The MV Clontarf, one of the new trouble-plagued 2nd generation Emerald class ferries (Emerald II) on the F1 Manly – City route, suffered ‘catastrophic engine failure’ on Monday 6 February, leading critics to declare it is time to give up on the fleet.
The port side engine, one of two aboard each vessel, failed during a training run. There were only four crew members on board at the time, so no passengers were affected.
A spokesperson for Transdev Australasia, the French multinational transport operator that manage the contract for Sydney Ferries, confirmed the breakdown to Manly Observer.
“On Monday 6 February, while the Clontarf engineers were conducting regular safety drills without passengers onboard, one of her two engines failed. The Clontarf returned to Balmain Shipyard using one engine…”
Will the MV Clontarf require an entire new engine refit for both the port and starboard engines?
“The engine will need to be replaced,” the spokesperson confirmed. “It is expected to take a couple of weeks before the Clontarf returns to service.”
A spokesperson for Transport for NSW (TfNSW) also told Manly Observer, “Transport for NSW has liaised with Transdev about the Clontarf engine failure as a matter of urgency. No vessel or vehicle is free of technical or mechanical issues from time to time.
“Importantly, there will be no impact to commuter services, particularly the F1 Manly – Circular Quay services which are operating as per the regular timetable.”
Balmain Shipyard in Mort Bay is the century-old maintenance and repair facility for the fleet of Sydney Ferries that Travsdev began operating in May 2012 (including overnight berthing of several harbour ferries and River Cats that commute up Parramatta River).
MV Clontarf was initially moored at Wharf 3, behind another trouble-prone Emerald class gen. 2 ferry, MV Balmoral.
The MV Balmoral, which a Transdev spokesperson explained was “out of service for planned maintenance (electrical works)” has since returned to duties. However, this is not the first time the pair – and their sister vessel MV Fairlight – were removed from service and consigned to Balmain Shipyard.
The triumvirate was originally projected to take over the F1 City to Manly route after the Freshwater class ferries were permanently retired in 2023, but a range of concerns and technical problems has seen the Freshwaters’ active service extended.
On 26 September 2022, the MV Fairlight suffered steering failure near Fort Denison, which occurred in the sea channel of a departing cruise ship, the Coral Princess, and its escort tug. There was no collision.
The previous day, the MV Clontarf also experienced steering difficulties.
As a result, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) directed that the three Emerald class generation 2 ferries (Clontarf, Balmoral, and Fairlight) must not carry passengers until they were inspected and all steering defects repaired, and that they remain out of service until cleared for redeployment.
A Transdev spokesperson confirmed they are working with Yanmar Marine International, the Netherlands-based Japanese multinational that supplied the engines for the three new Emeralds, to resolve MV Clontarf’s engine failure.
Yanmar Marine’s support portal on their website proclaims, “When you choose a YANMAR marine engine, you can be assured that cutting-edge technology and performance come as standard.”
Considering the first of the three Emerald gen 2 ferries, MV Fairlight, was only commissioned in October 2021, and the other two, MV Clontarf and MV Balmoral began operational service several months later after sea trials, for an engine to fail less than a year after it began regular transportation of passengers is… not ideal.
Save Manly Ferry campaigner and Manly ward councillor Candy Bingham, who on 25 March 2021 presented a petition of 22,000 signatures to the NSW Parliament calling for the retention of all four Freshwater Class ferries (which were projected to be retired permanently in 2023), spoke to Manly Observer about this latest engine failure.
Councillor Candy Bingham staged a protest as part of the Save Manly Ferries campaign in October 2021. The former deputy mayor says it’s time to take a new approach to the iconic route.
“From what I understand the engines aren’t up to the task,” she declared, “because they were running them at full capacity all over the [2022-23] summer. I don’t believe that the engines have the capacity to cope with what they were expecting of them.
“Basically, what I’m saying now is: it’s time the NSW Government and Transdev admit that they’ve made a mistake purchasing these ferries. They’re just not suitable for the Manly run.”
How big a wave can a wave piercer pierce?
The generation 2 Emeralds succeeded the six generation 1 Emeralds that were built by Tasmanian-based shipbuilder Incat.
These first-generation Emerald class ferries, Catherine Hamlin, Fred Hollows, Victor Chang, Pemulway, Bungare and May Gibbs, entered service between 26 June 2017 and December 2017. However, they were designated ‘Inner Harbour Ferries’ by Transport for NSW as they were not equipped to cope with the occasional choppy sea conditions between North and South Head, when large waves roll into Sydney Harbour from the Pacific Ocean.
The second generation Emerald class ferries were fitted with wave-piercing hulls that are supposed to give them a better buoyancy in rough sea conditions, by slicing through, instead of bouncing upon, choppy waves.
On 12 March 2022, after a series of sea trials, it was announced that the three new ferries were cleared to operate in swells of up to 4.5 metres, although, as Manly Observer reported, in November 2021 the Fairlight suffered rudder damage and a smashed window during one trial.
Commuters who expressed scepticism that the new gen. 2 Emeralds could cope with treacherous sea conditions, including campaigners from Save the Manly Ferry, felt validated by a leaked Transdev document that appeared to confirm their suspicions.
On 10 March 2022, a Fleet Operations Temporary Memorandum issued by Transdev (and anonymously released to the media the following month) warned ferry captains that the new wave-piercing vessels risked becoming ‘airborne’ when steered into large waves.
The memo cautioned: “It was evident during the trials when navigating the Emerald Class generation 2 vessel directly into the waves or on a 45-degree angle to the waves at speeds of round 10 knots, caused the vessel to become airborne and resulted in tunnel slamming. This can be detrimental to the vessel’s integrity and the safety and comfort of the crew and passengers.
“Running ahead of the swell must be avoided, as this may cause ‘trapping’, which results in the vessel bow-diving or broaching, and a loss of control.”
Cracks and buckles
Then, in another document leaked to the media, an April 2022 assessment of MV Fairlight by independent inspectors discovered cracked coatings and welds, a deformed plate in the port forward bulwark, and buckling to an internal rod, which were not on the vessel during a December 2021 inspection.
The MV Fairlight had only been in operation for six months.
The inspectors theorised the cracks and buckling were caused by heavy wave action on the hull – not collision with a wharf – and warned, “If the damage is simply repaired without addressing the cause, any repairs are likely to be ineffective in the long term.”
Sue Wright has been campaigning against the removal of the Freshwaters for a number of years. She is now the Labor Party candidate for Wakehurst in the March 25 NSW State Elections. Ms Wright issued a media statement on 8 February asking, “When will the LNP government finally admit that the Emerald class ferries are not only unreliable, but a danger to commuters and ferry staff?”
She further claimed, “It was only due to good luck, and extremely experienced staff, that there were no serious injuries or deaths following Monday’s catastrophic engine failure on the Emerald II vessel, the Clontarf. Large chunks of steel were thrown around the engine room, whilst hot lubricating oil was sprayed everywhere. If a crew member had been in the engine room, they would’ve been killed.”
Transport for NSW has defended their “robust system which includes meeting regularly with Transdev to ensure fleet operation, performance, maintenance and safety is of a standard which meets all safety regulations and customer needs.”
Emeralds under-performing on passenger numbers
Ms Wright also drew attention to the Emerald gen. 2 ferries operating at 62 percent passenger capacity during peak tourism days, leaving long queues waiting on the wharves.
“We should remember, not so long ago, we had four Freshwater Class vessels on the F1 run; safe, iconic, built for purpose, able to withstand the swells across the heads, each capable of carrying 1,100 passengers,” she declared.
Of the four Freshwater class ferries, launched between 1983-88, the MV Narrabeen has been permanently retired, with MV Freshwater, MV Queenscliff and MV Collaroy currently back in operation, despite TfNSW plans to retire them, although the latter is slated for permanent withdrawal from service sometime this year.
James Griffin, NSW Environment Minister and Manly MP, is among those supporting a retention of the ‘Freshies’. In an August 2022 statement he said, “There is a huge amount of local passion for the Freshwater ferries and having them back in service on weekdays gives commuters and visitors more opportunities to experience the beautiful harbour from one of these iconic ferries.”
Ms Wright continued, “Now the NSW LNP has lumbered us with the Emerald II’s, stated to have a capacity of 400, but actually limited to 250 passengers because the amount of time it takes to unload 400 passengers causes chaos with the timetable Transdev have to adhere to, which is set by Transport for NSW.
“And so they’re discovering that to maintain the timetable during our busy summer time, they basically have to take on 250 passengers, bang, and the send the boat off again.”
Cr Candy Bingham elaborated: “They were only putting 250 people on the Emeralds, rather than the capacity of 400, because they needed a faster turnaround.
“What happens then is that they have to bring in the Freshwaters, so there’s two Freshwaters operating every hour. The Freshwater comes in, fills up with 1000 people, and that clears the queue…
“But we’ve been saying this from day one, the Emeralds are just not efficient. I mean, they [TfNSW] have been saying, ‘We’re going to have three ferries that hold 400 people and they run every 20 minutes.’
“Well, that’s all very well, but if they can’t get on and off the boat fast enough, and they’re only putting 250 people on at a time, that kind of defeats the economics of the whole thing doesn’t it?”
Emerald gen. 2s to be scaled back?
Furthermore, the NSW Minister for Transport, David Elliot, also revealed that the Opal smartcard ticketing system – electronic payment for travel on public transport in Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, the Hunter and the Illawarra – will be fully integrated into the private service, with a sensor gate installed at Manly Wharf mid-2023 to facilitate their operation.
Cr Candy Bingham predicted the Emerald ferries will be divested from the F1 Manly – City route soon, at least during peak commuter periods, but not because of their recurring technical faults and vulnerability in choppy seas.
She told Manly Observer, “I expect that Transdev won’t be running the Emeralds in the mornings anymore. The Transport Minister said that they [TfNSW] were going to offer the Opal Card on the Fast Ferry. The reason why they’ve had some commuters using the government ferries in the morning, the Emeralds, was because the Opal card wasn’t available previously on the Fast Ferry.
“From the middle of this year that will be available. So there’ll be no cost savings or benefit in catching the government ferry.
“I’m predicting that morning service on government ferries will be cut, because they’re basically running in competition to each other, aren’t they? Two 20-minute fast ferries arrive at once, so Transdev is in direct competition with the NRMA…
“The NRMA have done a very good job,” she added, “but it’s a total focus on the commuters. And this is what it has been from day one… It’s all about the commuters, you know, if there’s more services for the commuters, the commuters will be happy.
“But there’s absolutely no consideration for the tourist aspect of the Manly ferry, which is what makes it world famous…
“The tourist market is about six months of the year. By separating the two businesses, NRMA is effectively paying for the privilege of running these services, but all the profit has gone to the Fast Ferry and not been reinvested elsewhere.”