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NEWS AND VIEWS DECEMBER 2011

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RIGMOVES

I had a small personal celebration a few days ago when I received the first order on line for my latest publication "RigMoves".

Having written and published "The History of the Supply Ship" and then written designed and published the third edition of "Supply Ship Operations" and having retired from full time work, I have had the time to finish a novel I started writing in 1994 when I was master of the Pike, a 180 ft Gulf of Mexico anchor-handler, working in the Saudi oilfields. I have always been a science fiction fan, and so naturally my first novel is a SF work. And it is said that all SF is an allegory of something. So, it is possible to see parallels in my fictional world with the world in which I was working back in 1994.

When reading science fiction novels I have often wondered what these people out there in space were actually supposed to be doing - why they were there, and so I have tried to answer this question. My hero is some-one working out in the asteroids, moving mining rigs. There is almost no violence, and the environment seems to have very little in the way of possible military intervention. But there are impractical regulations, demanding clients, unscrupulous employers and houses of ill-repute! A bit like real life.

What more can I say, without giving away the plot? It was edited by my creative writing tutor when I took a course in Edinburgh in 2010, and she pronounced it "an accomplished work". To buy a copy at the bargain price of 5.75 including postage go to the publications page. (I am trying to be more sales oriented here).  I have decided to make free gifts of some of these books to my visitors, and it has just occurred to me how this might be done. If you are reading this and you would like a copy send me an email - sales@shipsandoil.com - quoting the reference NV1211, with your address. The first 10 will receive a copy free, and post free, anywhere in the world.

THE MERMAID VIGILANCE

Having previously reported something about the support vessel Mermaid Vigilance and the lift boat Trident II we now have a bit more information available, and this story looks like one that is going to run and run.

Back on September 8th a hurricane was scouring the coastline of the Gulf of Campeche with 80 knot winds and 20 metre seas. Its approach had been predicted and as is the usual process in that part of the world, action to save life had been recommended. This involved ships clearing the coastline and distancing themselves from any fixed structures, and oil rigs being downmanned. For those who don't know, all  mobile unit owners in the Gulf of Mexico have very detailed procedures in place to allow them to abandon their units altogether as hurricanes approach. This may be just as well because every year there are reports of semi-subs breaking all their moorings and going aground, and some years jack-ups are overcome and disappear beneath the waves for ever.

The Mermaid Vigilance had been engaged in seismic activities, possibly laying cables on the seabed for 4D seismic - where the fourth dimension is time, and in some way the lift barge Trident II had been supporting this work. There were ten people on the lift barge and 30 on the ship. It seems that the ship followed recommended practice and went out into the gulf, but no effort was made to down man the Trident II. When the hurricane hit, one of the legs of the lift barge punched through and as a result the captain attempted to get help. At this point the narratives diverge. He claims to have sent a Mayday message, but it actually seems more likely that he phoned people - maybe including the Mermaid Vigilance which b y this time was many  miles away.

The crew of the Trident II decided to evacuate the unit, but their liferaft was blown away, and they ended up in and around a cork float. Four of the crew died, and the survivors were not recovered for three days apparently. Now their cases has been taken up by a Houston lawyer, and maybe for the first time ever a ship, its owners and charterers are being sued, for not responding to the distress call. The Trident II was still in position, but leaning over once the hurricane had passed. More on this story later! 

THE ONEDIN LINE

I admit that I had to consult Google to find out that the Onedin Line had been broadcast on BBC television between 1971 and 1980. It generally portrayed James Onedin, the owner of the shipping company as an ambitious and ruthless man, who as a result treated his employees extremely badly. Back in the day we thought that they, the employees, had got off pretty lightly, just as we thought that the guys in the Caine mutiny were reacting in an extreme way. We had all sailed with more difficult masters. Some of them were as mad as a box of frogs! But you would think that by now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century that things would be getting better.

Well - every month I receive a few nautical publications. One of them is Seaways the journal of the Nautical Institute, and if you only received this periodical you would think that sure enough things were much better now than they used to be. In this month's edition the Marine Society advertises courses in "Professional Practice (Maritime)" and by undertaking these courses you could end up with a MSc/MA or a BSc/BA. Great stuff, and just by reading the articles in the magazine ones high level knowledge of marine operations is much improved.

But I also receive the Nautilus Telegraph which, because it is a union paper, is mainly concerned with news, negotiation and injustice. And I should add that it wins prizes every year. It is consistently well written, wide ranging and engaging and it has been for the last fifty years -to my knowledge. Amongst the stories of injustice it contained this month was the case of the crew of the Greek owned and Gibraltar registered container ship "Phillip". A Nautilus/ITF inspector had boarded the ship and had found that a duplicate set of accounts was being maintained, and that the crew were being underpaid. The union successfully gained the missing wages for the crew, but when they returned to the Philippines they were taken to the crewing agency offices and had the wages taken back from them. The Telegraph also reports on the case of two Romanian  watchmen on a laid up ship in Falmouth who had not been paid for three months and had no money for food. The ship had also run out of fuel and water, so they had no heating or light, and were forced to catch rainwater to drink and wash.  The ship was arrested and the men taken off to a hotel while efforts were made to recover their wages, but they were reluctant to make a fuss because they throught their families back in Romania might be targeted.

James Onedin was a saint compared with these shipowners.

THE WORK TIME DIRECTIVE

If you were asked whether people who work ashore doing the usual five days a week for eight hours a day worked more than people who work offshore on a two weeks on two weeks off basis, you would almost certainly reply in the affirmative, but you would be wrong. Working for 12 hours a day for half the year results in more hours being worked than in the normal eight hors a day working week, with the usual bank holidays and time off. As a result of this the union is in the Supreme Court in England trying the gain two weeks annual leave for people working offshore.

Of course, actually working for 12 hours a day, without any adrenalin rush to help, is very difficult indeed. People end up actually trying to manage their time so that they can survive the work pattern for two weeks, with a possible detriment to their ability to carry out their daily tasks. In addition most jobs offshore UK take place in the Northern North Sea, and this starts and ends with a helicopter trip out of Aberdeen, and in many cases to travel to and from the heliport takes place in the employees own time, so rather than have two weeks off every two weeks the offshore worker may end up effectively working for 16 days and being off for 12 days.

Of course there may be arguments for and against this sort of work pattern, and many people will probably say that they have to travel for hours every day to get to work and therefore they are in the same boat. But most will get a proper two week break at least once a year, and some employers, mainly the oil companies, have acknowledged the problem by giving their employees three weeks leave for every two weeks worked offshore. However, the same organisations may well subcontract much of their work to others, and this can result in some workers on an installation having three weeks off for every two worked and others two weeks off. I don't know what the answer is, ,  but it does not seem like a great idea to have people working 12 hours a day every day.

BAROMETRIC PRESSURE

In the last couple of weeks there has been a photograph circulating round the Aberdeen marine community of a barometer on a ship in the North Sea during the recent storms, which resulted in 100 knot winds in some places. Indeed on Radio 5 Peter Allen asked for people's experiences of being out at sea in this sort of weather, but no-one got back to him. They were obviously out there out of range of medium wave and having their long range broadcasts blanked out by Russian radio (Yes it's still happening). The pressure on the barometer in the photograph was about 950 mb, although actually off the scale.

It made me think back to a trip across the Atlantic in about 1965 when we recorded pressures in the low 930s, and struggled from Philadelphia to Rotterdam in 19 days. The highest windspeed recorded ever was 220 mph in the White Mountains of the Northern United States. I happened to have seen the plaque recording the event, and I was also prompted to search the internet for the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded. It turns out to have been during typhoon Tip in 1971. It was a pressure of 870 mb. That is low pressure!

Vic Gibson. December 2011.

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