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BC's German Ferries May Be Lemons

Heavy fuel use, noise, vibration and air-sucking propellers said to be problems.

Andrew MacLeod 18 Nov

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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BC Ferries' Coastal Renaissance

On Dec. 13, 2007, the first of three Super C-class vessels built for $542 million in Germany arrived in B.C. to much fanfare. Less than 10 months later, B.C. Ferries announced the Coastal Renaissance would be spending more days tied up at the terminal than it would carrying passengers. The publicly owned company that runs the ferries has yet to fully explain why.

Back when the Coastal Renaissance arrived, B.C. Ferries' chief operating officer Mike Corrigan said the ship's diesel-electric propulsion system was 30 per cent more efficient than the engines on older ferries. Once all three of the new vessels were operating, he said, the ferry company would save about $5 million worth of fuel each year.

But in early October, B.C. Ferries' cost savings measures included replacing the Coastal Renaissance four days a week with the 32-year-old Queen of Cowichan. The two vessels carry about the same loads, but according to the watchdog citizens' group Save Our Ferries, the Super C-class vessel requires almost 20 percent more fuel to cross the Strait of Georgia.

A problem called cavitation

The new vessels' high fuel consumption may be related to larger problems that the ferry company has yet to disclose to the ferry-riding and taxpaying public.

"It's my understanding that there are some design flaws with the new ships," said Nelle Maxey, an organizer of Save Our Ferries. She has heard the new vessels are not as efficient as the old ones, she said, and that it has something to do with the propellers sitting too high in the water.

As NDP ferry critic Gary Coons explained it, the propellers churn the surface more than they should. The problem can lead to noise, vibrations and poor fuel efficiency, he said.

Company representatives have not spoken much publicly about this problem, though it was raised in a Jan. 8, 2008, Nanaimo Daily News article that quoted a local resident complaining about the noise and vibrations coming from the Coastal Renaissance when it was docked. The article said a B.C. Ferries official explained to the resident that the problems were caused by cavitation, a condition where there are pressure differences across parts of propeller blades. It's made worse by the fact the vessel was sitting high in the water, it said, and the "propellers are sucking air from the surface."

The Nanaimo article also quoted B.C. Ferries' spokesperson Deborah Marshall saying the problem, caused by "propeller vibration," would go away once the ship was fully loaded with vehicles and passengers. The added weight would push the propellers deeper, the article said, so that they would suck less air.

Mysterious gravel trucks experiment

One day last week, 18 fully loaded gravel trucks rolled onto the vehicle deck of B.C.'s newest ferry, the last of the Super C-class vessels to arrive, the Coastal Celebration. In an unusual test, engineers were filling the ship to its maximum to see if they could sink it far enough to get the propellers deep enough into the water to reduce the noise and vibration it makes when it's running.

Asked about the gravel trucks, Marshall wrote, "They wanted to simulate normal operating conditions." She did not respond to further questions about whether or not the full load helped.

Cavitation can cause a number of problems. According to three naval architects and marine engineers interviewed for background, cavitation can cause vibrations, noise and a loss of thrust. That loss of thrust can lead to higher fuel consumption, as appears to be happening with the Coastal Renaissance. It can also do long-term damage to a ship, leading to a pitting or erosion of the propeller, further reducing efficiency.

Without looking at the specifics of the case, one of the naval architects said it is sometimes possible to fix cavitation problems, and with any new ship there will be "teething problems." This is especially true when the ship is one of a kind or the first in a series, such as the Coastal Renaissance.

The problems are worse when the ships are docked, said one source. The engines have to go at their full speed and the propellers turn even when the ship is stopped, which causes heavy fuel use. It also relates to the cavitation problem because when the ships are tied up, there are fewer options for changing the angle of the propeller or heavily loading one end of the ship than when they are underway.

NDP ferries critic Coons said making the vessels heavier may or may not solve the noise and vibration problems, but it will add to fuel inefficiency. "More weight means more fuel usage." The engines may be efficient, he said, but they are being used on heavier boats and therefore require more fuel.

"I think there's major concerns about those vessels," said Coons. "Obviously there are some major design flaws. I hope these are warranty issues. We wouldn't want this to turn into a foreign ferry fiasco."

'Performing extremely well': BC Ferries

Ferries president and CEO David Hahn acknowledged in an October Vancouver Sun article that fuel consumption is a problem with the new ferries, but was quoted saying the vessels will be more efficient once B.C. Ferries' captains and crews get better at driving them. "Hahn said it takes some time to learn how to operate the vessels properly, just as it does to learn how everything in a home works after a major renovation," the article said.

Hahn's explanation offended at least some of the people who drive the ships, according to sources. And it is unlikely the full story. While improved handling will reduce the fuel used during landings, it does nothing to cut the amount burned while underway and while sitting at the terminal.

B.C. Ferries spokesperson Marshall requested questions be sent by e-mail before she would arrange an interview with a company official who knows about the ships. Instead of arranging an interview, however, she wrote back herself: "The Super C-class or Coastal Class vessels are performing extremely well and B.C. Ferries is very pleased with their performance."

There have been a few issues, she allowed, but the ships have a two-year warranty and they have been fixed by FSG. She repeated Hahn's position that fuel consumption will lessen as captains and crews get better at driving the ships. "Crews are still conducting training in docking the ship and are utilizing more power to do so," she wrote. "As the captains and crew continue to learn to manoeuvre the vessel with less power, B.C. Ferries will optimize fuel consumption."

Ships met specifications: FSG

Broder Hinrichsen, the head of design for Flensburger Schiffbau Gesellschaft, the shipyard that built the three new ferries, said he had not heard that Coastal Renaissance had been partially pulled from service. It surprised him that fuel consumption would be the reason given, he said. "I can assure you it's not a problem."

The vessel was fully tested before it left Germany and it met the specifications B.C. Ferries had set in its contract with FSG, he said, including for fuel consumption. "The three vessels are absolutely to the specifications."

He said he has heard there were some complaints from people living near the harbour, but he believes the propellers are not the problem. "The propeller worked pretty well. Otherwise you wouldn't have achieved the design speed and so on."

He could not say more without breaking client confidentiality, he said, so further questions should be directed to B.C. Ferries. FSG is also building a ferry to replace the Queen of the North.

While B.C. Ferries officials did not take the opportunity to talk frankly about the problems with the ships, stories are emerging from people inside and outside the company.

The latest, confirmed by more than one source, is that there is a problem with the alternators FSG used. Diesel-electric engines lose power when their alternators stop working. There is a bar in each alternator the length and shape of a bent arm. The bars FSG used have too small a radius and need to be replaced with slightly larger ones. It's an easy repair, but requires moving each 40,000-pound alternator just to reach it.

Each of the three ships has four engines, so altogether there are 12 alternators to fix. The repairs are covered under FSG's warranty, a source said, but will be expensive for the German company. Coastal Renaissance is being done now, to be followed by Coastal Inspiration next, and lastly Coastal Celebration.

Information shielded

There is also a story about how the power of the ships is pulling silt out from under the docks at the terminals they use. The company, according to documents filed with SEDAR, spent at least $11 million last year getting terminals ready for the new ships, and they may soon have to spend more on repairs.

Coastal Renaissance started out with propellers made in France, but reportedly had hubs on them replaced with ones made in Russia before the ship even made it out of Europe. Now new propeller parts are on order from Russia, but it will take at least 16 months before they arrive and are ready to go.

There have been problems with their electrical and sewage systems as well, though sources say those bugs have generally been worked out.

B.C. Ferries needs to be more forthcoming with information, said the NDP's Coons. When the B.C. Liberals restructured the ferry company in 2003, they made it exempt from the province's freedom of information laws. "B.C. Ferries puts out only the information it wants to put out," Coons said. "I'm not pleased at all with the amount of information we're getting."

The Coastal Ferry Act needs to be amended to include provisions for public oversight, he said.

So far, the company and the government have not fully explained exactly what's wrong with the new vessels, how serious the problems are and whether they can be fixed.

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