Last updated: January 26, 2009 10:20 pm

Redundant vessels find rural retreat

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The Challenger II and Adventure II make a striking sight when they come into view a short boat trip down the Fal river from Truro, the largest town in Cornwall, south-west England. The two ships, which both have a capacity of just under 40,000 tonnes, look over-sized amid the river’s peaceful waters, against the backdrop of its thickly wooded banks.

The vessels, which until recently carried coal between the Baltic and the UK, are the largest of a flotilla of ships that has arrived on the river since December as the world’s slowing economy has led shipowners to take ships out of service. The Fal, a sunken river valley that marries protection from the elements with deep water, has hosted such vessels during shipping recessions for more than 100 years, according to Andrew Brigden, harbour-master of the Port of Truro, who organises the lay-up berths.

The Fal and other lay-up sites worldwide have found themselves deluged in recent months with requests to accommodate underemployed ships. And the vessels’ arrival has been far more sudden than in previous downturns, according to Capt Brigden.

“It wasn’t one ship coming in then another,” he says of the rush that began before Christmas. “It was, ‘Need a berth now or as soon as possible.’”

The surge in interest has vindicated the decision by local government to maintain the lay-up berths. The council bought the mooring equipment in the late 1980s from the UK’s Department of Transport, when it decided to stop maintaining a network of such sites around the coast.

The other sites were abandoned, although a number of sites round the UK – including the Port of Southampton and Scapa Flow in Scotland’s Orkney Islands – are starting to offer lay-up berths as well.

Even the Fal’s moorings had been barely used over the past eight years, as China’s export-led boom kept nearly every ship in the world fully employed.

“We’ve been pretty much empty for the last eight, nine years,” says Capt Brigden, who has been harbour-master for 21 years. “The last good source of income was 1999 to 2000.”

The vessels, which are still manned by skeleton crews, testify which forms of shipping have suffered most. The two dry bulk ships – owned by Britannia Bulk, which called in administrators in October – are victims of the sector’s oversupply of ships and sudden fall in commodities demand. Average charter rates in the sector are down more than 90 per cent from a peak hit last summer and 30 to 40 dry bulk ships are laid up worldwide, according to Rob Lomas, secretary-general of Intercargo, the sector’s trade body.

Two car-carriers – the Autocarrier and Autoline – testify to the falling demand for new cars. There are three refrigerated ships – some companies in the sector have suffered through competition from container ships.

Capt Brigden is now having to turn away some requests for berths because the existing facilities are almost full. But he is considering laying a further set of moorings further down the river. “You could put another three moorings down there – another six to eight berths depending on the size of ships,” he says.

But as a former seafarer himself, Capt Brigden admits to mixed feelings about seeing so many ships laid up and the plight of the skeleton crews. “This a recession where as soon as you get on, the crew are worried ... are they going to get paid? It’s freezing out on the river and they have no money. As a mariner, I think it’s not a nice way to spend your time.”

The Fal river is one of scores of sites worldwide where ships have been laid up in the face of collapsing demand.

How shipowners decide which to use depends on factors including the vessel’s current position and the circumstances that led to its being laid up.

Rob Lomas of Intercargo says the UK has big advantages because of its good transport links. Many legal actions over vessels are settled in the English courts, meaning that it can be more convenient to leave vessels subject to disputes in the UK.

But there are also many ships laid up off Piraeus – popular because Greece is the world’s largest shipowning country – and off Singapore, next to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

“We’re well aware that throughout the world people are considering lay-up alternatives,” Mr Lomas says. “It partly depends where the ship has traded last.”

Norway’s fjords were popular in previous shipping recessions, because of their combination of shelter and deep water. However, Captain Andrew Brigden points out, lay-up can range from “cold”, from which it would take a ship weeks to restart, to “hot”, where it would take only days.

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