The Dea Clipper once a Halter Marine 180 footer, rescued from the Bayous and converted into a standby vessel. Photo Jan Plug. 

In May 1965 the BP drilling rig Sea Gem was towed out of Middlesbrough docks, and headed in the direction of its first location offshore. It was a barge to which the company had fitted ten retractable legs and a drilling derrick from the BP onshore field at Eakring. This unlikely combination of hardware starting drilling its first well 40 miles off the Humber estuary on 5th June 1965, and 104 days later, on 17th September, made the first discovery of hydrocarbons in the UK sector of the North Sea.

 

However a short time later on 27th December 1965 it was preparing to move to another location a couple of miles away and was beginning to jack down. To jack down the hull of the rig was being lowered down the legs until it was floating, and then the legs would continue to be raised until they stuck out above the hull. During this process two of the legs collapsed and the rig was tipped over into the sea. 13 men died, the remainder being rescued by a British cargo ship the Baltrover and an RAF rescue helicopter. As a result of this tragedy the government of the day passed the “Minerals Workings Act“, which among other things required that every installation be provided with an OIM, Offshore Installation Manager, and that they all be supported by a standby vessel, in case of further misfortunes of a similar nature.

A number of vessels were put forward for the task, most of them trawlers from the deep sea fishing fleet. North Star, Colne Shipping, Cam Shipping, Boston Putford and one or two others had ships which were rapidly becoming surplus to requirements as their industry was throttled by international legislation. They also employed crews who would soon be out of work, and who were used to a life of extreme hardship. For the fishermen thirty days at sea followed by five in port was the norm, as were the long periods of extremely rough weather, poor food and rationed water. In the standby role they were at least saved from the wettest part of the job - hauling nets in any weather, and sorting and gutting the fish.

The old trawlers were fitted with rescue boats and the crews were sent on First Aid and boat handling courses. None of these presented any particular difficulty. The courses were at the lowest level of training, for the shortest possible period of time, and the rescue boats were of flexible specification.

Some other features were not improved. The ships were usually provided with hand steering, with the wheel connected by rods and chains to the rudder. They had a single engine driving a single screw and no form of secondary manoeuvring system.   In rough weather they would lie athwart the seas rolling alarmingly until the situation became intolerable or they were miles away from their oil rig. They would start up the engine and steam slowly into the seas until they were well upwind of the rig, then stop again to drift for an hour or two. This was a traditional fishing vessel technique and was known as “laying and dodging”.

There was little change to this situation until the enquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster was completed in 1991,  when the standby vessel Silver Pit was found wanting.

Inevitably the investigation into the disaster identified failings in the manner in which the rescue efforts were carried out, citing in particular the chaotic communications, the tendency for FRCs to break down and the manoeuvring difficulties suffered by the Silver Pit. Witnesses to Lord Cullen’s enquiry reflected an industry view that the craft were nothing more than “a necessary evil” and “a token gesture” . The Silver Pit itself was provided with a single screw, hand steering and a temperamental bow-thruster, which failed after five minutes in operation. Lord Cullen said  “I am entirely satisfied that in the above respects (manoeuvring capability) the Silver Pit was essentially unsuitable for the purpose of effecting the rescue of survivors”. The Silver Pit was found deficient in many other respects, some due to poor maintenance and some due to the inadequacy of the regulations under which standby vessels in general were operated and equipped. 

By the end of the enquiry converted trawlers in general, rather than the Silver Pit in particular, were becoming the recipients of fairly extensive criticism. At that time 162 of the possible 187 standby vessels were former fishing vessels, and even though the enquiry itself had only considered the Silver Pit, Lord Cullen recommended extensive changes to the standby vessel code which effectively made most fishing vessels unsuitable for further service.

Hence 1992 was the beginning of a new era for the standby vessel. In order to conform to the new voluntary standards, known as “The Green Code” an extensive improvement in manoeuvring capability was required, and while one or two of the old side trawlers were fitted with bowthrusters, the writing was on the wall for them – at least as far as the oil industry was concerned. A number were sold back into the fishing industry to resume their old trade.

So, in the early 1990s ship-owners were scouring the world looking for suitable tonnage to convert, and as well as the trawler owners a number of supply ship companies also became involved. Fortunately there was a ready source of vessels due to the development of the anchor-handler and the platform supply ship. The older anchor-handlers, which made up most of the UK offshore fleet, were now too small to work in the deeper waters of the Shetland Basin and the Atlantic Margin and the early designs of platform ships did not have sufficient cargo carrying capacity to service the modern multi-platform supply requirements. But with their invariable configuration of twin engines and rudders, supported by at least one bowthruster, they were ideal for the standby fleet, and were soon being converted in large numbers.

The traditional standby vessel operators purchased the most aged of the North Sea fleet, some of them having been built in the year the Sea Gem found the first hydrocarbons. These ships were now over twenty-five years old, but built to last. Their competitors, the UK based supply ship owners generally had more ships to choose from – some of their own for a start.

The British arm of the Norwegian ship-owners, Farstad, purchased two former Spanish anchor-handlers and converted them on the Tees. They also carried out extensive conversion work on the Far Earl and Far Baronet, two modern supply vessels, which had been built for operations in the southern North Sea, but which had almost immediately been found to be too small. They were upgraded to 300 survivor capacity and all four vessels were provided with new high speed rescue craft to be launched and recovered by Hydralift davits. Each vessel was also to be fitted with a crane to provide a secondary means of recovering the rescue boats.

 

The VOS Server, once rescued by Sealion from the ice of Northern Canada. Photo: Scott Boulter.

Another British company, Sealion Shipping picked up five small craft from North America which became the Toisa Widgeon, the Toisa Teal, the Toisa Petrel and Toisa Puffin and the Toisa Plover. Two of these ships were surveyed by a luckless Sealion superintendent in the icy wastes of Northern Canada, where they had lain since being built, effectively unused. It was so cold that when he took his camera out the lens froze, and so he was forced to return without pictures. However, they and the other three vessels joined the Sealion fleet.

A new company, Vector Offshore, searched the bayous of the Mississippi delta for old, but sound, American supply vessels, purchased them and converted them to conform to the new standby vessel requirements, and North Star purchased a number of small supply vessels from Stirling Shipping. It was the beginning of a new era.

Of course Lord Cullen’s recommendations were far more extensive than just an improvement to the specification of standby vessels. He initiated a complete change to the legislation under which offshore installations had been operated since Sea Gem. As a result of the enquiry the UK Health and Safety Executive replaced the Department of Trade and Industry as the offshore safety regulator, and 1992 saw the enactment of the Safety Case Regulations. Later, in 1995, PFEER, the Prevention of Fire and Explosion and Emergency Response Regulations were added to the offshore statutes administered by the HSE. PFEER required managers of offshore installations to offer their workers a "good prospect of recovery" to a place of safety in the event that they fell overboard, had to escape to the sea or were survivors of a helicopter ditching. At the same time the humble standby vessel became the ERRV, the Emergency Response and Rescue Vessel, although to this day almost no-one uses the new name.

The new goal-setting legislation required the masters of the ships to affirm that they would be able to carry out rescue if required, and if they decided that this would not be possible then helicopters did not fly.  sm that they would be able to carry out rescue if requDuring the following winters helicopters were frequently grounded at Aberdeen airport because, out at the location, the master of the ERRV had determined that he would be unable to rescue anybody if the helicopter crashed into the sea during the landing.

Hence, in order to extend the operating envelope of the rescue fleet, many were fitted with heave compensated davits which were intended to allow fast rescue craft to be launched and recovered in adverse weather. Most were also fitted with a device called the Dacon Scoop which is a sort of monster shrimping net, enabling the ship to scoop survivors out of the water in extreme weather conditions.

The Minerals Workings Act had defined a precise area within which a standby vessel could operate, and it was possible for one vessel to support two installations as long as both could be encompassed by a circle with a diameter of five miles. However, PFEER allowed operators to extend this operating area as long as they could ensure that their crews had “a good prospect” of being rescued in the event of an accident. This change resulted in standby vessels covering multiple installations  some times ten miles apart, but to provide cover for various types of work, the ships would sometimes carry what were known as “daughter craft”, large FRCs with cabins, capable of operating at a distance from the mother craft for some hours.

All of these changes resulted in the design and construction of a number of large purpose built vessels whose dimensions and specifications far exceeded those of the ex supply ships. Typical of these ships are the Grampian Frontier owned by North Star, which operates on the BP fields West of the Shetlands, and the Viking Provider which is shared by Shell and Total at the Shearwater and Elgin/Frankin fields. The Viking Provider is equipped with two daughter craft and one FRC and two Dacon scoops offering the maximum possible coverage.  

A typical modern purpose built ERRV Grampian Conquerer, built and operated by North Star. Photo: Victor Gibson

Despite the popularity of the Dacon Scoop an alternative approach is taken by the Danish standby vessel company Esvagt. They have carried out detailed trials to ensure that the fast rescue craft davits are placed in the optimum position on the ship, that their FRCs are specially designed and do not weigh more then 1200 kilos, and are provided with a special hooks which can be easily operated by one man with one hand. Their outboard engines are diesels, and can be restarted even after being submerged in water. They also exercise in all weather conditions and crew change by FRC regardless of sea state. However for some reason they remain the sole exponents of this technique.

In 2000, BP announced that they were going to dispense with  standby vessels altogether and replace them with helicopters which would be based on some platforms and at some locations ashore. This was a different method entirely of providing a good prospect of recovery, and over the past five years the original plan has been gradually modified to include a completely different form of ERRV.

Now, in 2006, the Caledonian Vanguard, the first of four large ships, has arrived in Aberdeen, sporting BP colours and managed by the same Vector Offshore who brought the old American supply boats to UK in 1992. These craft are intended to be capable of carrying cargo, and have the task of patrolling quite large areas of the North Sea. Hanging from their davits they have two “ARRCs” autonomous rescue craft, which it is intended will be launched in an emergency, and if necessary can travel from anywhere in the North Sea to the nearest port. Recovery, the most difficult part of the operation, has therefore become unnecessary. The ships are still to be supported by a number of helicopters, and the whole collection of technology will replace 17 conventional standby vessels.

But time does not stand still, nor does the oil price remain static, and the increase in the value of a barrel of oil has resulted in every available oil rig capable of operating in the region being dusted down and sent out to sea. This in turn has caused a shortage of standby vessels, and so there are a number of relatively conventional craft being constructed to fill the gap. It seems possible that the process started by BP may gain adherents, but progress has been slow. The original development programme has been extended by at least two years, and weeks after the Caledonian Vanguard first arrived in Aberdeen it could be seen operating as a conventional supply vessel, its davits still empty.

For the rest life goes on as usual. Every day standby ships arrive at and leave the ports on the North East coast of Scotland, and more are being converted and constructed. There are now fewer companies and only one or two have ever owned a fishing vessel. The future is uncertain. Will the North Sea be populated by an increasing number of very large ships supported by strategically placed helicopters, or will many small but efficient vessels be constructed, each supporting a single installation? No-one knows, but ship-watchers will hope it is the latter because as well as the new ships there will be others, more than 30 years old, still spending 350 days a year out there, still demanding the highest qualities of seamanship from their masters and crews. And still to be seen as working examples of the history of the North Sea supply industry.

 

A former platform ship the Putford Aries, built in Holland in 1977 ( and once commanded by your scribe - a horrible ship) still working in the Southern North Sea with two daughter craft. Photo: Peter Taylor.

This article was written in 2006. Since then BP have terminated the whole business of “Jigsaw”, converted their extremely special ships into PSVs and put the ARRCs up for sale. This is the way with large corporations, someone makes their reputation with a great idea (if it was one) and someone else makes theirs by discarding it.    

 
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