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NEWS AND VIEWS MARCH 2008 

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MORE ICE MAIDENS

Last month we reported on the  accommodation vessel, the Ice Maiden which has still not appeared in the North Sea despite all sorts of publicity last year. Whether this idea is a good one or a bad one, it has been taken up by the Norwegian company Polycastle who have ordered a 400 person accommodation vessel from a Spanish shipyard with an option for two further vessels. The Seabrokers newsletter shows pictures of the ship with its gangway extended at an offshore installation. However we noted that the installation is an FPSO.

The pictures show an enormous vessel, in offshore terms, as one would expect. But one would think that its operations would be limited by the weather. To keep it in position with the wind on the beam one would think it would need about half a dozen large thrusters forward. It has two tunnel thrusters and one azimuthing thruster. One therefore assumes that it is hoping to remain head to wind.

If these craft are to operate in the UK sector of the North Sea, we wonder how the HSE will view the risk of collision from them. We await to Ice Maiden to find out.

THE BOTTLE NOSED DOLPHIN

When it comes to dolphins I'm not sure where to start. Is it at the point where the bottle nosed dolphin preservation society are campaigning to prevent oil exploration to take place in the outer Moray Firth, or should I look back to the 1970s when I was master of a seismic survey ship. Well, lets start at what for me was the beginning. My first job offshore was as mate of a well testing vessel out in the Arabian Gulf. The ship tied up every day, stern to a small platform and tested flow, burning of the results with a very large set of burners on the bow. One day some-one lit up the burners as a helicopter was taking off from the small platform astern and almost extinguished it, and as a result helicopters would no longer land on the platform to which the ship was attached. One could hardly blame them.

The result of this was that a couple of crew members, usually me and one other would be dispatched to an adjacent platform in the ship's workboat to await the helicopter. We were then in a very unusual situation for the offshore industry. We were in a virtually silent environment.

I used to climb up to the helideck and lie on my stomach and look down into the sea under the platform. The sea was full of fish of all sorts. Shoals of what we called King Mackerel would swim past, and rays and sharks were often visible treading water in the shade of the platform. The big fish were there because there were smaller fish enjoying the environment - at least temporarily - because all over the world's oceans fish like offshore structures. The pipelines are warm and the platforms prevent the predation of fishing vessels, and of course, what do bottle nosed dolphins like better than anything else in the world? FISH.

Later I was to be master of a seismic survey ship which got the job of surveying the complete UK continental shelf. This was a long time ago so the ship had a single streamer and its air guns went bang every 10 seconds. It travelled at 4 knots. The speed seemed to be just what dolphins wanted. On larger, faster vessels they are known to ride the pressure wave at the bow and then drift off because its all happening too fast, but four knots seemed to suit them. We would go up to the forecastle and lean over the bow and look down on the dolphins below as they glided effortlessly ahead of the ship. It was almost possible to hear them. Somewhere just above the frequency of human hearing the dolphins were signalling to each other and it was possible to sense the vibrations. The same dolphins rode the bow wave for day after day. We could tell because they were all scarred in different ways. So my conclusion would be that they were unworried by seismic activity.

Since dolphins appear to be unworried by seismic activity - I'm one of the few people with evidence - and they like fish a lot, and offshore installations encourage fish it seems to me that the oil industry is good for dolphins.

ANOTHER SAFETY FLASH

They keep coming - the Marine Safety Forum Safety Flashes - and some of them still involve collisions. A recent flash told us that when a PSV was approaching an offshore installation it failed to respond to directional control. Since the ship was fitted with azimuthing thrusters rather than conventional propellers and rudders the officer on the bridge increased the speed a bit, but still nothing happened. There are apparently manoeuvring problems with these thrusters which we may discuss later.

Too late the man at the controls realised that he had failed to change over from the autopilot to manual control.

There were a number of recommendations made, and one should remember that in the North Sea where it is likely that this event took place, there is a procedure which requires that checks are carried out prior to the vessel entering the 500 metre zone.  Hence the main thrust of the recommendations were that the ships should carry out better checks - or do the checks in the first place, or something similar, and on the face of it this seems pretty sensible. However, I return to the principle way in which ships can avoid offshore installations - don't set course directly for them. If everyone followed this rule, even failure to disengage the auto-pilot would not result in a collision.

Hitting offshore installations is not to be recommended. It is extremely distressing for those involved, particularly the person on the bridge. It appears to be my day for looking back, since I have had this experience. While backing up to a mobile back in the 1970s the ship failed to respond to the controls, and whacked into the leg I was aiming for apparently knocking over people on the rig's deck. I found out years later that one of the engineers had unintentionally turned off the control air.

So back to my number one recommendation - don't ever head straight for an offshore installation - it will save so much paperwork.

TEMPSC

I think the acronym "TEMPSC" stands for "Totally Enclosed Motor Propelled Survival Craft". In other worlds they would be called lifeboats. The UK offshore Union OILC has recently published an extensive series of articles about offshore evacuation systems in the UK, suggesting that the TEMPSC installed on platforms in the North Sea are less than adequate. Their suggestion is probably that freefall lifeboats are better.

I recently read an article by an experienced shipmaster suggesting that these totally enclosed lifeboats are unsuitable, and that we should be returning to the open boats of yesteryear. Would this be a better way to go? Lifeboats are now required to be fitted with on load release gear, so that they can easily be set free from the falls, and this facility alone has been the cause of a large number of fatalities, both on offshore installations and on ships. Additionally, in order to maintain the stability of these craft passengers need to be strapped in. There have been occasions where people have unstrapped themselves to evacuate to a rescue ship, and the  TEMPSC has turned over and sunk.

What about free fall boats. The problems with the onload release gear are avoided, but what about stability.

I have been reading "Brocklebanks 1770-1950", written by my father, John Gibson. It has been out of print for many years so I have had to get my copy from an antiquarian bookseller. Probably the most extensive coverage is of the Brocklebank ships in the Second World War, and their fate in the convoys being attacked by air and sea. Doubtless I will be returning to this book in the future, because it describes the most amazing feats of seamanship, but in this context its seems to me that in nearly all cases, even when the ships sank in a few minutes, the crew got away in the boats, usually without loss. Probably there was more use made of lifeboats, in the second world war than at any time before or since. Open boats worked then - why not now?

Victor Gibson

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