This month the newsletter is mainly concerned with offshore matters, including a dropped BOP, An automated drillship, some history about the standby boat business which includes just a bit about their failings - expanded in my book "A Catalogue of Disasters" (I am realising I have to do some serious advertising), Lego ships and the voyage of Captain John Ross in the Victory. 


The Victory sailing for the last time. Illustration from Captain John Ross's Book about the Voyage.

Since last month’s newsletter I have learnt more about epic voyage of the Victory in search of the Northwest Passage, commanded by Captain John Ross, and sponsored by Felix Booth, the gin magnate. The Victory, in addition to sails, had been provided with a steam engine powering two paddle wheels, which could be raised to ease the ship’s passage through the ice. In year one, 1829, the Victory passed Fury beach on which HMS Fury had been abandoned in 1825, and sailed on for a further 200 miles down the Gulf of Boothia where it was stopped by ice and so Captain Ross chose to winter in Felix Harbour. The steam engine had proved to be completely useless, and so it was dismantled and put ashore. In the summer of 1830 the Victory was warped a full three miles towards the open sea before being forced to over winter once more. So now, in the late summer of 1831 further efforts were made to break out of the ice, but the ship only travelled four miles before being trapped again and so required the crew to spend another winter waiting for something nice to happen to them. By the summer of 1832 it was evident that they were not going to break out, and so Captain Ross determined that their only means of staying alive would be to abandon the ship and walk to Fury Beach where the stores from HMS Fury were still preserved. They reached the beach in August of that year and set sail in the Fury’s boats which they had repaired, but they had only gone a few miles when once more they were trapped, and so they left the boats and retreated to Fury Beach again, to spend another winter in the Arctic, fortunately sustained by the stores from HMS Fury. In July 1833 they returned to the boats and were at last able to sail into open water, to be sighted by the whaler Isabella, the very ship commanded by Captain Ross in his previous expedition in 1818.


Schadenfreude is the enjoyment of other people’s misfortunes, and it is likely that many people serving in offshore management on mobile drilling units must have experience that pleasure when they read the report on the loss of a BOP from the Ocean Blackhornet, a Diamond Offshore drillship. There are crucial acronyms involved and - just a bit of information - the oil industry is obsessed with acronyms. So here were have one the “EDS”, the Emergency Disconnect System, which can be operated from various points on the rig. If someone presses the button the lower connection of the riser will be disconnected from the BOP, effectively keeping the drillship safe if there is a blowout. Another much used acronym is “ESD” emergency shutdown system, and as I’m about to describe what this system can do, I’m sure that those of you outside the business have noted that apart from two letters being transposed the acronyms are the same. ESDs are used to shut down areas of the rig, electronic or electrical systems and in the case of the Ocean Blackhornet, the emergency system which would shut down parts of the oilfield on which the ship was working. So the ship was recovering the BOP at the time and it was 1500 feet above the seabed, when the bridge received a phone call, asking them to activate the ESD. At that the Senior DP officer made his way to the button which operated the EDS and pushed it. Whoops!  The subsequent investigation by the BSEE (The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement) determined that there should at the very least be some preparation and discussion before such systems were tested, but no-one suggested that maybe it would be a plan to stop using the acronyms.


Illustration of the Huisman Huisdrill 12000 from the company website.

Back in the summer of 2016 I attended an IADC conference in Estoril, which is a delightful Portuguese seaside resort, and latterly an attractive conference venue. One of the papers presented came to mind as President Trump has been speaking extensively about getting Americans back to work. What then would be the effect on the offshore industry we might wonder, initially thinking that a bit of oil exploration would be good, and the fact that quite a few of the old mobile units have made their way to the breakers. Critics have said that it would not be possible to recover much manual labour since everything is becoming automated anyway. Not the drilling business you might think, but on the contrary, there are plans to automate much of it and Huisman, who currently manufacture large cranes and those amazing pipelaying towers which dominate the upper works of quite large offshore vessels. They have designed a drillship which can drill a hole without human intervention, and they claim with good reason I suppose, that drill pipe can be connected or disconnected automatically if one pipe can be presented to the next with ease, Even now two lengths of drill pipe can be connected without anyone doing anything physically. The iron roughneck is moved forward and grips the terminations of the pipe, spinning one until it is screwed up into the other, or unscrewed if they are recovering the pipe. They have presented a whole mass of design features which would make the work easier, as well as the drill tower, which rotates to present the various type of pipe to the centre of the drill floor. Because everything is automatic the pipe of various sorts can be stowed in 150 foot stands, and the whole drill floor is “heave compensated” – it goes up and down, which has a variety of technical advantages.


A former Canadian supply ship, turned into a standby boat, possibly now dismantled. Photo Scott Boulter.

Every now and again there is a moment of mild euphoria amongst the offshore ship-owners as a small vessel is hired for a long period of time by an oil company. The small vessels are usually ERRVs, or as they used to be called, and still are by most people, “standby boats”. Over the years I have written many words about them and have, on behalf of clients, looked at some closely and carried out trials of different sorts with others. They are hired for quite long periods because of the work they do, mostly just going out to a location and drifting about for 30 days or so, just in case someone falls over the side or, God forbid, the offshore installation becomes uninhabitable because of fire, explosion or sinking.

They have mostly had rather a patchy press, since they are in the limelight if there is ever a major offshore disaster, and have not in the main been very successful in their intervention. You could say that their media presence is not unlike that fulfilled by goalkeepers in the Premier League. We only see them failing to prevent a football skyrocketing into the net, not the many saves which they no doubt carry out.

As far as the UKCS is concerned no-one had foreseen the need for a small ship drifting about close to a rig or a platform until the Sea Gem, BP’s first jack-up sank in December 1965. When the rig was jacking down two of the legs collapsed causing the structure to slide into the sea. The lives of 13 of the crew were lost, the rest being rescued by a helicopter and a passing merchant ship, the Baltrover. This resulted in the “Minerals Workings Act” one of its requirements being that standby boats should be provided

No-one at that time had really specified what the standby boat should be or should carry , although it was generally accepted that it should have a fast rescue craft of some sort; after all if it did not have one how could it recover people from the sea. And in fact the industry took the easiest way out and went and talked to the owners of the UK fishing fleets who were having real trouble keeping their ships employed in the aftermath of the Icelandic cod war. I have written extensively on this site about the progress of the development of the craft, but any of us who were out there in the 1970s will remember how it was with the little ships, manned by fishermen who were facing a reduction in wages, but who could stand the 30 days of inactivity followed by a few days at home. This in some ways was an improvement on what they had been used to.

It was usual for the ships to be relieved in a cycle, with either a relief vessel going to a single location and staying there while the permanent ship went back to port and then came out again a few days later, or else it would relieve one ship which would then move on to another location to relieve another and so on.

They were often required to keep up their food supplies either formally or informally by fishing with hand lines, and liked to be close to the oil rig when doing it, because fish like the subsea structures, particularly if the oil is flowing since it warms the surrounding water. However, it became less common for this to be allowed since it was felt that lost fishing gear created a hazard for divers. If they were not relieved on time, they would often run out of food and water, and it would fall to the rig or one of their attendant supply ships to send them a food parcel, often needing the two craft to get within heaving line distance. If they ran out of water the usual technique was for the supply ship to take the standby vessel in tow and then pass it a hose.

It was probably not until the beginning of the 1980s that the informal availability of the standby vessel was called in to question, when the enquiry into the loss of the Ocean Ranger in Canadian waters determined that the Seaforth Highlander has been unable to fulfil the task required of it. And they took to task the oil company Mobil, and the ship-owners Seaforth Fednav, neither of which had actually issued any instructions to the ship, nor had they made any special arrangements for the provision of suitable equipment. Indeed the captain of the ship had not been aware that he was going to be a “standby boat” until he arrived on the location for the first time (See my book “A Catalogue of Disasters” for more). And actually the Canadians still use that sort of system with a support vessel going to the location and staying out there as the standby boat until relieved. They did try an alternative, Gemevac which, if you can imagine it, involved a capsule being winched along a wire between the Hibernia Platform and an attendant vessel, but it was eventually abandoned.

Then in 1988 the standby boat assigned to the Piper Alpha platform, the Silver Pit,  failed in most respects to carry out its work.  Co-incidentally it had also been the standby boat in the Ekofisk Field when the Alexander L Kielland suffered from structural failure, but it took no part in the rescue efforts because it had been assigned to a platform several miles away. Lord Cullen who conducted the enquiry into the Piper A disaster described the Silver Pit as being totally unsuitable for the task to which it and hence all the other ex trawlers, were assigned.

In addition, since Piper Alpha the UK Health and Safety Executive have been in charge of safety on offshore installations which are in the words of the guidance to the regulations ‘structures used for any one of a number of activities relating to the exploitation of oil and gas resources in “relevant waters”’. This has caused a degree of discussion as to whether ships engaged in well intervention, of which there are now a number out there, should have their own ERRV. ‘Yes they should’ say some of the hard liners, ‘but cruise ships don’t have a standby boat’ point out others – and the latter at present have won the argument.

There is no doubt that the people on offshore installations in UK waters take some comfort from the presence of a little ship bobbing about out there. Although sometimes they are more at risk than the installations themselves, and additionally they can at times, if insufficient attention is being paid to what is going on by the man on the bridge, constitute a hazard. There have been incidents where standby boats have been damaged by rough weather, and where oil rigs and platforms have been damaged due to impact with the very craft intended to ensure their safety.

So as we get to the end of this rather rambling narrative there may be those who wonder how it all works out when the weather is so bad that the little ships would be unable to pick up anyone who fell into the sea, or were floating about as the result of a major accident. The answer may be – not well. The HSE would say that if the seas are too rough for the ERRV to take emergency action then the offshore installation it is serving should stop doing things which might result in people falling into the sea. And sure enough this has resulted in suspension of helicopter flights, much to the distress of those due off, who would get into the helicopter no matter what the risks. This makes the ERRV masters quite optimistic about their capabilities, and as result things can be a bit hairy. Indeed I once left a rig out in the Atlantic and had to crawl across the helideck to the aircraft to avoid being blown off, but at least the standby boat thought it could have picked me up had I fallen into the sea. 


The Jubilee Seaways - from the company website.

I confess to being something of a Lego fan and as a boy when the blocks were marketed for children to build houses with, I constructed a Lego robot. It did not do anything but it looked fine, which was at that time good enough for me. I have, when trying to turn ideas I have had into physical entities used Lego, and not all that long ago my wife bought me a real Lego robot kit, which entertained me for months as I tried to get it to look around and then choose a direction of travel, and move on. But it was either too complicated or else I was not a sufficiently skilled Lego builder. I have been prompted to write this because there are professional Lego builders out there, and some of them have been involved in the construction of the DFDS ferry Jubilee Seaways. They assembled the ship out of sections built by DFDS offices, terminals and ships around the world. The finished vessel weighs about three tons, and has been officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as being the largest ever ship built from Lego bricks. And as a Lego end word, I was sent a photo some years ago, of the Lego Star Sirius in dock in the Lego World port. People who know me are aware that I was once master of the real thing, and it was my favourite ship ever.  

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