This edition of the Ships and Oil Newsletter contains a narrative about the new Bitish aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, a further appeal for my “We Were Seafarerts” project, some words about Brent Delta, now at Able UK, memories of the Oriana and the Kearsarge accident prompted by the USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal event and more knock down ships on the Yangtze.



The 26th June 2017 has seen the latest and largest ever British Royal Navy warship emerge from its construction yard at Rosyth. This is HMS Queen Elizabeth now Britain’s only aircraft carrier, and claimed to be Britain’s largest ever warship. I was prompted to look up another large warship to see how it compared. This was the country’s last battle ship the Vanguard which was completed just after the Second World War This ship, actually the last battleship ever to be launched anywhere in the world, was 814 ft long and had a deadweight of 51,000 tons. It had a compliment of almost 2000 men. The new aircraft carrier is 920 ft long and weighs in at 65,000 tons. Britain’s previous aircraft carriers, Illustrious and Ark Royal were apparently about 20,000 tons. These craft were decommissioned in 2010, so when the Queen Elizabeth becomes operational in 2021 it will have been 11 years since Britain had an aircraft carrier in its fleet. It is the first of two ships, The second, HMS Prince of Wales is currently under construction, and the two ships will collectively cost more than £6 billion. The crew is about 700 not counting aircrew whose numbers will depend on how many aircraft there are on board, and even though the ship is supposed to be ready in 2021, it seems likely that the first aircraft will not be on board until 2023, and it is also possible that American planes will be housed on board. There are critics who suggest that aircraft carriers, which themselves spelt the doom of the battleship, are now vulnerable to high speed missiles and so are a waste of money, and the same might be said of the submarine which are likely in the future to be vulnerable to attack by autonomous robot craft, or submersibles. Hence it is suggested that these very large expensive warships could be taken out by very small and cheap weapons.


The is my second appeal for anyone who was at sea on British merchant ships back in the 60s or 70s to contribute something to my attempt to get a bit of a blog together about the old days. I have contributed a couple of pieces myself, but hoped that others would come forward. There were a lot of us out there in those days. When I was a junior officer there were nearly 50,000 of us manning the UK fleet, and today I think there are about 2000. On the positive side I have found that people have a genuine interest in what life was like for us, and how it all went. This can be contrasted with how things actually were back then, when we seemed to be some sort of an underclass, and many of us as a consequence tended to conceal our employment. At present “We Were Seafarers” is the eighth most viewed article on my website so there is an interest from others, not just me. It can be found as a subsection of my website in the Features or by this link

Although time is passing I still feel that this is a worthwhile enterprise which would be genuinely interesting for the younger generations, even those who have gone to sea, with a bit of envy I would suspect. And as an inducement I will offer a free copy of my book “RigMoves” post free to anywhere in the world, to anyone who contributes between 1000 and 3000 words. You can see the sort of thing which I believe would be of interest by checking out the website.



I allowed a really important offshore British event to take place without me noting it in the newsletter last month, so here is an update. Back on May 2nd The Pioneering Spirit was used to recover the Brent Delta platform to the Tees for decommissioning. Everybody is probably now aware of what that extraordinary craft can do, and those of us who just  bit sceptical have been confounded. But I don’t think it could have been done without the aid of computers. The twin hulled vessel disconnected the topsides from the base, and closer to the Tees transferred it to a barge called the Iron Lady, and then a number of tugs pulled the result into the Tees to allow Able Uk to carry out the dismantling process. This is almost the end of an era. According to Shell the Brent Field was producing about half a million barrels of oil a day at the peak, but Brent Delta ceased production in 2011 and today the only one of the four platforms producing is Brent Charlie. Those of us who were out there in the 1970s can remember that during the construction of these behemoths Shell used a ferry with a helideck, in order to get the workforce out there and to provide accommodation in excess of that which was available on the vast platforms. And just to clarify a bit of the process, in those days the platforms were put in place and then the wells drilling through the base using a derrick on the very top. Modern techniques allow the holes to be drilled by a mobile unit while the platforms are being built. This means that the process can be carried out more rapidly and the crew on the platform can be much smaller. 



 The USS Fitzgerald under way - from Wikipedia.

Back on 17 June  2017 a Philippines registered container ship the ACX Crystal collided with an American guided missile destroyer the USS Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan on the periphery of a voluntary separation scheme. The container ship suffered very limited damage to the bow and the warship was seriously damaged amidships on the starboard side, with the loss of seven lives.

Subsequent to the event there has been much discussion on marine forums about the accident and some articles in the media by people who know about stuff. Much of it relates to the various actions taken by the vessels as they analyse the tracks provided by AIS records, which are available only for the container ship since the warship was not broadcasting AIS data.

The accident takes me back to my youth. Back in December 1962 the P&O-Orient Lines passenger ship Oriana, actually on its maiden voyage, collided with the American aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge outside the port of Long Beach. I was an apprentice on the former. When I heard a lot of alarms going off I got out of my bunk and had a look out of the window, and was surprised to see that we seemed to be alongside something. It was the aircraft carrier. I quickly got dressed and went to the bridge from which I was supposed to collect a telephone with a jack plug on its cable and take it to the area of the accident, where-ever that was and plug it into a telephone point, thereby connecting the incident with the bridge. In the event I was prevented from leaving the bridge by the captain, and so the accident site, which was the bow of the ship, and which was burning, was never connected with the bridge.

The accident made quite a big hole in the flight deck of the aircraft carrier, big enough to drive a double decker bus through we thought, and a smaller one in the bow of the Oriana, and of course it resulted in a court case between the British ship-owner and the American government. Who was to blame? And in what way was that judgement similar to however things are likely to turn out in the latest case?

Much of the case was focused around whether the two ships were in sight of each other in the moments before the collision, If they had been in sight of one another then the rules concerning crossing vessels would apply which I think would have made the aircraft carrier the giving way vessel, and if not then the rules for reduced visibility should apply. I remember that our unofficial interpretation of the event had been that the Kearsarge had left the port and once clear of the breakwater had turned south and increased speed, without any reference to approaching craft. This had been a surprise for the Oriana bridge team and when the two ships emerged from the mist and saw each other both had gone astern – I think. But the avoiding action had not prevented the collision, and the point of impact on the Kearsarge on the starboard side of the flight deck, seems to support what we thought had happened. After the impact the Oriana was applying so much stern power that it almost ran down one of the aircraft carrier’s supporting destroyers.

The judge in the court action found both vessels at fault, and unsurprisingly for those following this case, one of the faults of the Kearsarge was that although the Oriana was constantly in view on the aircraft carrier’s radar, and was being plotted, the plot was not on the bridge and the information was being passed on verbally. The result was that the information available to the captain was two or three minutes old – far too long for a close quarters situation. On the other hand, the Oriana had two radars on its bridge one of which was billed as “the most modern radar in the world”, capable of true motion, rather than relative motion display, but was actually in relative motion display and was probably ship’s head up, although that was not identified by the court. Back in those days the captains of British ships needed to be seeing on the radar screen the same view as they would be seeing by looking out of the window. The Oriana had a lookout on the bow, but the lookout did not communicate with the bridge, and looking back to my apprenticeship it was common on the company ships to have a seaman on lookout on the forecastle who would ring a bell when a ship was sighted. We do not know why he did not ring the bell, but it seems likely that he just ran away.

Experts commenting on the collision between the USS Fitzgerald and the container ship have also suggested that the bridge management on board American warships is not conducive to rapid decision making when it comes to collision avoidance, even if it is wonderful for combat. And one thing which is known is that US warships do not as part of the normal operations, broadcast AIS data; that in itself must be confusing for vessels meeting them. A writer on a US Naval blog suggested that in addition to broadcasting AIS data, American naval officers should have training in the operation of ARPA radar, just as the officers on merchant ships must, rather than just standing on the bridge and hoping for the best (some would say). And it is generally thought by merchant marine mariners that those on bridge watch on board naval ships are less competent than those on bridge watch on merchant ships. This view has been supported writers who have actually trained American naval officers, who suggest that even though they have training on the collision regulations they do not receive any specific radar training, and would probably not be capable of attaining even the most basic merchant service deck officer’s qualifications. So much has been written on this particular topic that it has become difficult to follow, but for me the expert statements which discuss the involvement of several officers and team leaders in any action taken by the warship suggest a decision making process by committee rather than by an individual.

And now we come to the merchant ship involved. In the case of the Oriana everyone of any importance was on the bridge, the captain, the staff captain, the chief officer (who seems to have been the only one to have given evidence to the American court) the senior officer of the watch, the junior officer of the watch, the helmsman and the quartermaster whose job it was to answer the telephone. But the captain was a fierce man and if it was he who had been looking in the radar it would be his instructions which everyone would follow, indeed the ship had a couple of bow thrusters, an innovation at the time, and I always wondered if “full ahead sideways’ might have prevented the whole event from occurring.

What of the AXC Crystal, which was, one assumes, manned entirely by Filipinos. The accident took place some way from any port, so it is possible that the sole occupant of the bridge was the officer of the watch. And the first thing to consider is did he or she see the American warship? We should bear in mind that the ship was not broadcasting AIS, really our means of seeing other ships these days, and it was intentionally designed to offer a minimal radar echo, although the defenders of the US Navy have said that the systems and designs intended to reduce the radar echo don’t actually work.  But maybe the OOW on the AXC Crystal just did not see the warship until it was too late, and then what would he have done? Here we have to bear in mind that it is likely that the watch keeper would have been inhibited from altering the speed of the ship without permission from the captain. But even so, this is a long way from the myth that the average merchant ship trogs across the world in autopilot with the watch being kept by a dog. According to some reports the captain of the AXC Crystal attempted to warn off the navy ship by means of flashing a light at it, but did this really happen? We are probably going to have to wait for the results of the official investigations to find out.



I am discovering more and more vessels which were built in British shipyards and shipped out in pieces to distant parts of the world, mainly for operation on lakes and in rivers. There must have been yards in the 19th century which were solely concerned in this activity, and back in the 1930s there were eleven small warships belonging to the British navy patrolling the Yangtze most of these craft having been shipped out in pieces and put together in Hong Kong. In their support the British usually had a couple of cruisers usually tied up at Hankow and Nanking. As well as the British there were also American and Japanese gun boats and I wondered how they had come to be there, the Yangtze is after all a Chinese river. It turns out that their presence was a result of what became known as “The Boxer Rebellion” which occurred at the turn of the 20th Century and resulted in the deaths of many Chinese Christians, and foreigners in Peking surviving a 55 day siege in their legation, until a multinational force defeated the Boxers and relieved them. As one of the results the Chinese agreed that the foreign navies could patrol the river to safeguard the interests of their nationals, which they did with considerable effectiveness, protecting them against the predations of pirates and the activities of Chinese warlords. 

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