Ronald Brak

Because not everyone can be normal.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


My father was a seaman. He'd travel from port to port, eating spinach and beating off Bluto with his fists. There was a lot of friction between my father and Bluto, particularly when there there was nothing else between them except Olive Oil. In that case they'd go at it so hard that only the appearance of a lot of seamen was enough to prise them apart.

Unfortunately both my father and Bluto had it hard with the event of Containerisation. It was a seductive technology with incredible cost curves that were just too hard for shipping companies to resist and it resulted in them discharging excess seamen in every port in the world. Shipping managers bent over backwards to lay off seamen and seamen could be let loose on the flimsiest of pretences or even on a tissue of lies. If men mouthed off below decks and any of it found its way into the Captain's ear, he would sack them eagerly. A single heated ejaculation could result in seamen being discharged. Captains maintained rigid discipline and rode their men hard, hoping to break them, and often pushed too hard, irreparably damaging their dignity. As far as the owners of the cargo lines were concerned, they were locked in a no holds barred battle with sailors to expel all the excess seamen they could wring from their organisations. Competition meant that financially they had their backs to the wall and were stuck between a rock and a hard place. And it was a big hard rock rearing up before them and they were willing to do whatever it took to remain in the black.

We all know how this story ended. The mass employment of semen came to a sticky end and containerised ships ended up with skeleton crews hired in the lowest wage countries that produced men manly enough to sail the seven seas, such as the Philippines. But now, once again, cargo companies are in dire straits and are desperately in need of a hand to tug them out of the economic morass they are in. And being the magnanimous guy I am, I am willing to let bygones be bygones and reach around and give them that hand and tug hard. Not for their sake, but for the sake of everyone who loves the feel of a swell below decks and the taste of salt in their mouth. I'm not the sort of guy to stand by and let good men go down without me.

Currently, shipping is faced with a devilish situation and is stuck in deep poo for three main reasons. Indeed, it could be said shipping is stuck between the devil and the deep poo three. The first problem is that less goods are being shipped because every rich country except Australia decided that prosperity sucks. The second problem is that the price of fuel is high. And the third problem is that there isn't a third problem important enough to serve as the basis of that excruciatingly bad pun I made.

But, I have a suggestion that that may help with the second problem, the high cost of fuel. Ships run off – well, they run off hideous gack. Go find a container of car oil, the thicker the better, and then scrape some bitumen off the road. Now place the two next to each other and imagine what their love child would look like. That's what cargo ships run off. It's called heavy fuel oil, or number 6 fuel oil, or bunker fuel. The last name is kind of silly as you can keep just about any sort of fuel in a bunker, Imperial Japan kept a peanut oil mix in theirs towards the end, but that's what it's often called.

Now bunker fuel is expensive because oil is expensive, but as it's the nastiest part of a barrel of oil it's cheaper than petrol or diesel in much the same way that her hands are the least expensive part of Madonna. So it's cheaper than petrol, but not a great deal cheaper. If it was a great deal cheaper, refiners would lock it in a hot, dark place and do terrible things to it until it weeped diesel. What? You don't think they'd do that? Yeah, well refiners don't build coking units for fun, you know. (For refiners, rather than fun, it's more of a sexual thrill.)

There are people trying to get around the high cost of oil on land by building electric cars and this could work for ships, but there are a few problems. Unless they had a regular short range run, their batteries would have to be what we scientists call very, very large. This would be a considerable upfront cost and at the moment there are more ships than there is cargo available, so shipping companies aren't very interested in building some sort of fancy new ship. They just seem to want to move the ships they currently have as slowly as possible to minimise fuel use. No one knows when the OECD countries will stop kicking themselves in the economic nuts, and so no one wants to invest in expensive new capital that might not be needed for a long time and which might be range limited.

So this is why I suggest electric tugs could be used to tow ships. Sure, towing a ship won't be quite as efficient as using a straight electric ship, but it has some advantages. An electric tug is cheaper to develop than an electric cargo ship and people have already made a start on them. It makes use of existing capital in the form of current fuel oil powered ships, as any ship can be electrically tugged. Short range is not a problem - an electric tug could operate between two reasonably close ports towing ships in both directions (but not at the same time). The tugs could tow ships with filth emitting engines through waters where there are restrictions on ship sulphur emissions. The electric tugging of seamen and their ships could start where low electricity costs and or environmental restrictions make it the most profitable, and as costs decline and/or the cost of bunker fuel goes up, electric tugging could be expanded to other areas. Electric tugs could even be used over long distance sea lanes, either through the use of massive flow batteries, or more likely, the construction of places where tugs could stop to recharge.

Of course, the big advantage for cash strapped shipping companies is the savings. It is much cheaper to move cargo using electricity than bunker fuel. Just how much cheaper depends on the cost of a tug and electricity prices and oil prices, but I'm pretty sure we're at or near a point where it should be profitable. All we really need is some people to start the balls rolling. So, to sum up, if you're into tugging, or you own a shipping company, grab those balls and toss. Don't just use oil, try pulling your seamen with electric tugs. It's good for the environment and will give you a warm feeling deep in your hip pocket.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home