Too Many Ships in the World Merchant Fleet

For ship spotters and maritime historians, it was an event of great significance. Back in 2005 the world fleet of cargo-carrying ships reached the symbolic 50,000 number. Today there are many more, and their capacity has risen enormously. For shipowners and market analysts, this enlargement is also significant, but has worrying overtones: expansion in many categories has greatly exceeded the growth of seaborne trade and demand for these vessels. The result has been varying degrees of depressed shipping markets over much of the past few years.

The world merchant ship fleet is very large, probably larger than most people would guess. But just how many vessels are there? What is their cargo carrying capacity? How did this fleet develop in recent years and why? And what is the outlook for the future? The answers to these questions are of interest not only to those participating in, or merely observing, this remarkable industry; they are scrutinised intensely within academic maritime studies at GMI.

Fleet statistics weave a fascinating pattern. By mid-2011 the world’s entire fleet of all types of commercial ships over one hundred tons had increased its gross tonnage to 1 billion. At the end of last year the total reached 1.09 billion GT, numbering 86,300 ships. This gigantic armada includes not only the vast fleets of bulk carriers, tankers and container ships, but also a wide range of other types. General cargo vessels, multi-purpose ships, car carriers, roll on-roll off vessels, gas carriers, reefer tonnage, cruise ships, offshore service vessels and others (such as tugs and dredgers) are represented. Many perform services which do not involve carrying cargo, of course.

According to figures compiled by shipping information providers Clarksons, another (nautical) milestone was attained recently. The world’s fleet of vessels actually carrying cargo – which had numbered 50,000 over seven years ago – reached 1 billion GT in September last year, and since then has grown to 1.01 billion, comprising 57,400 ships, today. It is especially significant that this achievement resulted from cumulative growth of an astounding 43 percent over the past five years, averaging 7.5 percent annually.

Looking at the fleet statistics in more detail reveals some impressive performances over the past few years. Expansion rates in the largest sectors have been rapid. Measured by deadweight volume, the tonnage measurement normally used in the bulk markets, the world fleet of bulk carriers has grown by 73 percent in the past five years. At the end of 2012 there were 9,500 bulk carriers totalling 679 million dwt. The tanker fleet’s growth was 29 percent during the same period, to a total of 515 million dwt (13,500 ships, including 7,700 small tankers below 10,000 dwt). In the container ship sector, where the standard measurement is TEUs (twenty-foot-equivalent units), the world fleet reached 5,100 ships totalling 16.2 million TEU at the end of 2012, after growing by 50 percent over a five-year period.

Why is all this a problem? Unfortunately (for shipowners and their bankers), expansion of transportation capacity in the main fleet sectors has outpaced the growth of global seaborne trade and demand for shipping services. The market’s two sides are often out of balance, to some extent, but in the present cycle the imbalance (oversupply) is particularly large and persistent and is having a brutal impact on freight earnings and profitability.

Contrary to many perceptions, international cargo movements have been growing quite vigorously in recent years. There has been a good recovery from the damaging setback experienced in late 2008 and 2009, when the global financial crisis caused the ‘Great Recession’, which severely but temporarily reduced world economic activity and trade volumes. The upwards trend in seaborne trade resumed and continues, with most forecasts suggesting further strengthening through 2013. A positive trade scene is therefore evolving; some other factors which affect shipping demand have been beneficial as well. On the other side of the balance sheet, enormous amounts of new shipping capacity coming in to the marketplace (partly offset by higher scrapping) has greatly swelled the fleet, as discussed. Much of this new tonnage, or ‘newbuildings’, was ordered at shipbuilding yards in better times when the shipping markets were booming. The result – more rapid fleet expansion than needed – is still unfolding and signs suggest it will continue.

Where do we go from here? Forecasters in this notoriously hard-to-predict industry are frequently wrong-footed by unanticipated events. If the world economy soon takes off again and stays there, boosting trade, surplus shipping capacity could be quickly eliminated, but few expect that to happen. Although China’s economic growth appears to be reviving, the USA is picking up, and Japan could start regaining momentum, Europe’s economy is still in the doldrums and probably will remain there for a while. Political events could disrupt trading patterns and potentially add to demand for ships, but these circumstances are essentially unpredictable. There are other factors, of course, but no indications at present of a quick solution to the fleet over-capacity problem. The scale of the problem, although diminishing, is still so large that adjustment towards a better balance may yet take some time to complete.

Richard Scott
GMI visiting lecturer and MD, Bulk Shipping Analysis

A Student Perspective: the Past, Present and Future of IMO

The IMO was established in Geneva in 1948 and came in to force ten years later, meeting for the first time in 1959. It is a specialize Agency of the United Nations with 170 member states and 3 associate members, and its headquarters is located in London.

The IMO operates on a structural pattern; it is governed by an Assembly of members and is financially administered by a Council of members elected from the Assembly. The work of IMO is conducted through five committees and these are supported by technical subcommittees. The operations of IMO are supported by a permanent secretariat of employees who are representatives of its members. The secretariat is composed of a Secretary-General who is periodically elected by the Assembly, and various divisions such as those for marine safety, environmental protection, and a conference section.

During the past decades the main concern of IMO was to: (a) improve safety at sea (SOLAS), (b) facilitate trade among seafaring states, and (c) protect the maritime environment. Nowadays, IMO aims to enact regulations, which are broadly enforced by national and local maritime authorities in its member countries, such as the COLREG (International Regulation for the Prevention of Collision at Sea), the PSC (Port State Control), which is the inspection of foreign ships in national ports to verify that the condition of the ship and its equipment comply with the requirements of international regulations and that the ship is manned and operated in compliance with these rules. Furthermore, new amendments to the 1974 SOLAS Convention were enacted in December 2002. This development gave rise to the new International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, which went into effect on July 2004. The latter is a new amendment to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention (1974/1988) on minimum security arrangements for ships, ports and government agencies.

But what are the plans of IMO for the future? As most countries of the world are signing the Memoranda of Understanding (protocols), this leads to a unification of the Port State Control procedures among all the signatories. As a result, the enactment and implementation of IMO’s maritime policies will bring about significant development in the maritime sector in a world-wide scale. To be more specific, the future role and responsibility of IMO is to work on and develop technical marine safety, security, and pollution prevention with global standards. However, for this to happen: (a) the governments have the duty to implement and enforce IMO’s safety and security standards, (b) the shipping companies are responsible for the safety of their ships, which means applying safe standards to their ships, (c) the shipboard personnel has the task of putting into operation the various safety, security and anti-pollution measures applicable to the ship on which they serve. In a nutshell, every member of the global maritime and shipping community should be part of the implementation process for IMO to function well.

Raymond Irekhore, MA International Maritime Policy Student

A Student Perspective: Implementation of the Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2009

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (the Act) has a number of elements, such as enabling the Marine Management Organisation and develop marine planning. The primary aim is to strengthen the protection of the marine environment, which includes marine conservation zones and the management of fish stocks.

The Act is the primary legislation, which will be the starting point for a number of secondary legislative processes that will put the purpose(s) of the Act into action. This Act is seen as ground breaking, because it is truly unique. This is because it provides a single regulatory model and body to protect the ‘living seas’ (Wildlife Trust).

The development of the Act is that it will directly counter the problems of overexploitation, which has been a significant issue in the marine environment (and the rationale for the legislative process created). The Act is a culmination of policy review and development from 2001, which inevitably required legislation as the protection of the seas would only be achievable through legal obligations.
The Act has brought some important changes, which include the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) being put into action. There has also be drafting of marine plans in the East and Southern Coasts, as well as a marine licensing regime in place to ensure that any exploitation is based on ensuring sustainable fisheries management. One of the most important factors is the development of marine protected areas, which will limit exploitation in some of the most vulnerable coastal areas.

The main problem with the Act is that it may have enabled potentially substantive organisation and planning, but putting these elements in practice has been less than effective. For example, the MMO has a low value added service; as well as a slow uptake for marine planning. Another example is the ineffectiveness of the marine licensing and fisheries conservation system. This illustrates that the Act has in fact made little practical change, which is due to the ineffectiveness of the practical implementation of the legislation and not the statute itself. This means that the purposes of the Act will not be met; hence there needs to be more effective practical implementation to meet the end goals (especially meeting the Marine Protection Area targets).

The implication is that the Act can be seen as a potentially effective tool to protect the marine environment off the English coast. The implementation seems to be poor, which will mean a mixed bag in meeting the end-goals in immediate and medium future. The consequence of this is that there needs to be special reconsideration of the implementation, in order to create a better model. This may not be necessary; as the Act is relatively new the practical issues may be rectified as the ‘kinks’ are ironed out. As Pliny the Elder identifies “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.” However, it stands to reason that if a system is failing that it is reconfigured to improve the effectiveness of implementation.

Faisal Idris, MA International Maritime Policy Student

How do the Greek ship-owners profit from the global financial crisis?

According to a Moody’s Investors Service analysis, the global shipping slump is expected to last well into 2013 as a glut of vessels and a growing credit squeeze will challenge even the toughest companies in the seaborne sector.

Shipping companies, especially in the oil tanker and dry bulk sectors, already hit by worsening economic turmoil, weak earnings and oversupply ordered in the good times, now face tighter financing as banks cut their exposure to risky and dollar denominated assets such as ship finance to meet tougher capital rules.

However, the above mentioned shipping-related crisis seems to reinforce the Greek ship-owners, who were able to save liquidity thanks to very good years they had, and to keep significant funds in their “coffers.” And now, just before overcoming the crisis, they are trying to seize the newly emerged business opportunities.

Within a year, the ships have lost up to 24% of their value, while compared to the golden era of 2008 the prices have dropped by as much as 100 million U.S. dollars according to estimates made by the Baltic Exchange.

Despite the fact that there is a serious lack of funds available in the credit market, making it difficult for borrowers to obtain necessary financing, and despite the limited funds, compared with the previous two years, that the Greek ship-owners raised in 2012 from the New York Stock Exchange amounting to 1,129 billion U.S. dollars (source: XRTC Ltd Business Consultants), the Greek ship-owners of the Piraeus port – the Greek shipping centre – are undismayed.

According to Golden Destiny S.A., in 2012, the Greek ship-owners bought 216 ships, having invested more than 3,850 billion U.S. dollars, while in 2011 they had bought 198 ships, investing 4,744 billion U.S. dollars.

Within the first two months of 2013 the Greek ship-owners have doubled their purchases of ships and in January they signed a series of new shipbuilding contracts, anticipating that their prices have fallen to such an extent that according to them it was not worth waiting for any longer, risking losing opportunities through their hands. Indeed, Greek ship-owners have started focusing especially on the market of dry cargo vessels, where there are some preliminary estimates that the crisis might come to an end much sooner.

It is estimated that in January and February, Greek ship-owners invested on the purchase of ships almost 530 million U.S. dollars, 100 million more than their 433 million invest of last year, and in January they signed shipbuilding contracts worth 1.5 billion U.S. dollars.

What is interesting, is that today the majority of the Greek ship-owners have the opportunity to buy more than four large dry cargo ships (capesize vessels – typically above 150,000 long tons deadweight (DWT)), aged just five years, at a price that was enough to buy just a single vessel in March 2008. In other words, currently, the Greek ship-owners are buying a large dry cargo ship at a price of 29,8 million U.S. dollars, when a year ago they had to spend almost 34,8 million U.S. dollars – that is, a decrease of 14% – while in 2008 they would have needed funds worth 140 million U.S. dollars.

Another example is the following: today, a panamax (typically, cargo ships of 65,000 – 80,000 tons of deadweight (DWT)) is purchased by a Greek ship-owner at a price of 18,5 million U.S. dollars compared to 24,4 million dollars just a year ago – a 24% drop – while in 2008 the price of such a ship amounted to 81.5 million dollars, 63 million dollars more than the price of 2013.

One more indicative paradigm comes from the market of supramaxes (bulk carriers with a capacity less than 60,000 tons of deadweight (DWT)). In 2008, with an amount of almost 67 million U.S. dollars a Greek ship-owner would have bought a supramax, while at current law prices he can buy more than three such ships. Today, a five year old supramax vessel has an estimated price of 18,1 million U.S. dollars, while just a year ago the same vessel would have been bought at a price of almost 23,3 million dollars, which means a drop of 22%. And if we go back to 2008, for a purchase of such a vessel a ship-owner would have needed funds worth 68,6 million dollars.

Despite the fact that the above mentioned large fall in ship prices has brought many shipping companies in an extremely difficult position, it has also created great business opportunities to take advantage of.

The shipping market expects that the Greek ship-owners will continue in the coming months to buy ships. However, what is worth noting, as mentioned by several international bankers and shipbrokers, is the fact that today the majority of Greek ship-owners, who buy new or used vessels are, in most cases, traditional ship-owners, who prefer to do business outside the global system of stock exchanges and markets, and who prefer to be based on their own families’ funds, which make them move quickly, safer, and more targeted in order to strengthen their presence in the global shipping market after the crisis.

However, the strengthening of the position of Greek ship-owners has not only to do with the chartering sector, but with the sale of vessels, as well. With prices of ships standing, currently, at such low levels, the Greek ship-owning community is ready to redeem its investments at the right time, when prices reach the desired levels and once the Greek ship-owners have recouped their investment in a relatively short time.

After all, it is well known that Greeks belong to the prime maritime nation, which traditionally wins money by “playing” in the stock markets of ships’ prices. This is something that happened several times before 2008, when Greek ship-owners chose to proceed to a series of massive sales of tankers and of dry bulk vessels, characterized by the international press as great maritime agreements, having resulted in gains of several hundred million dollars.

Dr Panos Kapetanakis

A Student Perspective: The Role of the UK Border Force and its Component Parts

Nowadays, the interconnection of the world is becoming much more frequently and closed than ever before. Consequently, the security of the each country’s territory prioritises the other activities across the nations. It is clear that the effective home land security has been playing the vital part in the overall country routine management across the world. Securing the borders and protecting the communities from crime is a huge challenge and vitally important to the UK. The UK government perceive that it is urgent for authority to codify the guideline and to establish a specific agency or law enforcement to implement the government’s policy. The UK Border Force is such an arm of the government which was to counter the national border issue, e.g. human trafficking, drug and other counterfeit smuggling, counter-terrorism and illegal fishing.

The UK Border Force, acting as frontline force to tackle operation of air, sea and rail port, was a part of the Home office. The UK Border Agency was set up in 2008 following Labour Home Secretary John Reid’s 2006 declaration that the Home Office’s immigration directorate was “not fit for purpose”. On 20 February 2012, it was announced that the force would be separated from the UK Border Agency in March that year. The decision to split the two organisations was made by Home Secretary Theresa May following the publication of the Vine Report into unauthorised border checks. Since 1 March 2012, the Border Force has become the sole law operational unit apart from the home office which is led by the Director General and directly liable to the Minister. The new interim head of the Border Force, Chief Constable Brian Moore, officially took up office on Thursday, 01 Mar 2012 who will lead the newly formed Home Office operational command and will be responsible for immigration and customs.

The UK Border Agency will be responsible for immigration casework, in-country enforcement activity, the immigration detention estate and British overseas immigration operations. Since transform of the agency, the main task of the Border Force is to maintain the security of the UK’s border as well as the passage and cargo’s normal circulation. However, the immigration policy work will be separated from the operational unit which imply that the policy maker would not know the press and obstacle of the implementation front line unit. The bad example was demonstrated last year during the Olympic time when the traveller had to queue for four hours before they entered into the UK at airport. In spite of this, the UK Border Force still makes tremendous effort to manage the flow of passengers and goods through the border and maintains border security by straining the control in France and Belgium as well as modernise the workforce with technology. To some extent, the work of Border Force also facilitates legitimate travel and trade, helping to protect UK tax revenue and support economic recovery. Hence, to meet these high demand both in peak and tough season, the Border Force take relevant measures, e.g. annualising hours contracts, deploying staff more efficiently by developing a resourcing model and matching staff skills with the level of work being undertaken.

To sum up, to transform the operations and make sustainable large-scale cost reductions, the following approach will be taken by the Border Force: (a) issuing an operating policy on the use of Secure ID fingerprint checks as well as implementing a new operating mandate for border control; (b) creating a Strategy and Intelligence Directorate in order to analyse intelligence; measure performance; develop rules, procedures and guidance; and monitor compliance with those rules; (c) the operation of a newly established Training Academy in order to raise professional standards and to create a whole new management culture. Furthermore, later on this year, the new National Crime Agency will be charged with improving the intelligence capability at the border, investigating serious and organised border crime, and tasking law enforcement assets across all the relevant agencies; and (d) a greater use of technology: implementing a range of technology-based changes under the e-borders programme, including extending the use of e-gates and several changes are going to take place in the coming years. Changes will include increased use of e-gates and other new technology under the e-borders programme, with greater reliance on intelligence and carefully managed risk-based controls at the border.

With a new chief executive and a plan for comprehensive change, the UK Border Force is in better hands for the future and will become the disciplined law enforcement organisation it was established to be.

Yifeng Liu, MA International Maritime Policy Student


GMI One-Day Short Courses: Maritime Crime; Maritime Ancestry and Maritime China

Greenwich Maritime Institute are delighted to announce that registration is now open for three one-day short courses that are to be held in June 2013.

The courses all reflect the expertise and interests of our teaching staff so are a mixture of historical and contemporary themes. Anyone is welcome to attend, there are no entry requirements.

Fees: Each one-day course costs £90 per person. However if you would like to attend more than one course the fee for two courses is £160, or for all three courses £240. Fees include course materials; certificate of attendance; lunch and refreshments throughout the day.

For a booking form and more details on the courses, please visit our website:


Out of Africa, and a Ferry very far from home – from our own correspondent in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Why is it that the most beautiful parts of the earth are often identified with recent war, atrocities, brutality and horror? Sierra Leone is one. And besides its stunning beauty and wealth of resources, it also has one of the most evocatively descriptive names of any country in the world. ‘Lion Mountains’, from the Portuguese Serra Lyoa, after the Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra sailed by in 1462 and saw, in the mountains on what is now the Freetown Peninsula to his east and north, the shape of a crouching king of beasts. Not everyone can see it that way, but then, we do not know what substance what he was on at the time…

It is more than eleven years since hostilities formally ceased here on 14 May 2001. The signature of the Cessation document at the Mammy Yoko hotel, headquarters of the UN Advisory Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) brought to an end a civil war that had lasted for a decade, since 1991. Like all peace processes, it had stuttered and veered off track: the Lomé (Togo) Peace Accord of July 1999 had established a ceasefire and an amnesty for war crimes and ghastly atrocities. But the fighting and atrocities were far from over. The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who had been allies, fell out and in May 2000 the RUF started taking UN Peacekeepers hostage. Up to then UK involvement had been minimal and the UK had been implicated in the involvement of two private security companies: Executive Outcomes, which had supported the Sierra Leone government in 1995-96 and Sandline, which had supplied logistics and intelligence for the previous peace-keeping force, ECOMOG, in 1997-98. Both these private security companies appeared to have an ulterior motive – they had also been linked to diamond-mining in the country.

In 2000, nearly a decade into the war, the British Government sent a 1,000-strong task force into its former colony to support the UN, guard Freetown’s Lungi airport and evacuate its own nationals. After an efficient operation led by Brigadier David Richards, who later became Chief of the Defence Staff, they withdrew, leaving a small training force. In August the West Side Boys, a splinter group now allied with the RUF, captured eleven British soldiers who had been training local forces. Among 500 UNAMSIL personnel who had been captured earlier was an unarmed observer, Major Andy Harrison of the Paras, who later became one of my students at the Defence Academy of the UK. The RUF held him for eleven days, during which he was threatened with death and beaten occasionally. Then they released him and some fellow hostages into the hands of Indian troops who remained surrounded and dug in. In September a British operation freed the hostages, and relieved the Indian troops along with Andy. In the meantime, the British had also fought off two RUF attacks on Lungi airport. This all raised their profile and restored their honour. Two meetings in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in 2000 and 2001, began to set a more lasting peace and the final ceremony was held in February 2002. The process of ‘Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration’ (DDR) began and was complete by 2004. In the same year a UN war crimes court, the Special Court of Sierra Leone (known locally as ‘The Special Court’), began trying senior leaders from the RUF, AFRC and other factions on the losing side. The last armed international peacekeepers left in 2005 but a small British-led International Military Advisory and Training team (IMATT) still remains.

The abiding image of the fighting is probably that of child soldiers, of whom an estimated 10,000 were abducted and forced to fight, and the same number who were taken as sex slaves and forced labour. And of child mutilation. Cutting of hands, lower arms, feet and lower legs. Eleven years on those children are young men and women. Now, on Lumley beach, a stunning three-mile stretch of white tropical sand and one of Sierra Leone’s many superb beaches, you see amputees playing football. The competitions have attracted international attention and must place Sierra Leone in a strong position for developing paralympians. Outside one of the four or so St Mary supermarkets in the city, there were more amputees, raising money to train, wearing blue ‘Team GB’ tee-shirts. In spite of the horror, there is hope. It is humbling.

I flew into Freetown International Lungi airport on the direct 7-hour thrice-weekly BA flight from Heathrow at 05.15 on 26 February. My hosts were Save the Children International. As you can see, given what has been going on here, they have quite a job on their hands! You can get a visa on arrival at the airport but I had already obtained one from the High Commission in London. Bai-Bai, who met me, said he would have to ‘make a phone call to the ‘CD’ – Country Director – to let her know I had arrived.

The next stage was terrific. Lungi airport is on flat ground north of the Sierra Leone River estuary, while Freetown is on the hilly south side. Out of the airport terminal, I checked in for the Hovercraft flight across the five miles or so of Estuary to Freetown. One day there will no doubt be a fast motorway linking the capital with its airport, but that would be rather a pity. It was still dark and we were driven down a bumpy, winding dirt track to the beach, and a shelter. Across the estuary the lights of Freetown were just visible, fading and reappearing as the pre-dawn mist shifted. Behind us, there was full moon, glowing a strange orangey pink, more like the planet Mars. This must be the result of the harmattan wind, I thought. At this time of year – November to February – the harmattan brings dry, reddish Saharan sand, blotting out and colouring the sky and carpeting the land with dust.

We waited, not far from our luggage, carefully tagged, by the landing point. Make sure you hang on to all baggage receipts, or you won’t get it back! The landing point, a rocky slope, was easy to determine. There was a red neon light on one side, and a green one on the other. Port and starboard – from an incoming hovercraft’s point of view. I explained this to some visiting aid workers, who were duly impressed (enough – Ed.!) Sierra Leone remains very aid-dependent. About half of the country’s economic growth in the late 2000s was driven by donor money, and the numerous aid agencies continue to prop up the economy. Then, very quickly, like Kipling’s tropical sun, coming up ‘like thunder, out of China, ‘cross the bay’, the sun rose behind us, too.

At about 07.00 the hovercraft appeared. Bright yellow and black, and, as one the Water Aid workers explained, a former Isle of Wight Ferry, now a long way from home! There are also boats which do the crossing, and only boats operate at night. This was the first hovercraft transit of the day. The hovercraft made its first run, powering forward propelled by two huge propellers at the stern. But the hovercraft had not built up quite enough momentum. She got most of the way up the rocky slope, then slid back. Oh dear! So she reversed, turned round in the water, spraying sea everywhere, and headed out to sea again. For a moment I was worried that she was deserting us. Then she came in a second time. Everbody got well back in the shelter as the exiled Isle of Wight sea monster came powering in, like an athlete going for an Olympic Gold in the long jump.

This time she made it. Passengers and baggage for Lungi airport came off, and we got on, sitting in the tasteful zebra-pattern seats. The crossing takes 20 minutes, and on the way we watched a ‘welcome to Sierra Leone’ video, which was very informative. Sierra Leone was the hub of much of the West African slave trade and the descendants of slaves in some of the southern US states, including Alabama, largely trace their origins to one of the Sierra Leone ethnic groups. On the southern, Freetown side, the hovercraft’s berth was more conducive, and the craft came to a halt first time. Waiting in the baggage hall there was a blonde lady, radiating a Helen Mirren-like air of quiet authority. Now – this could only be the Save the Children ‘CD’.

I was intrigued by the provenance of the hovercraft, and I initially assumed – quite wrongly, as it turned out, that she was a creation of the 1960s, remembering that Sir Christopher Cockerell had invented the hovercraft in 1952 and that, with a speed impossible today, commercial hovercraft services to and from the Isle of Wight had started in 1962. I initially thought she was an SRN-6, But the round propeller guards belied that. The SRN-6 has angular propeller guards. In fact she is the SRN-6’s successor, an earlier version of the Hovertravel Freedom 90 which is still in service on the Isle of Wight route. The Freetown hovercraft is an AP1-88, first tested in 1982, built by Hoverwork, the British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC), and the National Research Development Council (NRDC). But I am no train-spotter…

‘Diamond Airlines’ is appropriately named. Sierra Leone is a rich source of diamonds, as well as gold, rutile, iron ore, zircon, uranium – and offshore oil. Diamonds were first discovered here in the 1920s, and in 2006, after the peace, $140 million worth were exported. Exports fell because of the global economic downturn but rose again to $109 million in 2010. But the country is also shaped like a diamond – pretty much like the diamond on the hovercraft ticket. The point at the bottom lies at about 7o north, 11o 30’ west. Freetown lies near the top of the flat west face at 8o 30’ north, 13o 10’ west. One of the advantages of that, of course, is that the country is on the same time zone as UK, not far from our very own Greenwich Meridian. So no jet-lag here!

From a GMI point of view, Freetown is exceptionally important because it is the deepest natural harbour in West Africa. It is free of sand banks and has long been an important trading entrepôt and refuelling stop. Freetown lies south of the Sierra Leone River estuary, but the broad expanse of water is referred to by the locals as ‘the river’. To the south lie the Peninsula Mountains, the Serra Lyoa. John Hawkins was the first known Briton to come here, in the 1560s, to buy slaves. The British built a fort on Bunce island, from which an estimated 50,000 slaves were exported up to 1808. The French destroyed it in 1702 but it was rebuilt and occupied by the Dutch and Portuguese.

But Freetown’s position as the capital of Sierra Leone and its name owe as much to the end of the slave trade. By the end of the 18th century pressure against slavery was growing in UK and a number of slaves had already been freed. There were also American slaves who had escaped their American owners and fought for Britain in the American war of Independence. The proportion of black people in London was therefore as high as today, with the latter, and also because as it was fashionable to have black servants, and some of these had fallen on hard times, though ‘free’. In 1786 a contingent of freed slaves from UK and British North America (Canada) – the US did not abolish this appalling abuse of human rights until 1863, as we all know – arrived in what became, in 1787, the ‘Province of Freedom’ – later Freetown. The first freed slaves, many from cold Canada, had a miserable time and many died in the malarial conditions of the swampy coast. But the new colony – limited to the coast – survived and prospered. Britain finally abolished the slave trade in 1807, which triggered the growth of Freetown, as it now became. The following year, 1808, ‘Freetown’ became Britain’s first Crown Colony in tropical Africa.

The Royal Navy now found itself in a quandary. Its mission was now to intercept slave ships under other flags and free the slaves. But where were they to take them? Freetown. With war against Napoleon still underway, 6,000 freed slaves were brought to Freetown to enlist in the British forces – too many for the small settlement to handle. So the British farmed them out to neighbouring villages. This also began a reluctant process of colonising the littoral. By 1864, when the final slave ship was intercepted, 50,000 freed slaves had been brought to the settlement. With the deepest natural harbour in West Africa, Freetown was also an important Naval stopping and resupply base, and remained so even after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It remained so in the First and Second World Wars as well, and in the latter the Freetown Squadron played an important role securing transatlantic supply convoys for North Africa against U-Boats. At the Schwerpunkt between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea, Freetown could be a major factor in maritime security in the next century.

Today Freetown remains a bustling port. There is nowhere with the natural advantages it enjoys anywhere in West Africa. From the CD’s terrace she can see a constant stream of ships plying the ‘river’: container ships, tankers, dry bulk carriers… Swooping above are African Harrier Hawks (Polyboroides typus), which are common across all west Africa, from Senegal across southern Mali to the Central African Republic and down to Congo Brazzaville. These raptors have a 1.6 metre wingspan and their bodies are 60 cm – two feet – long. Charlie, the CD’s three month old kitten, is currently happy to play in the house and on the covered terrace. Probably a good thing. To one of these raptors, Charlie, at the moment, would be a tasty lunchtime snack.

In spite of the appalling history of brutal horror, this country is amazingly alive. Compared with the grungy, crouching creatures hiding in their hoodies who adorn London, these people, who are desperately poor, stride proudly upright, the men in ornate, tailor-made shirts, the women with the same carriage as when they carry baskets on their heads, in elegant dresses glittering with ornament.
A huge amount of work is underway to revolutionise the country’s infrastructure. Some impressive new roads – dual carriageways – are being built, with Chinese help in and around Freetown and South Korean help up-country. There are two ‘seasons’ here: wet (May to October) and (now) dry – or baking (November to April). In the wet season the rain is torrential and pretty constant, and the deep culverts and metre-deep drainage channels, crossing under and on either side of, the new carriageways were really impressive.

But, at the moment (March 2013), power is the big issue, certainly in Freetown. Not the political sort, although they are related, but the supply of electricity. In November 2009, with great fanfare, President Koroma announced the opening of the Bumbuna hydroelectric power station on the dam of the same name, a graceful creation of Italian engineers. Bumbuna is 100 miles inland from Freetown, up the Seli or Rokel River, which flows roughly west into the Sierra Leone River estuary, and is virtually in the centre of the country. It had been nearly forty years in the making. The plans were unveiled in 1975 but construction ceased from 1997 to 2005 because of the civil war. The 400 metre long Bumbuna dam was designed to solve, first, Freetown’s power problem and, with Phase II, Sierra Leone’s. Phase I, completed in 2009, has two 25 MW Francis turbines, capable of delivering 50 MW in total. Phase II, due for completion in 2017, will increase this to 400 MW.

According to the official statements, Bumbuna could supply all Freetown’s power needs. But the power distribution network was so damaged during the war that Freetown can only handle half of the power that Bumbuna can produce. That corresponds roughly with the observed fact that mains power was available for about half the time. But in recent weeks the mains electricity supply to Freetown has hardly worked at all. Generators, designed to provide power the rest of the time, and as emergency standbys, have been operating almost permanently. So they are starting to break down…
A Presidential statement apparently said that the power outages were because one of the two turbines was broken, and would take a year to fix. Given that the distribution network could only handle half the power produced anyway, one turbine should be quite sufficient, so this does not add up. I suspect that the problem lies with the decrepit distribution network. President Koroma was recently re-elected on the promise of restoring electric power. If he does not get his act together on this one soon, he could be committing political suicide.

The Bumbuna dam
Until such basic issues are sorted out, Sierra Leone will struggle to attract business and tourists. It has stunning resources and has a spectacular, hilly landscape, quite different from the low-lying swampy coast of much of West Africa. And it has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The original Bounty bar advert was filmed here in the 1960s (when it was still a British colony). On my fourth night I headed, with the CD, along Lumley Beach. The sun was coming down fast over the sea, first ultramarine, then turning to black, with the white surf spray pounding onto white sand. The currents are strong – this is the Atlantic Ocean – and swimming would be risky. But when we reached the Atlantic Restaurant at the far end of Lumley Beach, we sat looking out at the dark mystery of the Atlantic, under coconut palms blowing in a refreshing, cooling breeze. Next stop – South America. The beauty of the place cannot fail to impress.

We looked at the menu. One great thing about Sierra Leone is that one is not oppressed by freedom of choice. The choice is limited, but everything is very good.
‘The Barracuda’s OK here’, said the CD…
It’s an ill-wind …

Chris Bellamy, Director, Greenwich Maritime Institute