The January 2018 Newsletter contains some stuff about Malviya 7, the PDS2 and the Tanzanian Registry, plus a few words about how things are getting better for the offshore oil industry, then the impact of cruise ships on the historic ports of the world, Offshore Ship Handling, and finally the advantages of providing ships with batteries.


The PDS2 in a previous role while owned by Smit and used for loading buoy maintenance

It was reported the other day that the Malaviya 7 had finally been sold, and one assumes the wages of the crew members left on board finally paid. The ship left Aberdeen with a new owner and a new name. Meanwhile another former offshore vessel  the PSD2 is stuck in Durban harbour, its crew not having been paid for between nine and fifteen months. It is said that the ship which is registered in Tanzania will be sold and the crew paid before they leave for home. In both cases the charities which look after seafarers have been involved in ensuring that the crews have been looked after as far as possible. Those of us standing on the side-lines, used to the times when shipping was a moderately responsible activity still wonder how these events could be prevented. We have come to accept that any country in the world can have a registry, and even that many of them are not based in the countries which purport to operate them. Actually it is news this week that the Tanzanian Registry has been temporarily closed by the government of the country. It ranks second to bottom of the Registry black list and the government is concerned that several of its registered vessels have been involved in gun running and drug smuggling, and those are the ones which have been caught. The registry has named two vessels, the Andromeda which was detailed in Crete with a load of explosives bound for Libya and the Kaluba seized off the Dominican Republic with over a ton of cocaine on board. The registry also washed its hands of 45 vessels last year, suspected of violating UN sanctions on North Korea. The registry at the bottom of the list is that of the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Offshore optimism seems to be creeping upon us, as the oil majors start to look for means of improving their long term production possibilities, particularly while the cost of hiring mobile drilling units remains within what might be seen as acceptable bounds. The hysteria of the last oil boom seems to have dissipated and the depression that followed it is gradually disappearing, some might say, as it is receiving treatment. I don’t usually comment on this aspect of the offshore industry but at present I can’t resist it. For the offshore industry things may never be quite the same again, since the combination of cheap money and the availability of Chinese shipyards resulted in a massive building boom for both offshore support vessels and mobile units. There are probably a few hundred offshore ships lying about in creeks and lagoons all over the world which may never go to work, this despite the enhanced scrapping activity, and today there are many mobile units ready to spring into action. There are 49 mobile units stacked in Europe, many ready to go to work, and for those who don’t know there are two ways of dealing with this. Rigs can be “cold stacked” or “warm stacked”, where the former is the process of welding up all the doors and leaving the unit unattended, and the latter is where, at the very least, a skeleton crew remain on board, keeping some of the machinery going and carrying out maintenance on the rest. It is interesting to note from the Seabrokers January report that despite the fact that the oil price has increased considerably over the last six months of 2017, rig utilisation has hardly increased, either in Europe or in the Gulf of Mexico. It makes me think of downturns in the past when the oil companies had sacked so many people that there was no-one left capable of making a decision.


Cruise ships in the Italian port of Genoa.

Recently it was announced that the local authorities in Venice were to limit the size of the cruise ships entering the city via its canal system, and that the largest cruise ships would have to dock at a nearby port. This limitation is to come into force in four years. Similarly other European cities are responding to protests from their inhabitants and are threatening to limit the tourist occupation of their cities. At the top of the list are Barcelona and Dubrovnik. We could probably divide the protests into two types. There are those who wish to limit all tourist activity and others who specifically target the enormous modern cruise ships which can change the population of smaller cities when they tie up. However, it is probable that in many cases they could be killing the goose, and that the reduction in tourist activity will result in a reduction in local employment. Looking at Barcelona, where the protesters are probably the most vocal, apparently 750 cruise ships docked there last year, two a day, but the city might be large enough to absorb the several thousand daily visitors. At a much lesser level if you are ashore on the Greek island of Hydra, which only has a single motorised vehicle there-on, the street sweeper, when a cruise ship anchors off and sends in its boats with hundreds of people on, the town becomes somewhere completely different. The quayside throngs, the cafés which usually lay out many empty seats are mobbed and the gold sellers are inundated. While it is doubtful if the inhabitants of Hydra would want any change to take place, there is no doubt that the proliferation of larger and larger cruise ships will result in further limitations in the historic ports of the world, and hence greater ingenuity will be required on the part of the their operators.


 The Star Polaris tied up at the P84 some time in the early 1980s.

It struck me the other day that we are moving further and further into a world where the guys on the offshore ships don’t know how to drive them, regardless of what any instructions or guidance say. It just happens that the capabilities of the computers have increased exponentially while at the same time the cost of them has fallen, and their dimensions are little more than the space taken up by a laptop.

So back in the old days some people would find it difficult to envisage the situation today, and for some it would be difficult to envisage how things used to be. In the 1970s when the early North Sea exploration, development and construction was taking place, the support vessels mostly did not have anything but two engines, two fixed pitch propellers and a single bowthruster, and with that limited equipment it was necessary, as time passed, to maintain position of the ship under the crane. To start with everybody tied up to the rigs, and then the offshore installations, but there were problems. Quite often the weather was in offshore terms “marginal”. The ships would tie up by  dropping anchor and approaching the installations bow first to maintain the necessary speed to lay out the cable, and then swing round and present the stern to the rig so that the crane could lower the ropes. If we were really lucky that was it, and on a nice day with the sun shining the ship would lie quietly with the stern presented to the crane and cargo work could take place. But only too often there would be a swell running and the ship would be heaving up and down, and tugging on the ropes, so the man on the controls would have to start to apply power to keep the weight off, sometimes ineffectively, so the ropes might break. To try to reduce this effect the after bitts were often angled upwards to align the ropes with their securing points on the legs, and the uprights of them sleeved in stainless steel to reduce abrasion. If the weather was bad, and there were urgent lifts the ship might be asked to “snatch” the cargo, which meant that as the ship drifted slowly past the crane hook would be lowered down and the lift hooked on as fast as possible, and hopefully could be lifted off the deck before the ship got out of range. But towards the end of the 70s as the shiphandlers became more skilful some installations dispensed with ropes altogether. Indeed the Thistle Platform never had any, and the “joystick” was introduced on new tonnage.

Today everybody knows what a joystick is – it controls things in computer games -, but back then the only other use of the stick was in order to control a helicopter. Its addition to the controls of offshore vessels often required a complete room to be provided for the related computer stuff. It was also often just a stick with a compass repeater beside it, which offered a heading control, and then if the thing was set up properly some directional control by pushing the stick in one direction or another. The stick reduced the fatigue for the operator, but it was not a DP system, so even though the heading might be maintained the ship could drift bodily in any direction. Since at this time the vessels involved were usually only provided with a single bowthruster and the two propellers and rudders, the sideways movement could be limited, even with the stick pushed hard over, but if the stick was pushed hard forward, forward movement could be the full speed of the ship. Hence the system had to be used pretty cautiously.

Because of these limitations there was still a tendency for the ship drivers to opt for completely manual operations if the weather was a bit “marginal”. This seemed to offer better control, and gave the skilled drivers the ability to alter the turning point of the ship so as the reduce the possibility of contact with the offshore installation.

In my book “Supply Ship Operations” now in its third edition, and unlikely to be reprinted, at least in part because the skills I describe in the book seem to be going out of fashion, I provide guidance as to how a ship’s position can be maintained under the crane, if fitted with a single bowthruster and two fixed pitch propellers, or two controllable pitch propellers, with or with Kort nozzles, and whether the screws are inward or outward turning. By the 1980s in Europe it was also common for the ships to be fitted with “Becker” or some other form of specialised rudder which had an additional flap on the end of the main body of the rudder giving more sideways thrust from the ahead propulsion. Additionally these rudders were often capable in independent control so that the rudder on the astern engine could be held amidships, so that the water flow would be maintained.  

The console on the driver's left when facing the stern on the UT722 Far Fosna, with the three rudder controls 

Fortunately for the people out there, over time the available power for any given size (dimensionally) of marine diesel has increased a lot, which in turn has given designers the possibility of installing further thrusters both forward and aft, making the skill of adjusting the engines and rudders to provide sideways movement less necessary, and in turn giving the joystick more capability. I was also involved in some redesigning of the joysticks so that just by pressing a button, the point at which the ship turns could be moved, forward, midships or aft. If it could be done manually, I reasoned, why not have the computer do it?

Today it appears that even the joystick is being relegated to a secondary position as nearly all modern ships are capable of DP control, and are often moved about by being stepped from one point to another. The skill of ship-handling is disappearing, just as, others might say, the skill of navigation is also disappearing.  

So the point of this short article is really that the world is changing, and even though my book is in many ways still relevant, I won’t be reprinting because it has been replaced by other stuff. For shiphandling by the computer, and for the other guidance the book provides, by the locally produced procedures and guidance which in reality may be less relevant, being mostly produced by committees of people with limited knowledge of the actual work.

I found myself looking through the document used in the North Sea, which has subscribers in all the countries bordering the North Sea to find something I disagree with, and really it is nearly everything. For instance close to the beginning there is a list of hazardous operations. While the list includes working on deck in heavy weather, it does not include maintaining the position of the ship close to an offshore installation in heavy weather. The document goes on the discuss certification and says In the case of offshore support vessels this is most relevant in the case of qualifications relating to the operators of dynamic positioning systems, where the certification regime is managed by the Nautical Institute and some other agencies. And in terms of “specialist functions” nothing is said about shiphandling. Ladies and gentlemen – I rest my case. 


The Eidesvik PSV Viking Lady, one of the first to be fitted with batteries. Photo by Jan Plug.

I regard myself as a bit of a marine dinosaur, so against my instincts beginning to see the advantage of the hybrid offshore vessel. For an anchor-handler which requires a lot of power for very brief periods there would appear to be no downside to the system. It allows the basic prime mover installation to be of moderate power, so that for much of the time when the ship is just moving from place to place, either being located, or carry cargo not too much fuel is being used, but given the advantage of the batteries, which can be added to the engine power, anchors can be pulled out with ease. This is just an extension of the use of batteries in tugs, where the tug is mostly idle, or in transit, but when it goes to work the added power of the batteries can be used, or judiciously the batteries can be used at times for manoeuvring. Similarly for platform ships the skilful balancing of the power sources can, according to the people who are installing these systems, reduce fuel consumption by up to 30%. No-one is quite telling us how this saving can be achieved, but it may be that the batteries are charged as secondary activity while the ship is on passage, and then when it is on location the stored power is used, since much greater control of the power is available.

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