Q&A with Philippe Holthof

Friday, 18 February 2022

Philippe Holthof recently joined EHRENBERG SØRENSEN Kommunikation’s Transport sector team and agency as an associated senior advisor. A Belgian native born the son of a master mariner who captained ferries of the Ostend-Dover Line, 52-year-old Philippe has been passionate about “everything maritime” in general and ferries in particular since childhood. We have asked him some questions about the maritime industry:

Let’s talk about the “F” word; how can ferry operators meet the ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets?

I don’t have a crystal ball, but as is commonly known, LNG is a transition fuel and remains a fossil fuel after all. It proved to be a good answer to the sulphur reduction challenge. With their fixed short-sea routes and port calls, ferry operators have taken the lead when it comes to eco-friendly alternative fuels. The Norwegians with their myriad of fjord ferry services are at the forefront of battery propulsion, soon to be followed by liquid hydrogen. Yet, it mainly concerns short-distance routes operated by relatively small ferries. Implementing these technologies to large, longer distance ro-pax ships represents a giant leap. So, we should be realistic and accept that there’s still no clear-cut answer as to what fuel will power our tomorrow’s ferries. Obviously, this makes ferry operators hesitate and when ordering newbuilds they still typically choose for conventional diesel or dual fuel engines, quite often combined with hybrid technologies. A reduction of energy consumption means a reduction of emissions. In the short term, what better way to reduce energy consumption and the emissions footprint per transported vehicle than increasing the capacity of existing tonnage? This, together with a somewhat reduced speed and an array of energy-saving tools, has been favoured by a few ro-pax and ro-ro operators of late. I believe that we will see more ferry lengthenings or jumboisations as kind of stopgap solution until new alternative fuels have become more widespread.

Could you shed some light on the ferry newbuilding market?

Admittedly, the ferry newbuilding market is not as buoyant as certain other segments in shipping. We have seen a newbuilding spree in recent years, yet it remains fairly marginal with a worldwide ferry fleet that is aging. As earlier explained, the fuel debate makes some operators hesitate to order anew. There is no such thing as standardization or one size fits all in ferry shipping, driving up building costs considerably. Inspired by the successful Visentini series, Stena has bucked the trend with its successful E-Flexers, yet this is quite unique in the industry as most ro-pax ferries remain purpose-built for the trade they will serve. To keep CAPEX low, many of the new ro-pax ferries are rather straightforward and utilitarian. Viking Line’s brand-new VIKING GLORY, soon to be introduced on the Turku-Åland-Stockholm route, is one of the exceptions though. Staying in the Baltic, this is a part of the world that will benefit from a large influx of new ro-pax and ro-ro tonnage in the months and years to come with DFDS just having introduced AURA SEAWAYS, the first ro-pax ship the Danish shipping and logistics giant has built from scratch in nearly 40 years! Say no more!

How will the ferry sector emerge from the COVID-19 crisis?

This health crisis is something which we will likely and hopefully never experience again in our lives. Passengers stayed away from ferries almost overnight, especially during the first wave in 2020. Earlier crises, especially the one in the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch, were characterized by plummeting freight figures. This crisis is different with operators relying heavily on passengers and their onboard spendings being hardest hit. Ferry operators whose model is freight-orientated – and luckily this is the majority – will come out of this crisis fairly unscathed.

Do you have a specific message to ferry executives?

As a seasoned journalist and former editor-in-chief I have often been annoyed by the rather so-so quality of certain press releases with hardly any flesh on the bone. Then there are also people with poor communication skills. Luckily, many people are doing an excellent job. In today’s world that is dominated by social media, it also doesn’t help to hide certain news or have a wait-and-see attitude.

Last but not least, as a ferry nerd you must have a favourite ship?

Let me be very clear; I’m not a nerd! And this is not only because the word “nerd” has a negative connotation. I would rather say that I’m passionate and one really needs to be passionate in this business. As regards a favourite ship; well a model of STENA DANICA which Stena AB’s Carl-Johan Hagman recently gifted me, takes pride of place in my home office. This ship was well ahead of her time and ranks high on my list of favourite ships. But there are other ships too, notably Townsend Thoresen’s (nowadays P&O Ferries) 1980-built Spirit Class and Silja Line’s 1981-built FINLANDIA and SILVIA REGINA. Finnlines’ Superstar Class holds promise to give a fresh impetus to the ferry industry and stands a good chance to qualify for the title of my favourite next-generation ro-pax ships.





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