Marfret stands by its ukrainian seamen

On 24th February last, Yuri, Petro and Oleksander were at sea. At their posts aboard their respective Marfret vessels, the seamen were stunned to learn of the Russian attack on their homeland, Ukraine. Incredulity gave way to anguish and distress: return home by whatever means to protect their families and country, or continue to work to provide for their loved ones? These mixed emotions created confusion and uncertainty, they felt they were prisoners, there was a sense of guilt. This fragile mental state is the opposite of what is needed for their job as seamen, which requires concentration and a cool head to make the right decisions for the vessel’s safe running. It was a potentially dangerous state of affairs.

While Ukrainian and Russian seamen work side by side as colleagues aboard ships, their countrymen on shore have for the past month been engaged in a merciless, fratricidal war. Ukrainians represent 38% of Marfret’s crew numbers, essentially in engine room positions as engineers, chief engineers, motormen or fitters.

Indeed, the Odesa Maritime Academy, recognized for the high quality of teaching, trains many engineering officers. Marseille, which is home to Marfret, is twinned with Odesa, with Marfret having employed Ukrainian seamen to oversee the running of its ships’ engines for the past 20 years or so.

Ukraine has 76,442 registered seamen (4% of the world total), including 47,058 officers and 29,383 ordinary seamen. Together with their Russian counterparts, they alone make up 14.5% of the world’s merchant marine crews. Everybody remembers the prestigious Soviet-era Black Sea Shipping Company, based in Kiev until its demise in the 90’s.

Today, more than ever, Marfret stands by its Ukrainian crews and their families. I know some of them personally, having worked alongside them. We need to find the best way to organize crew changes from Poland and Romania in order to protect our Ukrainian crews’ jobs. We have many difficulties to overcome, both on the human and administrative levels, for example certifications not being renewed and visa problems. We have arranged accommodation in Romania to provide safe shelter for our Ukrainian crews’ families. Marfret is fully behind its Ukrainian crew members and have even adopted the country’s colours to show our solidarity.

Guillaume Vidil

Bunker fuel prices hit historic high

Energy prices have gone through the roof in 2022. Pump prices for petrol and diesel have never been so high. For shipping companies, who use huge quantities of fuel and purchase it by the tonne, the bills are becoming eye-wateringly expensive. The cost increase is even threatening economic stability and the continued operation of services.

Bunker prices are cyclical and subject to multiple factors. Although OPEC has always pulled the strings regarding oil prices up until now, new parameters are today blurring the lines, and will continue to do so for some time. After an unprecedented fall during the Covid crisis in 2020, prices of very low-sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) and marine gas oil (MGO) began skyrocketing in 2021, maintaining an upward curve to establish new records. Tensions in the energy market were cranked up even further with the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine. “The impact of the sudden loss of Russian supplies has exacerbated the price rise and lack of availability in an already under-supplied market,” says Neil Wiggins, bunker specialist at Marfret.

Bunkering – Top of the costs table

On 8th of March last, the barrel of crude was at $129. “The tonne of MGO was over the $1300 dollar mark. Low-sulphur fuel was at $1000 per tonne. The cost of bunker fuel reached such a level that it became the largest cost item for Marfret, overtaking chartering and social contributions,” highlights marine superintendent Charles Gauthier. This trend is likely to increase with the recent unavailability of Russian VLSFO.

The bunker adjustment factor (BAF) charged to forwarding agents and shippers has helped to redress the balance by smoothing out or even cancelling out the variations. The cost increases vary by line, depending on fuel consumption and distances covered. “These higher prices are here to stay and will have an impact on freight rates, especially to French overseas territories,” warns Marfret managing director Guillaume Vidil.  

Volatility and uncertain availability

Price volatility has a direct impact on a line’s financial equilibrium. “For example, we asked for a gas-oil price a few weeks back. In the morning, we were quoted US$1300 a tonne, but this had fallen to under $1100 a tonne just a few hours later (same supplier, same port, same delivery date) on the announcement of a possible ceasefire in Ukraine. These types of fluctuation in an uncertain market are becoming a daily occurrence. The impact on the cost per TEU for freight carried on our ships can be huge, both positive and negative,” explains Wiggins. This price volatility also affects fuel availability, with suppliers no longer taking advance orders. The market nervousness is undermining line operations, since bunkering is carried out during commercial operations. Currently, fuelling orders are being placed at extremely short notice, a few days before port call, with potential delays if the bunkering does not take place at the same time as offloading/loading operations.

While French hauliers have been granted a €400M aid package to offset fuel cost increases, nothing has been planned for shipping companies…

Return of a giant excavator to La Rochelle

After completion of the demolition of the Gabarre tower blocks in Pointe-à-Pitre during the summer of 2021, the giant excavator used in flattening the three concrete buildings left Guadeloupe mid-February 2022 bound for La Rochelle. The machine was shipped on the Marfret Niolon, specially reinforced to carry such a heavy consignment. Insight into a daunting task, requiring special expertise and engineering prowess.

The Gabarre tower blocks, built in the 70s and used as a landmark for local fishermen, are no more… As part of an extensive urban regeneration project, the three concrete and steel buildings were demolished in 2021. To carry out the €34.6M demolition project, Avenir Déconstruction called on the services of an excavator of gigantic dimensions: a Liebherr 9150R fitted with a 76m-long arm, with a 28m reach, and weighing 315 tonnes. Shipped out as lolo (lift-on, lift-off) cargo from the UK, forwarding agent Safir & Melon, part of Léon Vincent, opted for a safer, horizontal-load roro option for its return to France.

15-day journey, one year of preparations

Between the first technical studies carried out by Laurence Gloaguen and the vessel’s sailing from Pointe-à-Pitre on 14th February 2022, the entire operation took almost a year. The machine was shipped on the Marfret Niolon, which operates on the MPV service.

Guillaume Vidil and Marfret’s Le Havre branch manager Martial Bienvenu were on hand at Jarry port to witness the spectacular loading process, expertly carried out by the stevedores of Soguama, a handling company owned by Marfret, under the watchful eye of Bruno Julius, manager of Marfret’s Guadeloupe agency. The delicate operation required input from Marfret staff in London, Guadeloupe, Le Havre and Marseille to calculate the optimal way to spread the load and put in place the handling capacities required to ensure the safe transport of all the behemoth’s components once disassembled.

“Four steel plates were specially designed and welded onto the ship’s garage deck to evenly spread the load of the excavator body’s 89.5 tonnes on four hydraulic jacks. The body was loaded on board on a 12-axle trailer and then transferred onto a 100-tonne capacity MAFI roll trailer before being secured on the four jacks. Plywood was placed between the jacks and the steel plates. The tracks, which weighed 49.5 tonnes apiece, were placed on roll trailers,” explains Martial Bienvenu. The complex operation was carried out with the help of the demolition company, operators of the excavator.

The counterweights (39T), jib (31T), arm (52T), pulley block, beam and other parts such as the claw, were loaded onto a 40’ flat container and 62’ roll trailer. 

The multi-purpose MPV service, which specializes in roro traffic, has its own out-of-gauge handling equipment. The service operates between Le Havre and Pointe-à-Pitre (connection hub for the Ferrymar service to Fort-de-France, Marigot and Gustavia) via Antwerp and Degrad-des-Cannes, with a rotation time of 42 days. “If the volume of traffic warrants it, our flexibility allows us to add a port call,” points out Martial Bienvenu, who has replaced Emmanuel Bohec at Le Havre. After 15 days at sea, the Marfret Niolon docked at La Rochelle on 1st March to offload its cargo, before resuming normal operations…