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January 2007 is upon us, so happy new year to all of us who use this particular calendar, and happy rest of the year for those using some other.


When-ever I return from foreign parts I enjoy a drive past the Trinity Quay in Aberdeen where I can see what ships are tied up stern to the quay, and consequently how busy the port is, or not. Today there are three or four platform ships and three anchor handlers tied up, indicating that the cost of hiring is not to high, and sure enough if one looks at the broker's info sheets we can see that we could hire an anchor-handler for 20,000 or so a day. Not too long ago this would have been seen as a high price. How things change.

One of the anchor handlers is the Maersk Lifter, one of the revolutionary L class built in 1989. These may have been the first ships to place the engines under the accommodation, leaving the body of the craft available for tankage. What a sensible arrangement, which was to be copied by every other designer in the business. However the ship looked old and well worn, and not really up to much against the side of a UT722L.

Also visible alongside on Blakies Quay are a couple of the Swire's UT720s, originally  built to go anchor-handling in the Far East with their conservative !2,000 BHP, but since 1997 used for many tasks in the North Sea. During the recent downturn they have been away, but now they are back and it will be interesting to see how they are used.


It is rumoured that some supply vessels now only operate on DP of one sort or another. Apparently the technique which is used is to enter the 500 metre zone of the offshore installation to be supported and then to edge close to it in steps, using the vessel's DP system and GPS as a reference. Once they get alongside they will then hand up, or if already installed, align the fanbeam or other direct reference system and go to work.

There is little doubt that having a ship positioned alongside using an automatic system to maintain station is probably better than trying to do it by eye and by hand, but not to have the necessary skill to put the vessel in position using hand and eye may be something else.

The whole business of using DP to station vessels close to offshore installations is fraught with difficulties and everyone you talk to about it has a different opinion. Some operators absolutely ban use of DP systems on supply vessels, others allow them to be used if the ship is at least DP2 and there are necessary number of operators, with appropriate qualifications on the bridge, and others do not have any opinion at all. Meanwhile every collision involving DP vessels is picked apart and opinions offered and recommendations made, none of them, it seems to me, getting to the heart of the problem.

Whatever sort of positioning system is in place, it will be able to maintain station better than a human who has to rely on range finding vision, and a variety of markers to maintain station, not to mention the ability to transfer this information into a number of forces through engine, thruster and rudder controls . However it may be that the human is more reliable  than some systems. If the human does not have the intuitive skill which will be gained after a hundred hours or so of maintaining station by hand, then there is no means of recovery should the DP system fail. The answer may be therefore to raise the levels of skill of the ship drivers, rather than attempting to ensure a greater level of reliability of the DP equipment.


Our primary sponsor, Marex Marine and Safety Services recently advertised for marine personnel in the "Telegraph", the journal of the UK mariner's union. This caused them to receive a number of claims from readers that other ports were the busiest oil ports in the world.

According to a recent press release by the port of Aberdeen there were 4300 ship visits during the first 9 months of 2006.This implies that there were an average of 32 transits per day in and out of the port, not to mention all the internal movements which take place as ships are on-hired, off-hired, and moved from one place to another to receive and discharge cargo. We know that this is not the port of Rotterdam, or a major ferry hub, but it is a busy oil port. We would be interested to hear from anyone who thinks they know of somewhere busier.


As the years pass I have noticed that people seem to be more and more interested in my early life at sea, which is quite a nice contrast to how things were at the time, when being a seafarer seemed to be similar to being the carrier of an incurable and easily transmitted disease. I was describing to some-one the other day, the normal working life of the second mate, going to bed at nine at night, getting up at midnight and then retiring again at four in the morning, only to rise again in time for morning sights.

"How did you manage" they said. "It must have been incredibly disruptive to your sleep patterns."

Honestly, I never thought about it. That's what the Second Mate did.

Now apparently owners expect watch-keepers to work six hours on six off for long periods of time, with intermittent visits to port when the crew actually work longer and harder, so on reflection I had a pretty easy time. There are now studies being undertaken and conferences on the subject of "Fatigue at Sea". Is the answer not simple? Provide the ship with enough crew to do their job without stress and distress.

Could this whole topic be connected with the loss of the jobs of a number of fish process workers. It is now cheaper for their former employer to send frozen prawns to China to be shelled and then to have them shipped back. If it is possible to do this then the cost of shipping is too low.  


For those who have been following the fortunes of the drilling rig in Aberdeen Harbour, here is a pic of the second rig in its most precarious position. What would happen if one of the 32 ships per day lost control?


Vic Gibson




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