In this newsletter some views about the Ocean Vanguard being deselected by Statoil, a description of the loss of the Sedco Helen during anchor-handling back in 1970, some words about the hard times being suffered by shipowners, the Admiral Kuznetsov and the autonomous sub hunter Sea Hunter.


In June 2014 Statoil sacked the Ocean Vanguard once, we think, the West Vanguard, well known for succumbing to a shallow gas blowout in October 1985, for  a “technical deficiency”. Some one who knows has written on OilPro that the deficiency was the lack of automatic shut downs on the rig’s ventilation systems which might, or might not, prevent the ingress of gas into the internal spaces of the rig. But, we discover, the rig had been hired by Statoil at a cost of $450,000 a day and given a dispensation about the lack of shutdowns. And actually anyone who has done a study into the vent closures on oil rigs will probably say that this was a perfectly reasonable approach. There are techniques available for calculating the likely success of automatic vent shutdowns, which might be triggered by smoke or gas being sensed close to the vent inlet. There is a measurable interval between the sensing being successful and the vent being shut, and this may well result in a an unacceptable ingress of gas. The problem can be overcome as long as the guys who are operating the systems in the control room have instructions to shut the vents – or the applicable vents – on gas being sensed anywhere and an alarm triggered in the control space. One can reasonably say that this was the argument put forward by Statoil back when the rig was hired, and certainly by the owners when they applied for and received a document of compliance from the Norwegian regulators in 2004. Why then, we might wonder, was this argument unsuccessful when Diamond Offshore went to the Norwegian court in December 2015 to claim the financial loss due to the termination, since the judge found against them.


There has been a bit of rumbling amongst the western powers over the last few days as a small Russian fleet made it’s way from the Baltic, down the North Sea, through the channel and then to the Eastern med, not stopping as it happens for refuelling at Ceuta, after protests against the intent by the NATO powers. The fleet includes the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only carrier, said by experts to have a job steaming sufficiently fast for the aircraft it carries to get into the air even with the assistance of the “ski jump”. Experts have also suggested that the Russian aircraft types which can be carried and deployed from the ship the SU-33 and the MiG-29K are already operating from a land base at the Syrian city of Latakia. It is generally suggested that the aircraft carrier’s role is symbolic rather than anything else, since it has not proved to be the most effective vessel at sea. In 1995-96 it had to be assisted by an American warship when it ran short of water, and in 2005 a landing fighter plummeted over the end of the vessel when the arrester cable broke. Both pilots were lucky to survive. On some websites the carrier is claimed to be nuclear powered – I wish - the captain might say since photos of it trailing clouds of black smoke have appeared in the British press.


The Gulf Fleet II once the Sedco Ann. Photo by Gary Markham.

An old accident – extracted from my book A Catalogue of Disasters.

The Sedco Helen was a 200 foot (61 metre) supply vessel which together with its sister ship, the Sedco Ann had been built in Newcastle, New South Wales to support the rig Sedco 135G. They were powered by two General Motors diesels developing 4300 bhp and had a 125 ton work winch. Below the cargo deck the three aftermost compartments were the Steering Gear Compartment, the Cement Room and the Engine Room. The bulkheads separating these compartments were pierced by hinged watertight doors which were provided with dogs to secure them in the closed position. In addition there was a vent between the Cement Room and the Engine Room which, if necessary, could be closed from the deck by a T-bar. This was clipped to the crash barrier adjacent to the operating position.

Pertinent to the later incident was the fact that the propellers were protected by Y shaped guards, with the leg running horizontally beneath the propellers and the arms vertical astern of the them. The designs predated the common use of the Kort nozzle to increase thrust.

The Sedco 135G was a Sedco-designed triangular rig based on three corner columns connected by a substructure of tubulars with a pontoon at the base of each. Each column was provided with three chain lockers three winches several thousand feet of chain and three anchors with which the rig was moored on location.  At the centre of the triangular deck was the Drill Floor and the derrick and at the forward end was the accommodation with the helideck on top.

In August 1969 the rig struck shallow gas, which ignited on the surface and caused considerable damage. This resulted in it having to be towed by the support vessels to Singapore for repairs, and while in Singapore the Sedco Ann struck a coral reef. The propeller guards were torn off, and one of them, despite being attached by a doubling plate intended to remain in place during such events, was dislodged with a section of the hull still attached. This resulted in an inflow of water into the Steering Gear compartment which filled up in less than 30 minutes. The ship remained afloat, was repaired and nothing further thought of the event.

Towards the end of the year the Sedco 135G returned to the location under tow from the tug Rude Zee. Adopting the already common technique, during the approach the Sedco Helen took the anchor buoy and trailed astern of the rig as the location was approached. The anchor buoys used at the time were of steel construction and the ones employed on the 135G were provided with strengthened crucifixes on the top, connected through the buoy to the pennant string, so that they could be used as part of the mooring or towing process.

Although the report of the court of enquiry suggests that the Sedco Helen “dropped” the anchor, in view of the events that followed it seems more likely that the rig itself dropped the anchor as the appropriate position was passed, and that the Sedco Helen released the buoy at more or less the same time.

Time passed and the other eight 30,000lb anchors were laid, and the job was completed on the afternoon of January 31 January 1970. When the buoys were checked it was evident that No 8 was not on the surface, but it could be seen some way below the water, and it was deduced that either the anchor had been laid in a hole, or else there was a tangle in the wire which prevented the buoy from surfacing.

At that time there were 20 people on board the Sedco Helen, two deck officers, two engineers, six crew and 10 rig personnel whose job it was to assist as required. Included in the rig crew was the Acting Marine Superintendent who, according to the report “had no direct marine experience or qualifications”. No-one on the ship had any experience in the recovery of anchor buoys from below the surface, which put them at something of a disadvantage, since the operation would be nothing like the task of recovering an anchor buoy which was floating. It may not have occurred to them that whatever they used to grab the buoy would have to be able to lift the anchor as well, but whether they did or not they decided to back up and lasso the buoy as if it was on the surface.

The Captain backed up the ship into the wind and tide with the Acting Marine Superintendent giving the appropriate signals from the stern. When they thought it within range, attempts were made to lasso the buoy, but without success, and almost inevitably it ended up under the stern. Rather than being pushed aft by the roller it disappeared beneath the ship and knocking and bumping noises were heard. No worse, they thought, than the noises often heard during anchor work.

Those on deck signalled to the Captain to go ahead, and he gave a short burst on the engines, but nothing happened. He repeated the action and suddenly the buoy surfaced dramatically beside them. The Captain then tried to manoeuvre the ship but it appeared to be stuck in some way and attempts to operate the engines failed so that they had to be declutched.

The Chief Engineer and the Electrician, going below, found that the ship was already taking in water which was flowing from the Cement Room into the Engine Room. The Marine Superintendent took three of his men to try to close the Cement Room door, which remained open. The Captain told the Chief Engineer to abandon the Engine Room, but he met the Acting Marine Superintendent who told him to try the ballast pumps. It was too late to even try to shut the Steering Gear door, but it was possible to shut the Engine Room door, although there was water spraying round the sides. Efforts to shut the vent with the T-bar were unsuccessful and in a short time the ship capsized and sank.

It was estimated that only ten minutes elapsed from the appearance of the buoy at the stern and the sinking of the ship. Four of the ship’s crew and five of the rig crew were lost.

The actual cause of the accident was never discovered, because the stern of the wreck was buried in the mud, but it was felt that it was most likely that the crucifix of the buoy caught in the propeller guard and that when the ship went forward the guard was pulled off, taking part of the hull with it. After all something similar had happened to the Sedco Ann, and both guards had been replaced on the Sedco Helen in Singapore, possibly without considering the required relative strengths of the connections between the  hull, the doubling plates and the propeller guards.


Tidewater ships laid up during a previous downturn. Photo: Kenny Polson.

 I usually try to avoid writing about money but the subject keeps cropping up, as more companies are forced to take steps to, in some way, deal with their debt. Did it not occur to anybody that the gravy train was bound to dry up? The oil industry has been in flux ever since the black stuff was first used for fuel, and the level of volatility has increased since OPEC effectively took charge of the world production. Well they sort of did know it, but were propelled forward by the thought of becoming rulers of the world, with money being forced into their bank accounts and ships being built in the Far East for very little. In the heady days of the $150 barrel there seemed to be no limit to either, and the biggest problem appeared to be recruiting and managing the large numbers of competent mariners required. It is said that  deckhands working in the Gulf of Mexico were commanding rates of several hundred dollars a day, enough for them to take out large mortgages and buy brand new V8 pick-ups for their wives. Today we are at the other end of the cycle, with the companies with money swallowing up those without, and some, including the monster Tidewater edging towards Chapter 11. In Europe Norwegian ship-owners are being forced by their lenders to combine into more efficient organisations, effectively the opposite of world domination. Will things ever be put to rights? Maybe we should listen to the Chief Executive of Total who said a while ago that they would make no-one redundant, ride it out and wait for the upswing.


Earlier this year I penned a few words about the military robot ship, the Sea Hunter. This is one of the latest developments in the USA for the use of the Navy. I say ‘one of’ because I recollect writing about at least two others, both of which have hit problems of one sort or another, with related cost overruns. But here we have the autonomous submarine chaser which can apparently stay at sea for several months cruising the oceans of the world in search of enemy underwater threats.  This craft is not quite like the drones which are cruising about up there in the air. They are controlled - flown – by operators in darkened rooms somewhere, where-as this little ship looks after itself, apparently also obeying the Rules of the Road just as if it was manned by competent seafarers. One assumes that in the event that things aren’t going too well for it , it can deploy two red lights and become not under command. Currently no-one is actually saying what weapons it could, or would, carry but at the christening ceremony journalists were assured that in the event that weapons were carried it would be up to humans to decide whether they would be used. The prototype has a top speed of about 27 knots which one imagines gives it the ability to keep up with a sub under water. It costs about $20,000,000 and can be operated for $20,000 a day. As I have written this it seems to me the there are things we don't know. Does it have world charts embedded and then steam randomly away from its dock? Why does an autonomous vessel cost more to operate than the cost of the fuel?

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