SHIP owners who have been battered by low freight rates are digging deep into reserves to make ends meet, says Hongkong Shipowners Association director Michael Farlie. He said it was no joy for them that the ocean-going fleet owned or managed by association members, had reached a record of more than 71 million deadweight tonnes (dwt). Many owners were still trading with old vessels which in a healthier market would have been scrapped, he added. ''Until the gap between freight rates and ship scrapping prices narrows further, it is hard to see where the relief would come from,'' said Mr Farlie. He pointed out that because Hongkong owners did not retain old ships for sentimental reasons and had been replacing vessels, the average age of the association fleet was not too bad. ''There is also a prudent number of new ships under construction. Cash wise, we are not over-borrowed,'' he said. The fleet owned or managed by association members comprised 1,223 vessels registered under 32 different flags. Of those, 381 vessels with gross registered tonnage (grt) of 9.97 million were under the Panamanian flag, 273 vessels of a 11.34 million grt under the Liberian register, 137 vessels with 4.87 million grt under the Hongkong register and the remainder under other registers. Mr Farlie said the Hongkong register had secured a 10 per cent rise compared with Liberia which had a 7.6 per cent increase. Hongkong owners support for the Cyprus and Norway international registers had fallen by 25 and 20 per cent respectively. There also had been a fall of two per cent for the Panamanian register. The type of vessels owned or managed by the members comprised 492 bulk carriers followed by 176 tankers, 147 container and 80 general cargo vessels. The remainder ranged from product carriers to passenger cruise liners. Mr Farlie said that while there was little difference in numbers and tonnages of bulk carriers and tankers at the end of last year compared with 1991, the general cargo fleet had dropped by 38 per cent. There had been a 23 per cent rise in container vessels and a 39 per cent increase in oil-bulk ore vessels, he said.