But they tend to be careful purchasers, eschewing sectors where recovery looks problematical in even the medium term. It is hard to see much hope in the containership market, with the sluggish trade growth and ludicrous overtonnaging, along with the “cascading” of big ships displaced by the bigger ones still emerging, and others being returned to their owners.
There are few ship types that can be so unpromising as cellular containerships, when there is not the cargo to fill them. They are as specialised as LNG ships; useless for any other purpose and with no prospects other than to wait for the market to recover. While oil can be stored in an inactive tanker, cold layup and an uncertain reactivation are likely to be the future for very many of these mid-life boxboats. Premature demolition beckons.
But there are other sectors in which there may be rather more promise. Around the North Sea alone, several hundred offshore craft are lying inactive, their futures uncertain, while the oil price damps demand. Anchor handlers, platform support vessels, seismic and diving support ships and a host of other specialised and sophisticated ships are now in warm or cold layup and are preparing to wait out the offshore recession. There are probably opportunities here, with modern, well-built, beautifully maintained and versatile tonnage, which lends itself to conversion for other uses.
There is, perhaps, scope for some creativity and imagination. Why, for instance, are hugely expensive frigates, designed for submarine hunting, spending their days in mundane tasks like hunting for pirates, drug smugglers or helping to rescue distressed migrants? There are PSVs which could be cheaply bought at present, easily converted and put into naval or coast guard service, to be operated at a fraction of the cost of a major warship. Lightly armed and equipped with drones, these capable and manoeuvrable ships could be useful in so many different roles. It would be well worth a tour around the layup berths, just to see what might be available!
It has been done before. The great maritime recession of the 70s and 80s saw the United States government buying big ro-ros, fast containerships and other tonnage to renew much of its auxiliary supply fleet. Heavy lift ships, barge carriers and semi-submersibles were found to be more valuable to the military than to their civilian owners. The first prepositioning fleets ever conceived were formed of this largely second-hand tonnage, acquired mainly from Europe. The legacy from the Falklands war saw the Royal Navy strength supplemented by former merchant and offshore vessels that had demonstrated their capability in the emergency. Both creativity and imagination were demonstrated and the same could happen again, while values are slumped and promising vessels available. Perhaps some designers known for their ability to think outside the box could be let loose?
During the long recession, the Japanese government tried hard to think of ways of using unwanted ships in a constructive fashion. They came up with extraordinary concepts, which saw redundant ferries used as hotels, old car carriers being employed for urban car parks, bulkers for storage and the tanks of tankers that seemed unlikely ever to be used again for aquaculture and the breeding of fish. A brochure illustrating these schemes, which might be thought of as a counsel of desperation, sticks in the mind. We are, hopefully, not yet at such a stage.