MBNA Thames Clippers is boosting its fleet with UK-built high speed ferries, and is poised to use LNG for future vessels. Rebecca Moore speaks to its chief executive and founder Sean Collins
MBNA Thames Clippers founder and chief executive Sean Collins has fulfilled a “burning desire” as the river ferry operator is building vessels for the first time ever in the UK.
Wight Shipyard Co scooped the order to build the fast ferries for MBNA Thames Clippers’ network on London’s River Thames in what is the largest passenger fast ferry contract for a UK shipyard in over 25 years.
Mr Collins said: “It has always been a burning desire and a long-term ambition for me to one day start building our boats in the UK. Up until now I have not had the confidence to go with a British yard because of their jaded history and inflated prices, and then not delivering. In 2014, five yards went out of business which had been predominantly building high speed windfarm vessels. This gave me no confidence in a yard being able to deliver a larger passenger vessel built to High-Speed Craft Code requirements. I have a very different view with Wight Shipyard Co, because of both the management and the workforce. They have brought together some of the best people. They have a large, young force.”
The new 170-passenger capacity vessels follow hot on the heels of two 35m Hunt class catamarans that were built by Australia’s Incat and delivered to MBNA Thames Clippers in 2015. The newbuilds will be the same as the previous vessels – and in the same Hunt class – apart from some minor modifications and weight reductions to achieve additional 20 seat capacity in each. They are due to be delivered in June and July this year.
“We need additional capacity in the business as, despite adding to our fleet with the two Incat-built boats only in 2015, we very quickly filled them up on that commuter route. We have got a very important commitment in 2017 to deliver a service to Battersea Power Station, which is what the newbuilds that are on order will be used for,” explained Mr Collins.
The vessels delivered in 2015 have been designed to comply with the International Code of Safety for High-Speed Craft (HSC Code) category A, with Maritime and Coastguard Agency equivalences appropriate to operation solely in UK Category C waters. Indeed this aspect makes the ferries stand out from others – the MBNA Thames Clippers fleet is built to the HSC Code. This is a rarity among high speed river vessels, as most are not built to the HSC Code, which tends to be for ocean-going high speed ferries.
The latest vessels also stand out because they employ waterjets rather than the propellers which most of the current fleet have. Two Rolls-Royce Kamewa 40A3 waterjets have been fitted to the vessels.
Furthermore, the jets combined with Scania engines (two Scania DI16 072M marine diesel engines, rated at 625kW or 850hp at 2,100 rpm) provide an efficient combination when it comes to combatting noise and vibration
Their exterior has a vinyl finish, rather than being coated with paint, which brings greater energy savings. The new vessels being built by Wight Shipyard Co include all these features.
Explaining why the newbuilds will be the same as the previous vessels, Mr Collins said: “A lot of work and detail went into the specification in those two first-in-class that we built in 2015. The excitement throughout the build was phenomenal – it was so exciting to see them coming to completion. We have got a great product in that design to satisfy the complexities of the route that they are operating on, where you have got at low tide very little water depth and at high tide very little bridge clearance.
"Our biggest disappointment is that there is not enough development going on with engine manufacturers for this size and type of vessel for the use of CNG and LNG. When that barrier is overcome in four or five years’ time we want to be in the forefront in delivering the alternative fuel vessel.” Sean Collins, MBNA Thames Clippers
“They really are vessels with big boat features, condensed into a very small platform. Just by doing things minimally and making sure everything on board is the right thing for the job, but efficient, keeps them light. They are lighter by 18 tonnes, compared to the rest of the fleet. These boats are 15 per cent per passenger journey fuel-saving, compared to previous boats.”
Commenting on the building of the latest vessels to HSC Code requirements, Mr Collins said: “I have not got any problem building to HSC Code, but certain requirements do add equipment and weight unnecessarily to vessels that are not totally practical for the environment in which they are operating.” He singled out, as an example, the requirement that vessels must have 100 per cent life raft redundancy and be built with double bottoms.
“When you look at the environment that we operate in, we are never more than four minutes away from the river side or 10 minutes from a sistership. And there are very fast flowing tides, so it is very unlikely that the master would utilise life rafts. They would always try to get the vessel to safe port of refuge or call upon the assistance of another vessel,” Mr Collins argued.
MBNA Thames Clippers also used Wight Shipyard Co last year to refit three of its river vessel fleet. Commenting on the future of the relationship, Mr Collins said: “It always makes sense to have a long-term relationship with one specific yard. They become more effective and efficient in building our boats, and we become so too. When you look at design technology, it has not moved on that much in the last 20 years. I think there is an opportunity for change – certainly there is a way in which we can look at evolution and try to simplify things. It helps to do that by partnering with one yard.”
Asked about his expansion plans for the fleet beyond the latest newbuild order, Mr Collins said: “It very much depends on route expansion. We are getting more and more demand on our eastern route so we are likely to need greater capacity. Some of the sailings require larger capacity vessels than the largest we have now [220 passengers], so we may go bigger.”
Indeed, when the company does decide to place further newbuild orders, it is poised to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) and wants to be in the forefront in delivering a ferry running on alternative fuel.
Speaking about his plans to use LNG, Mr Collins said: “Our biggest disappointment is that there is not enough development going on with engine manufacturers for this size and type of vessel for the use of CNG [compressed natural gas] and LNG. When that barrier is overcome in four or five years’ time, we will take advantage. We are poised to do this. We want to be in the forefront in delivering the alternative fuel vessel.”
He said that CNG is the more likely form of fuel to be used by the company because the bunkering process is not as complicated.
The company also has plans to carry out its own drydocking in the near future by using a crane or hoist along the River Thames. “There is more and more demand on maintenance facilities and we are very concerned that they are not going to be able to meet our needs in the long term,” Mr Collins explained.