Exactly eighty years ago, the longest ocean tow ever undertaken was completed when a pair of Smit tugs with an 18,000 ton floating dock arrived in the New Zealand capital city of Wellington after a 13,500 mile voyage from Newcastle, where the dock had been built. Over the next sixty years, until it was finally disposed of, the Wellington dock provided the base of a useful domestic ship repair business, able to offer underwater repair facilities to the commonwealth’s coastal shipping fleet, occasional deep sea vessels and the inter-island ferries which operated from Wellington to the South.

Today, there is no floating dock available, so when one of the inter-island ferries lost a propeller and a section of tail shaft in the middle of the Cook Strait just before Christmas, this caused an enormous amount of disruption. While the propeller and shaft was recovered by salvors, replacing it is a major problem, with no dry-dock available in either New Zealand or Australia and a voyage on one engine to Singapore the most likely scenario. A Baltic ferry has been chartered for six months to act as a replacement on this important “lifeline” service across the straits. All in all, it will prove an expensive business. 

Although wrathful potential passengers have been asking why there are no longer any facilities in their country for such repairs there is, of course, no real mystery about why, in many parts of the world, there are no dry-docks available. The fact is that there are just not enough customers to keep such facilities viable, with dry-docking intervals greatly extended and a great deal of work once undertaken in a dry-dock capable of being done “in-water”. Even many types of emergency underwater repairs can be carried out by divers and the employment of caissons. Hull coatings are increasingly designed for longer life, while underwater brushing and cleaning can keep a vessel’s underwater parts in a pristine condition.

Fewer units and more productive coastal shipping has also reduced the customer-base of such local repair industries, while bigger ships in virtually every sector will most likely have reduced the ability of any local dry-dock operator to usefully intervene with ships beyond his facilities. Big ship repair facilities now tend to be clustered in areas where the potential customer base is maximised, such as Singapore, South China, South Korea, the Gulf and North Europe. In these places, the volume of potential business has permitted large scale investment in big docks, although it has to be said that the sudden surge in giant container ship building has provoked some thought about future availability. 

The New Zealand ferry problem, which has been given rather more publicity because it occurred at the peak of the holiday season, might nevertheless serve as something of a reminder of both vulnerabilities and potential costs should something untoward happen that requires a dry-dock repair take place where there is no such facility to be found. The fact that there are rather more parts of the world no longer served by a useful local dry-dock, ought perhaps to suggest that sensible operators need to have a “Plan B”, just in case.

Author: The Watchkeeper                             Source: BIMCO