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On the 12th April we passed the third anniversary of the capsize of the Bourbon Dolphin with the loss of eight of the fifteen crew members on board. A Norwegian Royal Commission carried out an investigation and published a report and much has been done with the hope of preventing a re-occurrence. Some of the actions are particularly obscure, particularly the new rules which relate to the angle of departure of the wire or chain from the stern of the anchor-handling vessel, which stipulate that ships should be provided with a chart showing the maximum tension which should be exerted at any angle of departure.

"What's the problem?" I hear the naval architects say, "it's all perfectly obvious". And this may be true for them, but it is not naval architects who actually drive the ships, it is mariners who do this job, and  alarming as this may seem, they are in the main not trained to do it.

That being said, there are now a number of simulators which are designed to familiarise offshore mariners with their working environment and the tasks which are routinely undertaken.  These are operated by Maersk in Denmark and Bourbon in Marseilles - apparently - and there are also simulators in Lowestoft College and in South Shields I think, and also one in Norway somewhere. But if we are realistic only a very small proportion of offshore mariners will actually pass through these establishments. The rest - in the rest of the world - are just winging it, and accidents are continuing to happen, which I am sure might be avoided if those in charge were specifically trained in the operation of offshore vessels.

Just to remind you, recent accidents include the Ocean Lark offshore Singapore while on passage in January with the loss of 11 lives, and the Demas Victory which sank in June 2009 with the loss of 30 lives outside Doha, having been refused permission to enter the port. We currently have no ideas why these accidents occurred.


Almost in continuation of the last item, it seems worthwhile to highlight the excellent work being carried out by the UK Marine Accident Investigation Bureau (MAIB), who almost literally leave no stone unturned if a marine accident occurs in UK waters or to UK registered vessels. Their investigations range from the smallest to the largest ships, and they recently completed their investigations into the loss of the tug Ijsselstroom which overturned outside Peterhead harbour, fortunately with no loss of life.

The Ijsselstroom was the stern tug when the barge Tak Boa 1 was being brought into Peterhead Harbour with a cargo of 5000 tons of rock, to be used in the development of new berths in the harbour. The event is described in the synopsis of the report as follows: "Ijsselstroom's skipper chose to deploy her towline over her stern and intended to maintain position and heading relative to the barge by using differential ahead power on her two engines. A bridle wire was not rigged. As the lead tug increased speed, the skipper found that he was unable to control Ijsselstroom's yawing motion effectively, and five minutes after connecting to the barge, the vessel took a large sheer to starboard, girted and capsized."

Simply put, the tow wire went round the side of the tug and pulled it over. For non tug people, this is a classic problem for tugs, and is solved by control of the point of departure of the wire, using what is described by the report as a "bridle wire". Obviously the closer the point of  departure to the stern, the less chance there is of the tug being pulled over.

Amongst the various factors that contributed to the accident the MAIB identified that "Van Wijngaarden Marine Services relied too heavily on the individual knowledge and experience of its skippers to carry out a safe operation and did not have a formal staff training programme. However the skippers' knowledge and experience were never assessed." The question is - of how many other offshore marine companies could the same be said?


This month's "Seaways" contains a long letter from the secretary of the Hong Kong branch of the Nautical Institute concerning the sentences handed down by the Hong Kong district court to the master of the Neftegaz 67, and the master of the bulk carrier Yao Hai, as well as the senior pilot and the assisting pilot on the bulker. They range from over three years for the supply ship master to two years for the assisting pilot. The Yao Hai collided with the Neftegaz 67 sinking it, with the loss of 18 lives in a channel which according to the court was a "narrow channel" and according to the marine authorities was not. I have recently read that the sentences are being appealed and that bail has been granted, so one hopes that the appeals are successful.

There does not seem much doubt that the collision could have been avoided had either or both of the ships taken positive and early action, but the question in the end must be whether an unintentional error, however serious, should result in a criminal conviction. Well, if you type into Google "Endangering life at sea" you will find that it comes up pretty high on the UK home office list of crime headings. It is just below "endangering life on the railways", and one assumes that this was the starting point for the Hong Kong court.

We would have to wonder in the end whether this type of legislation is appropriate for an environment which could be said to be inherently unsafe. After all it is only the skill of the ship-master and his team which will keep a ship afloat, right way up, in all the circumstances under which ships operate. And life at sea is not "endangered" solely when an accident occurs. To name but one event - did the Doha marine authorities "endanger life at sea" when they refused permission for the Demas Victory to enter port?


I have reported on this before, but now things seem to be coming to a head as the installation of a large number of offshore wind turbines gets closer. The intended position for these turbines is just to the North of Aberdeen harbour, absolutely destroying the commonly used anchorage. Initially they were going to be placed further up the coast  but curiously when the planning permission was granted for the Donald Trump golfing complex at Balmedie they were re-positioned further south.

Once more, the uninitiated might wonder what the problem is. There is all that sea out there and all that coastline. Surely you can just drop anchor anywhere. There is apparently another proposed anchorage, but I don't know where that is, but I can say that I spent ten years working to offshore installations from ports in the North east of Scotland, and during that time I only found one suitable anchorage  close to Aberdeen, the next one to the North was round the corner at Fraserburgh, some thirty miles away, and the next one to the south was at Montrose. Of course there may be others which I did not identify but there are a number of boxes that have to be ticked. Firstly you need good holding ground, the anchorage should be at  a safe distance from any hazards and the anchorage should be outwith any regularly used port approaches or channels.

We often see photographs of ships up on the beach somewhere, due to the masters not following these basic rules. They drop the anchor in fine weather and everything seems to be lovely, but then a bit of a breeze springs up and before they know it, and before they can get the engines going, they are ashore. If the licensing authority for these windmills have suggested another anchorage, and if it is unsuitable, are they endangering life at sea? It's a minefield isn't it!


I suppose it was likely to happen, and in "The History of the Supply Ship" I did predict the possibility that the crew boat concept would be extended, but I did not say to what. Apart from the more basic modifications to the crew boat - a bit bigger, a bit faster, a bit more unusual, not much more has happened up till now. But now GulfMark iin America have announced that they have ordered four platform ships 220 ft long, powered by four Cats collectively developing 12,000 bhp, and capable of thirty knots.

This is the first step taken by a marine support company to reduce transit times, and at least in part results from the  ease with which engine builders seem to be able to coax extra power from their machinery. One assumes in addition, that the underdeck carrying capacity has been reduced a bit to allow for finer lines. The old style platform ships were shaped like barges and no matter how powerful they were they could only go as fast as the hull form allowed. Anchor-handlers of course have a different purpose for their power and even though some can go quite fast this tends to be at the expense of phenomenal fuel consumption. These new ships are due in service some time in 2012.

Victor Gibson. April 2010.



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