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And another old saw! Back in the days when I used to carry out risk assessments for oil rigs I used to ask the guys taking part what criteria they used when deciding whether to allow a ship to come alongside to work. Well, they said, we just ask the captain. And I have been out there watching ships at work. They have often been old PSVs working on the windward side, connected by a hose and pumping something, and all their propulsion systems have been going full blast, with no-one taking the least bit of notice of them.

So at the last meeting of the Marine Safety Forum in Aberdeen a man from Marathon described an event in Norway which involved the Farstad platform ship Far Grimshader. To start with it was working to leeward but then the crane broke down so they asked the ship to go round to the windward side and have a go there. It was blowing about 30 knots  but no-one seemed to be worried. The ship made a circuit, but a bit too close to the rig, and despite applying maximum sideways thrust became entangled in one of the chasing pennants. So with wire tangled round the props it had no engines, and because it was on the windward side it was being battered against the leg of the rig. No-one could do anything! A nightmare scenario which went on for two hours.

Eventually a tug arrived which pulled the Grimshader away from the leg as far as the chaser, still round the mooring of course, would allow, and there it had to stay until it could be cut free, and towed away to be fixed. There was no really serious damage, and no loss of life, but things could easily have turned out very differently. Lessons should be learnt!!


Fifty-six days after the loss of the Deepwater Horizon President Obama has been visiting the Gulf coast again and has said that the effect of the accident can be considered to be an environmental 9/11, and that it will change the way the country thinks about energy for ever. In one of the photographs of the president I could have sworn I could see an oil platform in the background. And this makes you think that it is amazing that this has not happened before. Well, it has. Offshore Mexico in 1979 there was a much larger blowout which lasted for ten months. It happened in 150 feet of water, but it could still not be stemmed until a relief well had been drilled.  To be honest, I've stood on the beach at Vera Cruz, a Mexican port at the centre of the offshore industry, and you can smell the oil, and every platform everywhere releases water from its processes in which a sheen of oil can be seen.

I'm not saying we should not learn lessons and do our utmost to prevent this from happening again, but we should also look at the American reaction to 9/11, and ask whether we think it has it has done any good. It is difficult to write about this at all because we all had, and still have, great sympathy for all those directly involved in the attack, and for the whole American nation, but here I am not talking about the invasion of Iraq, or the continued occupation of Afghanistan. I'm just talking about the effect of the resulting American and IMO legislation on the seafarers of the world. The ISPS code (International Ship and Port Facility Code) requires the most amazing paperwork and levels of security, and has resulted in many manuals being written which are almost impossible to action. There are horror stories circulating in the marine world about visits by security staff to vessels approaching the US coast. In addition to these visits there are special American documents which are required by non American seafarers in order for them to go ashore. These are so complex that many mariners, including the masters of very large passenger ships (These might be VLPCs - Very Large Passengers Carriers, new acronym), do not get to go ashore at all in US ports. Meanwhile in many countries of the Third World an opportunity has been taken to put more guys in uniform who come on board ships and demand baksheesh from the Captain. They are often armed, making it even more difficult for the crew to distinguish between them and any potential hijackers.

But this did not stop a bunch of terrorists getting on board a ship in a Pakinstani port and disembarking within the port limits of Mumbai before gunning down over 100 people in the city. Not does it stop pirates in a number of places in the world from boarding ships and holding the crews hostage. This capability has surely demonstrated that one does not have to break into a port in order to take over a ship, which could then be used as a weapon. We wait with bated breath. There is much about the Deepwater Horizon accident on this site in "Features".


Only on Friday of last week we published a picture of the Offshore Stephaniturm which used in the old days to be the "Stephaniturm" OSA's famous diving ship, which was built in Germany in 1978. I mentioned that it was the ship used to recover the gold from HMS Edinburgh in 1981 by Keith Jessop, whose company had become expert in recovering the more valuable components from wrecks around the UK. It turns out that Keith Jessop died on 22nd May this year aged 77. His obituary is posted in the Times on Line, and he wrote an autobiography in 2001 called "Goldfinder".

According to the obituary it was his pioneering techniques in underwater cutting which enabled him to get the government contract to recover the gold and it was he who pioneered the saturation diving techniques which enabled divers to remain available for work for weeks at a time even thought the Edinburgh was lying on the seabed in 800 feet of water. I also mentioned 2Ws the Wharton-Williams diving company, who in view of the above, probably had the Stephaniturm on long term contract. The various descriptions of the event and the people are confusing and everyone seemed to be keen on taking the credit for the success of the mission, so it will probably be necessary to get the book to find out what really went on.

Apparently some of his rivals felt that he had got the contract for the recovery of the gold by false pretences, and this resulted in a court case, which found him innocent, but the time spent fighting to prove his innocence prevented his from really capitalising on his initial success, so it is good that he is at least being remembered now.


So what about Abby Sunderland? The young sailor who was attempting to sail round the world single handed caused concern last week when her communications system failed, and then her EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon) went off, initiated a rescue mission from Australia who sent an aircraft to locate her, and then directed a French fishing vessel to the scene. Her elder brother is the youngest person, at 17, to have completed a round the world voyage, and her parents are in some way proposing to make some money from the  event, having initially set out to make the voyage a reality TV programme.

Back in the days when I was a young deck officer I sailed on small bulk carriers mainly plying their trade across the  Atlantic. It was before the days of satellite navigation systems, or sat phones or EPIRBs and we were in constant receipt of messages from the marine authorities on UK and America to look out for yachts of various sizes and capabilities which had last been seen - well - some time ago. Needless to say we never saw any, and never heard that anyone else had seen any. We did however, fairly frequently get messages about ships which were floundering in the extreme weather for which the Atlantic is well known.

So, we have no doubt that it is extremely dangerous out there. We have the evidence. Should teenagers be allowed to sail off into the Southern Ocean without sufficient experience, or possibly qualifications? Where is some form of oversight of the activities of yachtsmen of all ages and nationalities? Let's have some answers before lives are lost.


The other day, literally, I was in email contact with a colleague on a rig move. His team had decided to change the towing vessel and so they slowed down and instructed the ships to do their stuff. The one which was to take up the tow positioned itself about half as mile away and gradually got closer, stepping in using the DP system. When finally it was close enough the tow was passed over using a brand new crane system. It took an age.

This is DP again, because the driver on the ship taking up the tow needed DP in order to  get close enough to do the job. Well, as usual I'm stunned. It does not take that long to learn how to drive a ship - see my book "Supply Ship Operations" for full instructions - so everyone who is asked to take control of an offshore support vessel in anything but training conditions should be able to do it. Are we approaching the time when if the computer breaks down on an anchor-handler it will have to abandon the job and return to port.

There are still thousands of PSVs and anchor-handlers all over the world which have to be driven "by hand", so just because a ship is provided with DP capability it does not mean that those given the responsibility for operating them should not be able to drive. In this case it must be up to the owners to deal with the problem. It will be better for them in the long run.

Victor Gibson. June 2010.



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