PROFILE: Tasmanian marine businesses in focus

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The 110m Virtu ferry under construction at Incat in Hobart. Note the four tubes used for the high-speed waterjet propulsion.
The 110m Virtu ferry under construction at Incat in Hobart. Note the four tubes used for the high-speed waterjet propulsion.

Tasmanian marine businesses are adding a new chapter to the state's rich maritime history.

An unswerving commitment to quality: Grant Asher who took over as CEO and joint owner at Muir Engineering last year.
An unswerving commitment to quality: Grant Asher who took over as CEO and joint owner at Muir Engineering last year.

Having been founded by Robert Muir in 1968, Tasmanian marine manufacturer Muir Engineering will celebrate its 50th year in business in 2018. The company changed hands in 2016 with CEO Grant Asher and Queensland-based Andrew Buckley taking over the reins and while the new ownership structure is bringing a new direction to the company, its core focus remains unchanged – namely an unswerving commitment to quality.

Based in the Hobart suburb of Kingston, the company is one of a handful of local marine manufacturers to have a truly global reputation. Touring the company's factory, it's not hard to see why; its range of products – winches, windlasses and anchoring systems – is unparalleled. On one side of the aisle, pallets of winches are heading off to be sold to recreational boaters through the company’s retail network, while on the other huge windlasses are being assembled, destined for some of the world’s biggest, most expensive megayachts.

It’s quite a sight within what is a comparatively small manufacturing space but one which encapsulates the company's global standing. Few companies in the world are capable of encompassing such a wide range of marine market sectors spanning everything from small tinnies to luxury boats as well as commercial vessels and navy warships. The company's sales are split roughly 40/40/20 across recreational, superyacht and commercial markets and it exports about 60% of its production.

Interestingly, the company still sources its castings from a local foundry in Hobart, preferring to support local manufacturing rather than import supplies. Grant Asher explained that this helps to maintain quality control and that once freight is factored in there is no real cost difference. The company is quality assured to ISO9001 and its products meet the stringent standards of global classification societies.

The company uses the latest CAD/CAM design systems and and CNC milling equipment but there's one piece of equipment which, as Asher explains, perhaps best exemplifies the Muir ethos. It's an old Czech-built lathe which Robert Muir bought in the early days of the business and which is still running, still doing a job. Built to last, it demonstrates that while times may change, quality remains a constant.

Finishing off the latest ferry for Sydney Ferries, the as-yet unnamed Ferry McFerryFace.
Finishing off the latest ferry for Sydney Ferries, the as-yet unnamed Ferry McFerryFace.

Incat powers on

Incat is one of the leading companies in the maritime sector, not just in Tasmania where it is a major employer but around the world. Its high-speed catamaran ferries can be found operating on routes throughout North and South America, Europe and Asia. In fact 60% of the world's high-speed ferries over 750 tonnes have been built by Incat.

Like many ship builders, the company has weathered the up and downs of the global economy over the past decade but is currently enjoying a resurgence with orders from local and overseas ferry operators keeping the 550-strong workforce busy. The huge manufacturing site at Prince of Wales Bay has two main production areas – two sheds devoted to building smaller passenger ferries and two larger sheds for the bigger builds.

On the day that Marine Business visited, staff were finishing off one of the new 35m ferries for Sydney Harbour, at the time unnamed but subsequently somewhat controversially called Ferry McFerryFace. Interestingly, in order to deliver the ferry across Bass Strait, Incat originally christened it Emerald 6 before its official name was made public in Sydney. This is one of six new ferries for Sydney Ferries built in the style of the older Harbour ferries but incorporating a modern, more spacious design.

The retro-style look of the Sydney ferry contrasted markedly with another 35m ferry under construction in the shed, a sleek-looking fast catamaran being built for Port Phillip Ferries in Melbourne which operates a regular fast ferry service between Melbourne’s Docklands and Portarlington on the Bellarine Peninsula – hence the new vessel's name, Bellarine Express.

In the larger sheds – one of which recently had its roof raised by 3 metres to accommodate larger vessels – a small army of builders were hard at work on a 110m wave piercing catamaran destined for Virtu Ferries in Europe. Due to be delivered by the end of 2018, the ferry will operate between Malta and Sicily, and will be the largest high-speed catamaran in the Mediterranean.

Seeing a large vessel such as this come together is an awesome sight, like a giant metallic kit gradually being assembled. When completed, the shed where it is being built is designed to be partially flooded, enabling the vessel to float out onto the Derwent River. This build will be followed by another huge 109m catamaran for ferry operator Naviera Armas in Spain which will be the first high speed ferry in southern Europe to feature a dual vehicle deck.

Barge gives mooring business a lift

Bob Kelly and Jeff Whayman of Channel Moorings Maintenance.
Bob Kelly and Jeff Whayman of Channel Moorings Maintenance.

Channel Moorings Maintenance run by Bob Kelly offers a specialised service throughout south-east Tasmania installing and maintaining moorings, as well as carrying out other marine engineering work.

Prior to starting the business, Kelly had a stake in a mussel farm at Bruny Island and worked in some exotic locations around the world as a construction manager in the gold mining sector. These days he can be found working up and down the Derwent River estuary, as far south as Dover and across to Port Arthur in the east.

When he started out a few years ago, Kelly decided that rather than using a second-hand vessel or converted fishing boat, he would build his own purpose-built barge for the job. The current vessel is a 10.5m x 4m barge built locally by Cawthorn Welding to a design by Oceantech Design in South Australia. Having been built specifically for mooring maintenance work, Kelly says the barge is “just about perfect”.

The aluminium vessel is powered by twin 60hp Yamaha outboards and features a 3 tonne, 2.3
metre Hiab Sea Crane, a lifting gantry with a 5 tonne lifting winch, another 4 tonne winch and a 3.5 tonne hydraulically-driven capstan. It also has a 3,000psi high-pressure cleaner for blasting all the dirt and marine growth off the moorings when they are lifted.

Kelly says there are about 2,500 moorings in southern Tasmania (4,000 around the state in total) and while Marine and Safety Tasmania (MAST) requires that they are inspected every two years Kelly says owners often leave it a lot longer, increasing the risk of failure during rough weather. Enforcement of the maintenance requirement has also been haphazard.

“MAST are on the cusp of trying to tighten it up,” says Kelly, “but it’s been let go for so many years, there’s a great deal of pushback from the boating public.”

In addition to mooring maintenance, the North West Bay barge is well-suited to a variety of other on-water engineering tasks, whether it’s removing old wooden piles at Oyster Cove Marina or repairing navigation masts for TasPorts. On the day that Marine Business visited, Kelly and Jeff Whayman were finishing up a drilling job which involved loading a rig onto the barge and lowering the drill pipe through an opening in the deck.

Such jobs make a welcome change from the dirty business of lifting moorings. It helps too having the ideal workboat and means that Channel Moorings Maintenance is well-placed to do the jobs that other contractors are not equipped to handle.

The purpose-built barge for mooring maintenance and marine engineering work run by Channel Moorings Maintenance.
The purpose-built barge for mooring maintenance and marine engineering work run by Channel Moorings Maintenance.

This article was first published in the December-January 2018 issue of Marine Business magazine.

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