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NEWS AND VIEWS MAY 2010  

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THE DEEPWATER HORIZON ACCIDENT

There was an explosion on the semi-submersible Deepwater Horizon on 20th April 2010, which was completing a well for BP, 50 miles from the edge of the Mississippi delta in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven of the guys on board the rig unfortunately lost their lives. Nine of them were employed by Transocean, the owners of the rig, and two of them by MI-Swaco, a service company. The rest of the crew successfully evacuated by lifeboat and were subsequently recovered to the Tidewater platform ship, Damon B Bankston, and finally landed in Port Fouchon twenty-seven hours after the incident. The rig continued to burn and gradually took on an increasing list, and slipped under the waves on 22nd April.

Since then the story has migrated from the inside pages of the newspapers to the front pages, as the well which the rig was completing has continued to pump oil into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate which is generally agreed to be 5000 barrels a day. There are 6.3 us barrels of oil to a metric tonne. BP is attempting to stem the flow and to prevent the oil from polluting the beaches on the edge of the gulf and to this end it is mobilising hundreds of small craft to assist. Never-the-less as I write this, the first traces of oil are reaching the edge of the Mississippi delta and the residents and business people on the coast, and the US legislature are becoming more and more angry. They started off being surprised that the well could not be magically turned off, and then have become even more amazed that no matter how much money and expertise is thrown at it, it still can't be stemmed.

Mt first thought was - does no-one in America read the international news? In 2009 there was a blowout on the  jack-up West Atlas off the east coast of Australia, which took 10 weeks to plug and resulted in the discharge of thousands? hundreds of thousands? a great deal of crude oil, into the sea. But then it should have been the Minerals Management Service alerting the government to any problems in the industry, and as this story unfolds it is becoming evident that there may have been an unhealthily close relationship between the service and commercial interests.

And then I became surprised that this is the first time that this has happened, almost. There was a blowout off California in 1968 which had dramatic results on the coastline and the wildlife, and there have been accidental discharges off Mexico which no-one much has bothered about. Of course many people have died offshore in the Gulf of of Mexico drilling for oil,  but there has not been much effect on the wildlife and so not many people have noticed. Now, as the politicians and the media try to catch up and learn something about what is happening, we are seeing whole swaths of strange comments, which seem ludicrous to those with even a little specialist knowledge.

I was going to carry on with this, but feel it is worth a further article in the features section of the website. I have written a couple already, in which I am hoping I clarify some of the confusion relating to this event. There is a lot of new information now, as to what the actual status of the well was when the blowout occurred, some of it relating to cement. I am not an expert on cement, but I'll do my best. Look at the features section or else go to http://shipsandoil.wordpress.com if you would like to leave a comment on any of this stuff.

PIRATES

The saga of the Somali pirates continues, and for the first time there has been successful retaliatory action. Back in February the Slovenian owned, and Barbuda (Barbados?) registered bulk carrier, Ariella, was captured by pirates, but the whole crew made themselves safe and as a consequence Danish special forces from the warship Absalon were able to board the bulker from a helicopter. Apparently all the pirates had made their escape before the troops arrived, but never-the-less it can be chalked up as a success. Then, recently, pirates captured the Russian owned tanker "Moscow University". This resulted in retaliatory action by a Russian warship which re-captured the tanker. During the action one of the pirates was killed, and apparently the other ten were put back into their small boat and set adrift. According to later information, these ten seem to have died at sea, causing threats of retaliation from pirate leaders against the crews of any further Russian ships captured. This action apparently took place 300 miles from the coast, so one wonders where the mother craft was.

Meanwhile the British registered chemical tanker St James Park has been released on payment of a ransom, but another ship owned by the same company, a car carrier, is still being held, and the unfortunate British yachtsmen the Chandlers are still in captivity, despite noises that they were about to be released in early April. Meanwhile, ashore, an extreme Muslim group seem to have invaded one of the pirate villages causing a mass exodus of polished four wheel drive vehicles and their occupants. This included the Chandlers apparently.

One should remember that even when these ships are released some of them have been swinging at anchor off  a port in the Horn of Africa for months. The St James Park was captured before Christmas, and as a result its crew have been in captivity for more than five months, for doing nothing more than going about their lawful business. 

ACCIDENT INVESTIGATIONS

I am keeping up with the listing of some marine accidents to remind me that we want to know why these vessels sank and as a result what can be done to reduce the risk of further sinkings. The ones I have in mind are the loss of the Demas Victory in June 2009, the capsize of the Danny F II in December 2009 and the loss of the Ocean Lark in January 2010.

The Demas Victory was registered in St Vincent and the Grenadines and sank with the loss of 30 lives outside Doha, the Danny F II was registered in Panama and capsized close to the Lebanese coast with the loss of forty lives and the Ocean Lark was registered in Singapore, and sank under unknown circumstances with the loss of eleven lives. Apparently there is an IMO (international Maritime Organisation) rule that flag states should investigate accidents which are deemed to be sufficiently serious. Surely in all cases, since there was considerable loss of life, investigations are warranted. But the responsibility remains that of the flag state.

I am hopeful that now for the first time News and Views is a blog as well as an article on my website, we might find out more about these accidents, because surely there are people out there who are familiar with these ships and the work they do, and hence might be able to shed some light on the accidents, even if the authorities continue to do nothing.

THE WINDMILLS OF ABERDEEN - AGAIN

I am really pleased to be able to report that some-one seems to have seen sense regarding the placing of the wind turbines in the sea outside Aberdeen Harbour, and as I write this it strikes me how unimportant this seems when one looks at the items above. However, in the greater scheme of things it is extremely beneficial for ports to have anchorages available outside them, otherwise the ships waiting to enter are required to steam back and forth outside until they are able to enter. This increases their use of fuel and also requires increased vigilance on the part of their watch-keepers.

The fuss, for those who have just joined us, was that there were going to be large numbers of wind turbines located just outside the harbour at Aberdeen spread all over the only anchorage for thirty miles in either direction. And to make things worse there were some who though that the windmill had found their way there because of the Donald Trump golf development further up the coast at Balmedie. Now the turbines seem to have been moved just ot the North of the mouth of the River Don, which is more or less the northern limit to the anchorage.  

THE SAUDI ARABIA OF MARINE ENERGY

Back in March the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond suggested that Scotland was to be the Saudi Arabia of marine energy, and certainly there seems at last to be a move forward, with people intending to spend 4,000,000 on the installation of wave and tide energy harnessing devices.

My former company still makes efforts to market their skills as marine experts to the people in charge of these activities so far with little success, and I did the same when I was in Aberdeen, taking a stand at the renewables exhibition. What were we selling one might ask. The answer is that we were selling our marine expertise, our knowledge of what it is like out there. This seems to be what many of these organisations lack. After all it is logical that where the tides and currents are strongest, that is where one would want to place one's energy harnessing devices, but it is difficult to believe the force of the water in these places. In the southern North Sea for instance it is only possible to send air divers down for an hour either side of slack water. The prime area up there in the north of Scotland is the Pentland Firth, a stretch of water feared by all sensible mariners. We'll just have to see how it goes.

Victor Gibson. May 2010.

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