This is my holiday edition. I was in Scotland in Aberdeen, Leith, Glasgow and Edinburgh and had many opportunities to photograph ships and learn stuff about the marine world which i did not know, so in this edition there is something about the the Czar Alexander II's yacht Livadia, a failed project, my reminiscence of changing anchor wires in the Firth of Forth, stuff about the mechanical problems faced by the British Type 45 destroyers, a bit of a commentary about the Transocean Winner grounding, and more about unpaid foreign flag crews - the Malaviya Seven et al. 

The Livadia

Amongst the delightful models of cargo and passenger ships presented to visitors in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow was a very unusual elliptical vessel, and so I photographed it through the glass, which provided me with a record, although sadly the image was marred by reflections and so the one presented here is from Wikipedia, however, given the name I was able to do a bit of easy investigation.

The ship, the Livadia was built in the 1880s for the Czar of Russia Alexander II. It was the result of an attempt by the Russian navy to develop marine gun platforms, and in this quest a couple of circular ships had been built with fixed guns on board, requiring the ship to be turned to align them on the target (one can only wonder at the lunacy of this idea). The craft were virtually uncontrollable and so another design of a sort of elliptical shape was proposed. The Czar who had recently been deprived of his royal yacht by bad weather in the Black Sea, proposed that a replacement be built using this revolutionary design, and so construction was initiated in Scotland, at the yard of John Elder and Sons. The yard was required to provide a ship which could exceed 15 knots, which it did due, one would think, to the enormous engines which consumed an unrealistic quantity of coal. When the ship proved to be extremely unpleasant at sea due to “slamming” it was more or less mothballed, and after Alexander II had been assassinated, his son Alexander III had no interest in the vessel and so it was laid up and the engines used in Russian warships. It was said to be still afloat in the 1930s. Only two models exist, one in St Petersburg and one in Glasgow.

Changing Anchor Wires in the Firth of Forth

When I was on holiday in Scotland this year, we stayed on one of those new flats close to Leith Harbour, with a view over the Firth of Forth. It reminded me of an occasion many years ago when I was the mate of the anchor-handler Oil Harrier which had the task of changing anchor wires on a Pentagone semi-submersible which was anchored in the firth. The technique was to lift an anchor and remove it while the rig recovered the wire. They would pull the wire off the drum and cut it into lengths and then we would offer up the end of the new wire which was on a reel on the deck. They reeled the new wire onto the drum and then put down the cut up lengths onto our deck. We would then steam into Leith where they would remove the empty reel  and put a full one into the spooling gear. We would return to the field and do the job again, and again, and again until we had done it ten times. The job required the captain and I to be working while changing the wire, one of us to be navigating between the rig and the port and the rig, and visa versa and one of us to be about when the ship was in port. We were exhausted when the job was finished, but at least we could get a rest when we were off hired.

Consider then the challenges faced by those working in the US inland waterways, who work on a six on six off basis, effectively without a break for the whole of their tour of duty. The US National Transport Safety Board is looking at the problem and the bodies representing the American Waterways Operators has commissioned a study, which has come to the conclusion that the problem can be solved by “effective management”. We would not be surprised that the study did not come to the obvious conclusion that having a Second Mate would be a help.  

The Type 45 Destroyers

I am an occasional purchaser of Private Eye, when I can stand the exposure to public gaze of the dog eat dog world of journalism, and the general ineffectiveness of the government of the UK to deal with the doubtful organisations providing the country with its various services.

In a recent edition BAE Systems and the Type 45 destroyers featured, and by the time I read the article I had noticed that about five of these ships were lying alongside in Portsmouth as we passed the Naval Dockyard on the ferry from Spain. If they’re all here who’s out there patrolling the sea lanes? I thought, and why are they here anyway?

Well it turns out that they have engine problems, and the press already contains articles saying that they have difficulties maintaining the required levels of power in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. If we are of a forgiving nature we would acknowledge that one of the difficulties with naval craft is that they take ages to build due to the very fine tolerances required at all stage of construction, and during this extended period the war office usually identifies some necessary upgrades which cause further  delays, and so on.

However, the Private Eye article suggests that the power plants fitted to the ships are unable to supply sufficient electricity to operate all the ship’s systems. A fundamental problem one would think, and maybe why they are all alongside in Portsmouth. Worse, according to Private Eye the ships consume so much power that if plugged into the mains in Portsmouth they would collectively put the city into darkness, so there are only two connections available at any time, and the rest of the ships are, as a result, in darkness.

The Transocean Winner Incident

Photo by the MCA.

During my holidays in Scotland during August I was surprised by a news item which was reported in the Scottish media over a few days, and as a result I was unable to restrain myself from writing a speculative article which was published on OilPro. It went as follows:

 On Sunday 7th August the Alp Forward was reported here and there as having to struggle to keep the semi-submersible Transocean Winner away from the coast of the Hebrides, in the Western Isles of Scotland, and on Monday morning the inhabitants of Dalmore on the island of Lewis awoke to find an oil rig securely grounded on the rocks next to their personal bathing beach. There were no injuries because, at least in part, there was no-one on the rig, which according to some reports was on its way to Malta to have equipment removed before going on to the breakers in Turkey.

The UK MAIB are starting to investigate the accident, but what is immediately clear is that this is a very infrequent event since, in the whole of the history of oil exploration in the UK sector of the North Sea, there has not been a single grounding of a semi under tow, although there have been near misses and once, back in the 1970s, one broke its moorings in Peterhead harbour and ended up on the bathing beach next to the caravan site.

So what, we might ask, as made this event special, and at this moment we know a few things and might make a few assumptions. Firstly we are in the throes of a major scrapping initiative by virtually all rig owners, and although no-one is confirming that the Winner was on the way to being cut up for razor blades, the indications are that this was so. Firstly there was no-one on board, very unusual, it was bound for Malta, the usual jumping off point for the Turkish breakers, and there were no anchors or anchor chains, which had probably been removed because they are useful if in good condition, and their removal would give the unit more freeboard, and hence a greater speed through the water in good weather. Another indication that it might be on the way to the breaker is that it had recently, ended its contract and was due for a 5 year SPS (Special Periodic Survey), always an expensive business, and probably more so for a rig constructed in the mid 1980s. You can do what you like to improve operating equipment but the hull, the pipework and the wiring will inevitably show signs of age, and will require considerable refurbishment at the time of an SPS.

So for whatever reason the rig was under tow of the Alp Forward, a modern 19,000 bhp offshore tug, from Norway to Malta when the tow was lost. What had caused it? Well obviously the Atlantic gales had an effect, but usually such possibilities will have been taken into account when the towing plan was considered, and it actually seems unlikely that the tow line, a substantial 76mm wire, would have parted, which leaves us with the towing connections on the rig. If we look back at recent events, the loss of the Kulluk in the seas off Alaska in 2012 started off with the loss of a shackle from the towing system, disconnecting the tug Aiviq, although that was just the start of the drama (See my book “A Catalogue of Disasters”). Rig owners are notoriously reluctant to upgrade towing systems on their rigs because as well as the wires and shackles it is often necessary for them to fit new tuggers at deck level to allow the heavier wire to be recovered. Possible problems with these systems do not manifest themselves when the rigs are on contract, because the operators often use more than one ship to move the rigs short distances between wells, but when it comes to long distance tows at the behest of the owners, economy can become the primary factor.

Additionally, so far, we do not know why there was no-one on the rig, and had there been anyone could that have made a difference? Well, if the owners had just handed over the keys so to speak, to ALP, it would have been up to the towing company to decide whether to put anyone on the rig, and it would have been pointless for them to do so unless those people had the appropriate skills. And in the end we have to evaluate the risks against the rewards, of manning the unit. Had there been a crew on board they could have ballasted the rig down to reduce the rate of drift, operated the thrusters to keep it away from the shore, let go an anchor, had there been one left and even given the tug an emergency towing bridle. So, a lot of advantages. The disadvantage would have been that these people would have been at risk and might have had to be rescued.

But the presence of personnel might have resulted in greater care being taken with the towing plan, maybe incorporating some hold points in the event of adverse weather. Correspondents on social media have pointed out that these gales were accurately forecast, and so the tug and tow sailed out into the Atlantic knowing what they were going to face.  As usual in these situations everything points either to lack of the appropriate skills in the planning of the tow, or lack of attention to detail by those who ticked the boxes. The offshore oil industry has a tendency to look on marine accidents as nothing more than bad luck, but in reality they are usually the result of a lack proper preparation for operations which are to take place in a dangerous and unpredictable environment. The UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch is at work, so watch this space.

PS. After a couple of lucky weeks during which the weather remained moderate, the salvage crew from Smit Salvage went through the process of discharging the majority of the 280 tonnes of fuel from the rig, of which some had leaked into the environment, into the Olympic Orion, The success of this part of the operation seems to indicate that the Transocean Winner is more of less perched on the edge of the rocks, and that most of the rig was still in deep water, otherwise how would the vessel into which the oil was discharged have got close enough. And then on a high tide on 22nd August the rig was refloated and under tow from a couple of Boskalis Kmar 404s, made its way to Broad Bay, at what was for the salvors a surprisingly slow speed. Well, the pontoons were at least partially under water, guaranteeing that a speed of a couple of knots would be the best that could be achieved. It is another of those factors which make oil rig towing different from ship towing. Ships are designed to move easily through the water, whether doing it by themselves or under tow, but oil rigs are designed to drill holes in the seabed, and as far as semi-submersibles are concerned they don’t move very fast if the pontoons are under water. The rig was apparently then anchored with eight anchors, according to the SOSREP, although I keep looking at the photos and can’t see any on the bolsters, and so would be interested to know where they came from.

The Malaviya Seven

Back in the middle of June the press reported that the UT745 Malaviya Seven, owned by GOL Offshore  previously the Northern Clipper, had been detained in Aberdeen by the MCA because the 15 Indian crew members had not been paid for months, neither had those whose tour of duty was over been repatriated. This photograph was taken on 5th August, on the day when the crew wages had been paid and the personnel due for leave repatriated. And apparently Polly Toynbee of the Guardian had visited the Malaviya Twenty in the last week of August in Great Yarmouth where the crew had similarly not been paid, the owners apparently hoping that the crew would give up and go home without wages, something that they were patently unable to do. The Guardian article was intended to point up the problems relating to the operation of foreign ships with crews on low or no wages in the North Sea, and British shipowners, yes there are still one or two, might be hoping for the reintroduction of the “Offshore Supplies Office”, which existed back in the 1970s with the intention of promoting the use of British products and services in the offshore industry. Lots of people bought British just to be on the safe side, even though the office had no teeth.  


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