Parting Glances: the slow boat to Penang

30 12 2020

There is something magical about the Penang ferry. Much like stepping onto one of the passenger ferries crossing Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, the magic is perhaps how time seems to stand absolutely still from the moment one drives onto a ferry to or from Penang for the twenty minutes or so that the journey takes.

A ferry making the crossing to Penang island at sunrise.

Sadly, the ferries — at least how I knew them — are being retired at the end of December. I would have made a long drive up to Penang just to have a last ride on one if not for the current restrictions on travel. Not having been able to do that, I am thankful that I did take a few photographs the last time I found myself on a Penang ferry in June 2016, some of which I will be including in this post.

A ferry approaching George Town.

A ferry service between Penang and the mainland has apparently been around since 1893/94. That was introduced at a time when the motorcar had not been seen in this part of the world. The first vehicle ferries were only introduced on 1 May 1925. Two lighters, onto which vehicles could be loaded onto were initially used, each pulled by a steam powered boat. A third craft, the Seberang — the first to be purposed built for the service and which had been on order with the Singapore Harbour Board’s (SHB) dockyard at Keppel — was added at the end of the same year. The Seberang, which had a length of 116′ and a beam of 22′, had a capacity of up to five vehicles and up to some 300 passengers.

Two ferries going in opposite directions.

The phenomenal growth in motorcar traffic across the channel, which doubled in the first year of operation, saw to orders for two larger vessels placed wth the SHB in 1928. The two, the SS Kulim and SS Tanjong, with a length of 128′ and a beam of 31′ had a capacity of 16 cars and 360 passengers.

The Penang Bridge, which was completed in the 1980s. The bridge is one of two that takes the bulk of the road traffic making the crossing between Penang and the mainland.

With two bridges linking the mainland to Penang island, taking up the bulk of vehicular traffic, it would only have been a matter of time that the vehicle carrying ferry service would eventually outlive its purpose. With the condition of the current fleet of vehicular ferries, which were built from 1975 to 2002 deteriorating, the vehicle ferry service will be withdrawn just a few years short of 100th year of operation. What will replace the aging roll-on/roll-off ferries will be faster and perhaps cheaper to operate passenger only ferries that lack the charm and grace of the old slow boats to Penang.

The vehicle deck.
The passenger deck.

More photographs taken in 2016:





Life in the “fast-lane”: adventures on a vehicle deck of a RORO Ship

10 12 2010

One of the wonderful things that shipping has given us is the Roll-On Roll-Off or RORO ship. The RORO ship is probably an adaption of the landing ships of the Second World War, built with a bow ramp and to beach thus allowing military vehicles and logistics on wheels to be carried over large distances and quickly discharged ashore. In its simplest form the RORO ship takes the form of a double ended ferry with ramps at both ends and a deck to carry vehicles on – there were many of these operating in Malaysia – many of the larger rivers in the more remote places had to be crossed in this manner as bridges had not been built. The Penang ferry is another example of a simple RORO vessel and it is this form that perhaps the first commercial RORO Ships took shape in 1953 (the same year the first commercial jet-liner, the De Havilland Comet, was introduced), allowing a “drive-on” service to be introduced from Dover to Calais. This eliminated the need to load vehicles by lifting gear which was a time consuming and delicate affair, thus allowing a ten-fold increase in the throughput of cars on the crossing. The idea was extended first to the carriage of freight in trucks and trailers – allowing door-to-door delivery of goods, particularly refrigerated goods without having the need to unload and reload them into road freight vehicles. In the 1970s, as demand for passenger cars increased tremendously – particularly from Japan, dedicated Pure-Car Carriers (PCC) were introduced to transport brand new cars across the globe.

The RoRo Decks of a RoRo Vessel can be one of the more dangerous places to hang out in.

A feature of the modern RORO ship is the huge garage contained within the steel structure of the ship, often with several decks accessible through ramps and sometimes lifts. The garages are also equipped with huge ventilation fans, meant to extract exhaust and fuel fumes to keep the decks safe. “Safe” I guess in this case a relative term, as the vehicle decks of a RORO ship would probably count as one of the more dangerous places to be hanging out in – not that this is usually permitted. Standing in the middle of one gives the impression of being in a huge car-park, which a RORO deck effectively is, only that it is built of steel instead of concrete, and of course that vehicles are packed very tightly with barely any space left in between, as the “car-park” fills-up. It is a place where life is literally lived on the fast lane, with trailers, and sometimes trucks and cars zipping up and down and in a loading or discharging frenzy that is very much motivated by by the rush to load or discharge vehicles in the shortest possible time.

A car being driven off a RORO ship.

The vehicle deck of a RORO ship resembles that of a huge car-park, except that vehicles are packed with hardly any space between them.

Trailers parked on a vehicle deck of a RORO ship.

A trailer being driven up the ramp of a RORO ship.

The prime mover coming down the ramp after unloading the trailer on the upper deck - just 3 minutes later.

On the larger RORO ships, ramps are a common feature – most modern ROROs with multiple vehicle decks are fitted with hoistable ramps which can be hoisted up to the deck, allowing the space on the ramp – as well as below it to be utilised – maximising the use of deck space. This is opposed to fixed ramps, which are cheaper to build but result in valuable deck space being sacrificed. On some other RORO ships, movable decks can be lowered in place, allowing intermediate decks to be quickly created allowing two or more decks of vehicles requiring a lower headroom (such as passenger cars) to be utilised in a space that can also be used to carry on deck of cargo requiring a larger headroom.

A hoistable ramp being lowered with vehicles loaded on it.

A fixed ramp to a lower vehicle deck.

Closing the ramp cover for the fixed ramp to maintain watertight integrity of the lower deck.

A movable deck onboard a ship made to carry larger cargo, the Ville de Bordeaux which is designed to transport the fuselage and wings of the Airbus 380 manufactured in various plants over western Europe to France for assembly, allowing the ship to also be used for other RORO cargo.

Non standard RORO cargo can also be transported.

Tying down or securing of the cargo through chains, straps and turnbuckles to elephant foot fittings on deck is important.

Tie downs ...

Getting up close an personal ...

Close-up of a hoistable ramp.

Safety from a ship stability viewpoint has been of prime concern on RORO ships with its large decks which if flooded with water not only reduces buoyancy but also results in a large free-surface, since the well documented and published capsizing of the MS Estonia. Besides maintaining watertight integrity of the decks through which vehicles are brought on the ship generally through a stern or bow ramp, calculations are now required to demonstrate that these ships are safe even with the decks flooded with water.

The stern of a RORO ship is often where vehicles are loaded and discharged from over a ship fitted ramp.

Loaded and almost ready to go ...