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NEWS AND VIEWS OCTOBER 2006 

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INTRODUCTION

The is the first news item to be published on our new site - Ships and Oil - and the first I have written since July 2005, when I decided to take a break for other journalistic activities. Well time marches on and despite the fact that I have completed by other writing tasks I have decided to resume writing news and views because there is so much going on.

EMMA MAERSK

Those of us who work  in the offshore industry can see little further than the latest construction for servicing and supplying offshore installations, of which the Maersk A class are the foremost representatives. They are anchor-handlers with nine decks. People with heart trouble can't sail on them!

Out in the world Maersk are also taking over the rest of the shipping industry, except for passenger ships, and their latest container ship seems to have stunned absolutely nobody except for me. It was described in Seaways, the Nautical Institute mag, and the Telegraph, the Nautilus publication (Aside - what's Nautilus? It is the new name for Numast), without a single exclamation mark!

The ship is over 150,000 tonnes dwt, it can carry 11,000 or 13,000 TEUs, no-one seems to be quite sure which. Perhaps it is so big that they don't know. Will containers be loaded onto it and be lost for ever? Could the crew get a night in Yokohama? Well, they will need one. It is powered by a single engine developing over 100,000 bhp, and here's the exclamation mark - it is going to be manned by a crew of 13!!

The first ship I sailed on had over 100 crew members, so many that we had to carry a doctor. Of course they were mostly Indians, but there were also 6 six apprentices, and large numbers of junior engineers. And now one in ten of us are still about doing marine sort of work. If there are only 13 people on the Emma Maersk how many will stay sane, never mind stay in the industry?

We have to imagine this ship storming over the waves at about 25 knots for months at a time, calling in briefly at large ports in Europe where the town is so far away that it would take an aircraft to get there for an evening out, and even larger ports in the far east where in all probability shore leave is not allowed. The crew will meet for ten minutes at the change of watch, and other wise will be living on their own, with only their fellow watchkeeper for company.

The question I would ask is whether such a situation is socially acceptable, or is it actually so close to being in prison with the added chance of sinking (Dr Johnson) that no-one should be doing it. Have Maersk consulted any psychologists, or have they only consulted the accountants?

In my view, which I know counts for nothing, it is time we were all prepared mto pay for for the transport of goods by sea, so that we could ensure that seafarers could sail in better conditions.

THE AVAILABILITY OF SEAFARERS

We move on to yet another controversial topic, which is inexorably linked to the last one. If ship's crews are so small that there is virtually no room for trainees, or any allowance made for the natural wastage, then were are the people going to be to man the ships of the future. Here in the North Sea there is a general enthusiasm for North European seafarers, probably because they are used to the darkness and the unpleasant conditions, but there can't be many left, and it seems very likely that offshore supply vessels are going to end up with trainers on board showing people from other areas of the industry how it all works.

Our parent company MMASS has been advertising for Masters and Chiefs to join them in what they see as being pretty good shore job. Good conditions, well paid, training offered etc, and there are very few takers. Some have tried it and gone away, and admittedly its not for every-one, but it is ashore and its possible to get home every night.

THE PRICE OF AN ANCHOR-HANDLER

The various newsletters from the Aberdeen ship-brokers have published the latest anchor-handler day rates, and have caused a few sharp intakes of breath. Shell have just hired some ships to move the JWMaclean at rates in excess of 120,000 per day. The four ships to be used will therefore cost 600,000 for a day.

This is not the first time rates have topped 100,000, and one would think these prices might cause a bit of a change of direction somewhere. Most of these vessels are after all built for much more difficult work than moving old semis in moderate water depths. And curiously the big money is paid purely on the basis of availability. One of the KMAR404s was the first ship to be paid over 100,000 a day, not exactly a state of the art vessel.

Could we be seeing a return to the general purpose vessel, sometimes used for moving rigs and sometimes for supplying them, or are the amount of materials now moved in excess of what could be managed by a ship which has a winch on  the deck.

MORE SEAFARER'S MISFORTUNES

When I stopped writing this column more than a year ago hardly a month went by without me chronicling the misfortunes of seafarers somewhere. This was not my first hand reporting, but information gleaned, usually from the maritime press. A year on things have not changed, as the Telegraph reports on the unfortunate plight of a Burmese Chief Officer marooned on a small Yemen owned island near Socotra in the Indian Ocean.

His ship, the Mariam IV went down on July 1st in rough weather, and the crew of nineteen took to a liferaft which drifted onto a reef close to the island of Abd-al-Kuri. Three crew members were lost during their efforts to get ashore, and a fourth died later. The island has a garrison of Yemeni solders, who apparently would not allow the crew to radio for assistance for some time, although after 5 weeks all but the Chief Officer were rescued by a helicopter from a German frigate. A week later the Chief Officer was reported as being still on the island with no prospect of rescue.

What if he had been a round the world yachtsman?    

THE BOURBON ORCA

The current shortage of offshore support vessels has caused a bit of excitement in the port of Aberdeen, causing as it has a visit by the Bourbon Orca the now famous XBow anchor-handler. A small number of us witnessed the vessel's approach between the piers, indicating that the usual bush telegraph operated by Aberdeen's ship enthusiasts must have been silent for once.

This of us who were there were able to see how the problems of tying up had been overcome. The seamen stand on a little platform sticking out of the ship's side, not unlike that which used to be extended to allow the lead to be used. It seemed to work, but if they build many more of these ships they will have to think of another way of attaching them to the shore.

This is a small quibble, whether it works or not is almost a secondary consideration it looks amazing.

Anyway its good to be back. Vic Gibson

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