It sounds almost too good to be true. Two 30-somethings hatch an idea to establish a tourism business focused on sustainability. They decide to design a ground breaking passenger vessel, raising the funds to build it themselves. They win a prestigious award at Nor-Shipping. And this month, less than two years after starting their company, they officially become shipowners. Meet Brim Explorer, a new generation of maritime business.
As the sands of time pile up into your own personal dune you may be used to certain segments of society looking increasingly youthful. Policemen and -women for example, doctors, taxi drivers, hairdressers, teachers… the list goes on. But shipowners? Come on! Surely you can rely on them to make you feel a little more young and vigorous?
Enter Espen Larsen-Hakkebo and Agnes Árnadóttir. The duo, who took delivery of their first vessel earlier this month (the second is already in production), are 33 years old. After starting their business, Brim Explorer, in early 2018, the pair moved impressively quickly to raise NOK 46 million (USD 5.2 million) for an initial vessel order, bring in a core team of staff, and then initiate a new funding round to pursue ambitious development objectives. In June they received the Nor-Shipping 2019 Young Entrepreneur Award, and this month their 140 PAX, hybrid electric, aluminium hulled catamaran ‘Brim Explorer’ was delivered from Maritime Partner in Ålesund.
These are two driven individuals. But they’re also (damn it) incredibly nice, accommodating and open. It’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the energy they radiate. It just Brims over.
The nature of design
Espen Larsen-Hakkebo has just put the phone down to the Tromsø harbour authority, with whom he was answering vessel battery charging questions, has apologized for the absence of a poorly Agnes Árnadóttir (Brim Explorer CEO and his fellow business co-founder), explained his impeccable English (he studied in York), and has moved on to ship design. The meeting is maybe two minutes old.
Thankfully for the passengers that will experience the initial two vessels – the first will sail out of Tromsø and Svolvær, Lofoten, the second (thanks to a lynchpin contract to serve Hurtigruten passengers) will spend six months of the year in Svalbard – the pace will be somewhat more relaxed.
“We’re building a fast vessel, with a top speed of 20 knots, but operating slow tourism,” Larsen-Hakkebo explains. “The batteries (800 kWh capacity) will enable the ships to cruise at 10 knots for 10 hours, but we’ll be operating at a speed of between 7 and 10 knots. There is a dual purpose here. This is the optimal speed for electric vessels of this kind in terms of power consumption, but it’s also an optimal speed for passenger experience. People travel to Northern Norway to experience the unique landscape, environment and wildlife here – we want them to engage with that in the most meaningful way, to almost lose themselves in their surroundings. That objective has feed directly into what you can see is a striking vessel design.”
It’s difficult to disagree with the ‘striking’ assessment. The Brim Explorers are essentially ‘engagement platforms’ created to position their international passengers at the heart of Norwegian nature. As such glass is everywhere, opening up panoramas around them, while deck areas allow for easy movement around, up and over the ship to seek optimal vantage points. The 24 metre long, 11 metre wide and 9 metre high vessels resemble something of a cross between aircraft control towers and the pioneering design of The Fjords award-winning hybrid and all electric craft. This is a new generation of passenger ship, for a new generation of passenger.
“There are curious, passionate and environmentally conscious people that travel to Norway to experience our nature, whether that be the unique coastline or through whale watching (something that is perfectly suited to the noise free, electric voyages we’ll provide),” Brim’s CFO explains, adding that the firm has now recruited close to 90 agents to sell bookings worldwide. “We’ll help them achieve that, engaging with our environment in a deeper way than ever previously possible.”
As it happens ‘deep’ is an appropriate word. Larsen-Hakkebo goes on to explain that the view above the water line is one thing, while the sights and sounds below it are another:
“Each ship will be outfitted with a BlueEye underwater drone – delivering film to three screens, two in the main salon and one on the upper level – as well as hydrophones, to give our passengers access to the underwater world,” he smiles, openly excited about the potential of “enlightening people” about the ocean and both its beauty and challenges.
“Obviously we want to show them the natural environment, with dedicated tours focusing on the Northern Lights, the beauty of Trollfjord and Skrova Island, and, of course, whale watching, but the drones will also highlight manmade issues such as pollution, plastics and shipwrecks.
“This is a complete insight, not a ‘directors cut’ – we want our passengers to return home as ambassadors for the ocean, even more passionate than when they stepped on board.”
Larsen-Hakkebo has more than his fair share of that passion himself, but is quick to admit that the environment is only one piece of the sustainability puzzle, albeit a central one.
Sustainability for him is as much commercial as it is environmental, and as much about practicality as anything else. As such the ships are designed not just to provide the best experience, but also the simplest solutions and the lowest barriers to adoption.
“That is the beauty of starting something from scratch,” he says. “We’ve been able to create our own vision and build vessels in accordance with that, rather than struggling to adapt existing ships. So in terms of environmental performance and efficiency we’ve simplified the driveline, optimized the hull for minimal resistance, carefully managed the hotel load on board, and basically diminished energy requirements in every possible way. As a result I believe we’ve created the most flexible hybrid electric ship in the world.”
He continues: “With existing hybrid and electric vessels there’s a requirement for extensive, and expensive, charging infrastructure.
However, we have a solution where the only demand is that a harbour has a 400V 124amp industrial power outlet we can plug into. Almost all do and if they don’t it really is a minimal investment. As such this concept can be easily transferred anywhere where there’s a market – in any country for any purpose, be that city cruises, river trips or wildlife watching, the options are endless.”
So is this part of Brim’s mid- to long-term plans?
“World domination?” Larsen-Hakkebo laughs, “well, we’ll see about that! But certainly further expansion, yes.”
The CFO and his CEO partner clearly relish rising to a challenge. It’s this shared trait that helped them raise the funds to get Brim (which, incidentally, is a word from ancient Norse, a shared language between Norway and Iceland, meaning ‘breaking wave’) off the ground. To obtain an initial bank loan they first garnered roughly NOK 13million from friends and family, before then receiving NOK 6.8million funding from ENOVA (a state run body created to support low and zero emission solutions) and a NOK 10million loan from Innovation Norway. To ensure the second vessel order, due for delivery in 2020, they first secured the contract with Hurtigruten, before reaching a finance agreement with Katapult Ocean and, in June this year, selling a stake in the firm to a Norwegian investment fund.
Larsen-Hakkebo admits it’s been “a bit of a battle” but one the duo were obviously equipped for. And this determination was, according to the judging panel on Nor-Shipping’s Young Entrepreneur Award, key to them winning the coveted accolade for 2019.
“We were absolutely gobsmacked to get it,” he laughs, adding “and I think anyone that heard our acceptance ‘speech’ would have known we weren’t exactly prepared for it!”
Opening doors to development
“But seriously, it was a very humbling experience and an award we’re both incredibly honoured to have received. More than that, it’s worked for us in a number of ways. Firstly it’s an acknowledgement that we’re on the right track and an endorsement of our achievements to date. Secondly, the association with the Nor-Shipping name has helped create a new level of awareness in the industry, and that has opened many doors. It’s made it easier to attract investors and potential partners, and that will be fundamentally important to our future development.”
Furthermore, the broader Nor-Shipping 2019 experience delivered real value for a young business looking to grow its industry network.
“You could argue we’re more tourism than maritime, but the opportunity to see so many ocean industry players in one place was something of real benefit, and that was central to us booking our place in the Blue Economy Hall,” he says. “It provided a way to take the pulse of the industry and access the latest ideas and innovations, while also providing a meeting place for new contacts. Some of those we have since signed contracts with… you really can’t get a much clearer indication of takeaway value than that.”
Next steps forward
By the time of the next Nor-Shipping in June 2021 Brim Explorer will have two vessels slipping silently through the waters of Northern Norway and, no doubt, plans for new additions to the fleet.
Larsen-Hakkebo is understandably reserved about the next step on the Brim journey, but does reveal that the firm may look into both smaller and larger versions of this flexible design to meet market opportunity.
“We have invested in a very capable, exciting vessel solution and an excellent team of people to help us grow in a responsible, sustainable way, providing the optimal experience for our passengers and serving the local economies where we operate,” he concludes. “The next phase, as we enter commercial operation, will be critical. We’ll learn from this experience, both the achievements and challenges, and continue building, emerging older and wiser.”
But just not that old, eh? Not for a long time anyway…