offering their expertise before and during construction. Such marketing is now paying rich dividends as now is the time for renewing roro fleets.
Prime movers in the ownership stakes are Sweden’s Stena Line and Denmark’s DFDS. In the case of Stena, a new E-Flexer design was evolved and provided Deltamarin Group, Finland, with its first engineering, procurement, construction and management package covering building four state-of-the-art ropax ferries at Avic Weihai. Options were recently exercised by Stena doubling its commitment to eight vessels stretching deliveries into 2022. Main propulsion for each will be provided by two 12-cylinder M43C MaK dual-fuel engines using methanol or LNG as the second fuel.
The China newbuildings mark the first time Stena has used the wide passenger vessel design experience of Deltamarin Group. All eight vessels are for deployment on north European routes. The choice of E-Flexer for the ferry designation type sums up flexibility, notably from the fact that two of the four exercised options will be longer at 239.7 m, cater for 1,200 passengers and offer increased lane capacity of 3,600 lane-m. The previous six units will offer 930 passenger berths and 3,100 lane-m within a length of 215 m. Next to these eight ships, Stena has taken out options for four more E-Flexers which would take employment as far ahead as 2023.
Deltamarin’s experience working in China with Stena on board already gained a jumbo ferry order from Viking Line, Finland soon after the E-Flexer contract. This single order will see Xiamen Shipbuilding Industry deliver a 2,800-passenger capacity ropax offering 1,500 lane-m of freight space. It will be LNG-powered and revives a newbuilding previously ordered in Spain by Viking Line a few years ago and cancelled due to unacceptable delays. A unique feature of the vessel will be two 24-m high rotor sails to compliment LNG fuel burning.
Chinese orders for DFDS and Moby
Complementing the Stena ropax ferries are orders from DFDS for similar-sized units. The Danish owner will take two of the Stena ferries on 10-year charters for service between Dover and France. Additionally, DFDS has ordered two plus optional two smaller ropax units from Guangzhou Shipyard offering accommodation for 600 passengers and 4,500 lane-m of freight space.
The two firm units will operate between Lithuania and Sweden or Germany and will together cost Dkr1.8Bn (US$297M). These will again be built to Deltamarin design with the Finnish designer’s contract with DFDS valued at €5M (US$5.8M). Deltamarin is set to go one step further and is in close liaison with Chinese builders for adopting a state-of-the-art luxury accommodation ropax designed for Asia ferry routes. China has a thriving internal ferry industry and now may also be the time to serve routes to countries within the vast hinterland surrounding China.
Orders and more collaboration between European designers and owners is likely in this new era as more Chinese yards look for high-value, specialist tonnage. Italy is the latest nation to favour China with ropax business. In another ground-breaking deal, cruise liner giant Mediterranean Shipping Co (MSC) changed course to enter a new sector of luxury cruise ferries.
Working in collaboration with Onorato Shipping Group, Italy (Moby Lines), both owners committed to two luxury cruise roro ferries offering accommodation for 2,500 passengers in 534 cabins and 3,765 lane-m of freight space. The MSC ships will operate from its Genoa ferry office. Guangzhou Shipyard International will build the quartet and both owners have attached options for two more vessels. The dominant presence of Deltamarin was again in evidence having been awarded the design contract. Deliveries are set for 2019 and 2020.
China is well versed in domestic ownership construction but in recent weeks has been consolidating with more export contracts from neighbouring countries. A rare order was secured from South Korea for a 35,000-gt ropax for Han Joong Ferry Lines valued at US$59M. The ferry will run between Incheon and Yantai (China) and will be jointly owned by South Korea and China.
Danish designer OSK Ship Tech teamed up with ENTMV, Algeria, for construction of an 1,800-passenger, 600-car capacity ropax for delivery in June 2019 at a cost of US$175M. Construction is underway at Tianjin Xingang.
Indonesia has ordered the first two in a 10-ship series of passenger ferries at Fujian Southeast where previously this order might have gone to Germany or be built to German blueprints.