This is the last of the Ships and Oil Monthly newsletters, so it is mostly about me, why I am not writing it any more, which is maybe because I don’t get to see ships much any more. But things keep occurring to me, and I am probably going to go through the 18 years of newslettters and find articles that are worth including on their own in this site.


The Caledonian Vision, one of the four BP craft with one of the ARRCs in the davits.

A bit of an announcement. I have decided to stop writing the newsletter. I have been writing it since the year 2000 producing either ten or eleven a year since then. There have been changes over the years. Originally I wrote it as a component of my website www.shipsandoil.comjust a few short articles composed of words only – that is opposed to words and photographs. The first edition had a lot of stuff about the activities of BP who were attempting to replace the 17 standby vessels it operated on the UKCS with a number of helicopters. It was the beginning of quite a saga and the process developed, from the helicopters, to the provision of four very large vessels which were intended to carry two “get you home” rescue craft. It went on for years and gave me plenty to write about. Then finally the company changed its mind and decided that the special ships would be converted into ordinary platform ships, and the helicopters, which were present at a couple of locations, would be stood down. The ARRCs (Autonomous Rescue and Recovery Craft) were put up for sale, although I have no idea whether anyone bought any. They were very large, very heavy and very expensive and although I don’t actually know, they might have been the weak link in the process. It was that and the fact that the ships needed a very large complement, so it was never quite the saving that had originally been proposed, particularly since they also required management ashore and a special marine control centre to look after them. I find myself briefly energised by the thought of this loony scheme. It was almost too good to be true.

Note: The ARRCs were, I have been told, purchased by the UK Border Force, so it appears that they have found themselves a useful home. 

One of the ARRCs being trialed on the Firth of Forth. Photo by Tommy Bryceland.


I know I could go on writing the newsletter, and I think that it is still quite well liked by its small readership, but I am aware that I’m not quite keeping up, and that more of my personal recollections are making their way into the monthly production, so I thought well, why keep at it? I’ll give up trying to keep up to date, and maybe spend more of my time doing some research into the masses of marine accidents that are still taking place, and those that have taken place, which still have lessons for the people who are at sea, or managing ships and oil rigs. I have also become a writer of fiction which occupies quite a bit of my time and at present am going through the editing process of my third novel – not that I have had any published, but I’m keeping at it. I also spend time reviewing films, I’m one of thousands I know, but my wife goes out to work as an English tutor mostly in the afternoons and evenings which leave me to find something to do, so I watch movies and critique them, making a very limited choice, of style, popularity or genre. I then write a short summary of what I have seen, and one or two people visit the wordpress site called where the reviews appear. I regard the activity as a daily process of getting my brain working. And lastly I had thought that the newsletter might help with the sale of my technical books. There are three available, but without additional external advertising it does not seem to be helping, and if I’m being honest I thought my book “A Catalogue of Disasters” was the best thing I’ve done, but it has not proved popular. Maybe the title is not technical enough. 


Could not resist it. This is me driving the Star Sirius back in 1985.

And, let’s face it I’m an old fashioned mariner, likely to throw up my hands in horror at much of what happens in the marine world today, and I am seldom reassured that everything is as it should be. Adding to my feeling of depression was the latest from that venerable body the Nautical Institute who, according to their newsletter are, through their accredited DP training centres, offering a DP Emergency Shiphandling Course, one of the straplines saying “Are you a DPO seeking to enhance your skills”. Hence the NI seems to be approving of the now common approach that DPOs do not even have to be qualified deck officers, and hence are very unlikely to know what to do if the DP system throws its hand in. Even if you are qualified to be a watchkeeper there is nothing requiring you to be able to operate your ship – here we are talking about offshore vessels – in manual, by means of the various controls available on the bridge. It is not rocket science. Not everybody will be good at it, but with practice and some understanding of the principles, everybody should be able to do the job adequately, a bit like driving a car. I cannot understand how the requirement for this basic skill has never been formalised, and now is drifting away, to be replaced totally by the machine. Believe me, I’ve got nothing against the computer, it can be very useful, and many years ago I was actively involved in the development of the joystick. I had realised that we shiphandlers often selected the point at which a ship would turn. We might hold the stern in position and thrust the bow sideways, or hold the head and move the stern sideways, usually to prevent a collision with the adjacent structure from taking place, and so I suggested that the joystick be able to do the same thing, and sure enough it could, with the addition of three buttons. My point here is that I understood what the computer should be able to do, not the other way round.


The P&O Cargo Ship Ballarat in dry dock: Photo John Lupton

Before I gave up being a seafarer I had a career which spanned 25 years, starting during the heyday of the British merchant service and ending during the great downturn in the oil industry in 1986, after which I became a writer, initially contributing to marine journals and then after my offshore book Supply Ship Operationswas published, becoming a compiler of mobile unit safety cases, required to conform to the then new legislation resulting from Lord Cullen’s enquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster. In 1994 I also had a three month stint on an anchor-handler out in Saudi, when the safety case business dried up a bit, and honestly the journalism had never actually paid the bills. I just could not write enough, and as my accountant said only the other day, the books are really a bit of a hobby aren’t they? And in the end they are, although I must admit that the first book gave me the entry into the technical authorship business which was an earner.

So you might have detected the fact that I am allowing myself to ramble on a bit; this is so that I can look back at some of the ships on which I have served, and I realised when I started thinking about it, that most of them provided me with a pretty unique experience of one sort or another. The first ship I sailed on, and we all remember our first ship don’t we, was the P&O cargo ship the Ballarat. It was typical of the British merchant ships of the day, providing a liner service between Britain and Australia. It and its sister ship the Bendigowould go from port to port round the UK and the continent of Europe and then speed to Australia where it would do the same thing, usually starting at Adelaide and going as far north as Brisbane. A memorable moment for me during my first trip was as we were approaching Port Said. The ship had had the brand new communications system, the VHF, installed and it was operated from the radio room, with a handset on the bridge – a standard telephone in a cream colour – without a dial. The radio operator made the connection and requested that someone on the bridge pick up the handset. No-one was prepared to do it and so I, the junior apprentice, was waved forward to carry out the communication.

I am trying to move on from the Ballarat and, towards the end of my apprenticeship, sailed on the last commercial voyage of the medium sized passenger ship Canton, well known to travellers to India and the Far East since before the Second World War. There were many memorable moments on it, but I particularly recollect a lower hold full of bales of Singapore currency which was being shipped back to UK for destruction. It had armed guards during the loading but once this was completed all the soldiers went away and left it to us. And on the evening before we arrived back in the London Docks we, the other apprentice and I, held a party for the young people on the ship in our cabin, and because the Canton was due to go to the breakers everybody signed their names and left messages in felt tipped pen on our bulkheads. The mate made us scrub them all off before we were allowed to go on leave.

Missing out the rest of my deep sea and short sea trades involvement, after qualifying as a Class One Master Mariner I spent a bit of time as a stevedore superintendent and then as a cargo superintendent, which turned out to be harder work than I was keen on doing and so, perceiving that there was stuff going on out there in the North Sea, I wrote off to the British offshore companies, and joined the first one to reply, which was Ocean Inchcape. The change proved to be what I had been looking for, and gave me a calling which I have more or less followed up to this day, although as the years have passed I have found myself drifting away from it, hence this very article.  I started off as mate of an anchor-handler, the Oil Driller, and this ship was later to be my first command. It was a time of rapid promotion, and although as mate I had objected formally to the extremely unsafe cargo handing activities offshore, I was promoted to master one day, as the only fairly experienced mate who was prepared to have a go at the job. I had never actually driven a ship in anger, although I had had the pretty unique experience of being the person on the bridge operating the controls of a well testing vessel, while the captain stood on the after end giving me instructions over the radio. Maybe my most memorable moment during my first trip out into the North Sea was actually nudging the legs of a couple of semi-submersibles gently, not doing any damage, but causing a bit of panic up there on the deck of the rigs. I also endeavoured to give the ship a bit more freeboard than other had required, but no matter how long the engine men kept pumping, nothing was happening, so I had them press up the after ballast tanks. We were surprised to see that it was like Trafalgar Square down there. Three of the tanks had splits between them and all were open to the sea: a trip to drydock was required. At the time the ship was only a couple of years old.

Actually if the ship you are on is working intensively it only takes a few days to learn to drive it pretty effectively, so after only one six week trip I could do the job – those who are preventing deck officers offshore from learning this skill should take note – and after my six weeks in charge I took the ship to Dundee to put it into drydock to be patched up: I had learnt enough to line the craft up with the drydock set it in motion towards the entrance and then turn the power off (to avoid knocking the blocks over), and the ship edged its way into the dock slowly. I was looking aft and was amused to see a pedestrian step onto the afterdeck from the edge of the dock, walk across and then step off on the other side.

The Pike, a Halter 180 footer, which I commanded back in Saudi Arabia. Photo taken in Africa by Fergus Mack.

Over the years that followed I drove a lot of different ships, continued to learn things, and to teach others, until finally in 1994 I found myself in command of a Halter Marine 180 footer out in Saudi Arabia. The safety case work had dried up, only temporarily I was to find, and although I had been in line to command an MOD support ship they were taking so long to decide, that I had to go to work somewhere. And out in Saudi I found that we could do all the things we had wanted to do up in the North Sea, but had been unable to do, because the weather is generally so crap. I spent a lot of time as one of the ships supporting a large jack-up crane barge, and if we were moving it from one place to another, and we were going to have to wait for dawn before putting the thing alongside a platform, the barge would just put its legs down and we would tie up alongside and go to bed. One morning we were alongside the barge, and a Tidewater, British built anchor-handler was tied up to us, and we suddenly got the command to get going. Well, our GMs could be started at the push of a button, but the Tidewater ship needed about thirty minutes to get going, so we let go from the barge, went round to the bow and took on board the towing bridle, and then eased away from the thing – with the other ship still tied up alongside. I would have loved to have taken photos, but the Saudis did not allow cameras. There is a lot more – I might have to write my autobiography!


I have, by a somewhat devious route, found my way to “FutureNautics” a site which seems to be promoting the use of digital information in the marine world. Actually I got there because it was reported elsewhere that this organisation had polled 6000 seafarers and had reported that 47% of those polled had reported that systems on the ships on which they had been serving had been subject to cyber attack. Well, I would ask three questions, who were these people, in what positions were they serving and, how did they know? I went to the site, and looked for the report, but was unable to find it. I’m not saying that it was fiction, but there are a lot of words on the site. I started reading an article about how AI might help those on ships, and stopped when I got to a couple of paragraphs which suggested that when an officer of the watch was carrying out a particularly difficult passage but did not want to call the master for help, he could activate an app – suggested by the writer as “a sort of ‘ask the master app’” which would be a sort of second opinion, powered by previous passages by other ships through the same channel, filtered for size of ship, weather, cargo and more. Well, we already believe that people are not looking out of the windows enough, so here they might not have to look out of the windows at all. Perhaps the ideal app should be one which says to the officer of the watch “Why don’t you look out of the window?”

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