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During the last week there have been a number of memorial activities relating to the distressing events of the 11th September 2001, and it is possible to reflect, seven years later, on how the world has changed when much of what we do is based on the possibility that some misguided person will attempt to blow themselves up in one's immediate vicinity.

It came home to me when I was travelling recently from Aberdeen to Spain at the end of a few days risk assessment work. As usual I was carrying numbers of things which are available in Scotland and which are nice to have in Spain. I and many others lined up and made our way through security where our laptops were removed from their cases and our belts and watches and keys, and coats and shoes were passed through the xray system. On  the other side my rucksack was taken to one side, and before me it was opened and a jar of Branston pickle extracted. I was distressed. I had only removed it from my suitcase because it seemed possible that the weight might exceed 20 kilos, and that if so, an extra kilo of weight would cost 12 euros. A very important person, in an ill fitting suit, appeared at the side of the young man who had my pickle in his hand, and at my suggestion that he take it home for his tea, informed me with a complete lack of humour that it would be destroyed.

This event is a mere nothing compared with the misfortunes which are still suffered by seafarers visiting America. Of course the American have always thought that we would do anything to insert ourselves into their country and therefore have tried to keep us out, if there was any excuse at all. Now the excuse is hardly needed, and I was horrified to read a letter in the Telegraph (of Nautilus) from a seafarer, who, although he only gave his number, was probably the master of a cruise ship. The letter was full of references to forms and permits, but the general thrust of it was that the ship in question was used as a matter of routine by the American security services to test their systems, but that the regulations which were being enforced prevented the crew members including this master (if that was what he was) from going ashore until they had been on the ship for 90 days. He went on to say that the ship visited Hawaii and that until being persuaded otherwise by the authorities on the mainland, those in charge had not enforced the rules there. I do not know what the  length of the crew's tours of duty were, but it is likely that their opportunities for shore leave were, as a consequence, extremely limited.

Once more. I am horrified at the attitude taken by authorities towards seafarers whose status in the world seems to be declining to the point that they are almost being criminalised. Where will it all end? Well, one way is that countries will follow the example set by Saudi Arabia who do not allow seafarers off their ships, and if they fly into the country they must leave within 12 hours from the nearest port.  Can it get any worse?


On 4th September a Bell 212 helicopter crashed onto the helideck of the jack-up Maersk Resilient in the Rashid Field, offshore Dubai during take off. The helicopter hit the helideck and broke up as it fell off into the sea. A fire on the helideck was quickly extinguished. The aircraft was carrying two crew and five passengers all of whom were lost.

This incident is reported on as being investigated by the Dubai authorities and no doubt in time more will be found out about the incident. But whether the findings will be made available to those with an interest in other countries is unlikely. It is a rare event for a helicopter to crash into a platform, the last was probably the one which hit the crane on the Brent spar many years ago. It is less unusual for helicopters to crash into the sea, unfortunately, and it is for that event that people suit up in the very elaborate protective clothing used in the North Sea and elsewhere. It was also reported that there was a fire on the platform, and despite the elaborate preparations and fire fighting equipment provided in case of fire on the helideck this is most unusual. In fact, statistically fires as a result of helicopter crashes are close to unknown.

None of this is going to make people who fly in helicopters feel any better, and no report will do anything to make those grieving the loss of their loved ones feel less distressed, but some sort of a mechanism to make investigations into offshore accidents worldwide, more generally available to those involved in oil industry safety would be advantageous.


A link to the North Sea Marine Safety Forum can be found on this page. For those who do not know about this organisation they are a well intentioned international group of people with a variety of interests relating to the operation of offshore support vessels. They meet occasionally and exchange information and listen to presentations. They also release safety alerts, which advise anyone who wants to receive them of incidents which could, and sometimes do, cause accidents, and they organise working groups who produce procedures and guidance.

Having said all this, they are limited in the level of information they are able to broadcast, and this was brought home by a recent safety notice which said that a crane operator was concerned at the increasing number of incidents concerning PSVs  carrying out cargo work in the North Sea. Since most of the oil companies and some of the mobile unit owners are represented on the MSF one wonders why it should take a crane operator to identify such a problem. However, in response the MSF rebroadcast a few safety alerts, one of which allowed me to get back on my soapbox again.

In 2007 a support vessel connected up a long hose which lacked floatation collars and this resulted in it being dragged into a propeller. As the safety alert pointed out this is a danger not only for the ship, but also for the offshore installation. Loss of control of the ship can simply mean that it will crash into the platform or mobile unit, in either case this can be very expensive. A platform can be shut down for a lengthy period while the damaged bits of structure are replaced, and a mobile unit might have to be up anchored and dragged back into sheltered waters to have the hole patched up.

So, taking this into account one would think that it would be essential that hoses be provided with an appropriate number of flotation collars, but in the North West European Guidelines, quoted in the safety flash it says that if there are insufficient flotation collars a risk assessment should be carried out.  Is it me, or is there something wrong with this statement. Surely if there are insufficient flotation collars, the answer is to fit some more.


 As I write this the media is full of the latest bank failure, Lehman Brothers, which is apparently the fourth largest bank in America. Its failure is down to the the same malaise that has hit all the other banks and building societies, an over-reliance on doubtful loans, if not directly then through others. The US Government decided, even though it had already rescued two other banks this week, that it would not rescue them and so they have filed for Chapter 11. Companies have survived Chapter 11, notably Tidewater some time ago, but no-one seems to give Lehmans much of a chance. Hence they will have to sell off their assets as best they can.

What the hell is this all about some of you may ask, its all very interesting  but hardly appropriate for a shipping column. Well, the reality is that several banks are involved in the shipping business, and Lehman Brothers themselves own GulfMark and their British subsidiary Gulf Offshore. They also recently purchased Rigdon Marine. The question would be bound to be how much of the ships do they actually own, and I suppose, is this important? Even though there are mutterings about a slump due to all the new ships rolling off the stocks, the Gulf Offshore and GulfMark fleets would be worth having, and of course if purchased complete would come with the crews, also pretty important.

The entry of the mind boggling numbers of new-buildings is apparently not having the immediate effect that was anticipated, because ships are not being delivered on time. So if orders are now trickling off it is possible that the introduction of new tonnage may be sufficiently slow for no-one to notice.


The two documents which offer the guidance for the operation and the survey of ERRVs (standby vessels to many of us) have just been re-published. In the past these documents, which were jointly sponsored by virtually all the organisations involved in offshore safety in the North Sea, were free. Now they have been updated under the auspices solely of Oil and Gas UK, formerly UKOOA, and the ERRVA. Each document has had about 200 words changed and they have had a new logo put on the cover.

They are sold as a Oil and Gas UK publication and cost 60 each. This sounds like good business at the expense of a ready availability of safety information.


The hurricane season is well under way with predictable results for the mobile units which have the misfortune to be in the path of the storms. The technique to keep people safe is to remove all personnel from the rigs if there is any possibility that they will be in the path of the hurricane, and then once the hurricane has passed everyone goes back if their rigs are still there.

Over time this has been found to be a less than ideal technique, since mobile units have got away and drifted all over the gulf, sometimes hitting other units and sometimes grounding. After the passing of hurricane Katrina the MMS required that semi-submersibles should have their eight mooring systems enhanced to either 12 or 16 anchor systems, and one assumes that in 2008 this work has been carried out. However, regardless of the perceived advantages of having more anchors out, the reasoning might be flawed. It is possible, with an eight anchor system, to ensure that a mobile unit will survive a 100 year storm but certain things are required. There must be enough chain, wire or a combination of both out to prevent anchor uplift. The system must have been tensioned up to ensure that there is no possibility of the anchors dragging and in preparation for adverse weather the system must be detensioned in a manner which will ensure an even distribution of tension.

When hurricane Ike made its destructive way northward there were 10 semi-submersibles in its path and a number of jack-ups. Jack-ups are vulnerable to mud sides and sure enough one has disappeared altogether, but of the 10 semis it seems that 5, 50%, have lost position. So, assuming that they are all now provided with 12 moorings, the change has not done any good. One or two are very close to their original location, which might mean that the anchors have dragged, and some are further off which might mean that the loss of position is due to a combination of mooring failure and dragging. In all cases the lesson might be that more attention has to be paid to the laying of the moorings, and the use of modern fabricated anchors. Those of us familiar with extreme weather in the North Sea think there might some advantages in a possible transfer of technology.

Victor Gibson. September 2008.



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