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The Capstan 



          I note that everybody is getting their newsletters out before 25th December which gives them the opportunity of wishing their readers a prosperous 2016, and an enjoyable festive season, and so I am doing the same. And so best wished for the festive season and for 2016. We are hoping for better things in the oil business next year. My Christmas photo for this year features a capstan on the south side of Aberdeen harbour. It is in a position which allows the public to get to it, and you would be surprised to find that you can turn it with one hand.

         Years ago I entered a competition for short narratives about Aberdeen and this caused me to do some research into the harbour and its development. There is very little information about the capstans, but up until recently there was a second capstan lying on the beach on the south side, and a similar mole on the north side, but not featuring a capstan. And it seemed that in the initial construction of the breakwaters in 1800 these capstans were installed so that sailing ships could be hauled up the channel, and that this process replaced the use of rowing boats. It also seems likely that they ceased to be used in 1827 when the first steam tug entered service in the port.

Further tugs entered service in the 1840s and at the same time the harbour board commissioned the leading lights, which are still in use today, although powered by electricity rather than oil. To find out more about the history of the harbour you can read the full article on my new website www.shipsandoil.co.uk


To present my website to the world, including thousands of photographs contributed by visitors, I have always used Microsoft FrontPage. Even in its early years it was  sniffed at by more professional website developers, but I managed with it, and had the advantage of progressively moving forward with it, learning about the bits which worked and the bits which did not. I had mostly used a Sony Vio desktop with a WindowsXP operating system and it all rolled along pretty well. The programme works with the original site on one’s computer which is uploaded to the internet whenever required. In the interests of progress I bought a large iMAC desktop, installed a Parallels programme on it and transferred the FrontPage and the website, and it still rolled along. Then Microsoft stopped supporting the programme with special extensions, and I had to make changes. But it worked and the precautionary site I had set up was not needed. Then the old Vio threw its hand in but I kept it in storage – just in case. And now the latest update from Apple has extinguished my FrontPage and everything connected to it!! And no matter what I have tried I have not been able to fully recover the old site. I can do a few things using a Spanish laptop but have otherwise been prevented from changes to the Ship Information and other bits of the site. To move forward now I have been working with the new site www.shipsandoil.co.uk . I have bought an second hand Vio which may sort it out, so more in the New Year


Some guys being tranferred to a rig using the Billy Pugh - Photo Tony Poll

Just to make a change from the usual catalogue of disasters which make up the main component of this newsletter, I thought I’d give a bit of time to being at sea at Christmas, a celebration adopted by Christians as their main festival of the year, but copied from more ancient festivals. It had been originally a feast to anticipate the coming of  warmer weather and hence a more comfortable environment and more food. Apparently, if you listen to the historians, the whole business of the birth of a baby of some importance in Bethlehem is a myth, not supported by any possible reality.

But as a festival it has incorporated the feast and the giving of gifts, and has been hyped by the retailers of the world into a family event that you would not want to miss. The family sitting round the groaning board and eating and drinking as if there was no tomorrow, and the giving of gifts to friends, relatives and, most important of all, children. But if you are working on the day you will miss most of it, and if you are serving on a ship or an oil rig you will miss all of it.

Back in the days when I was a ship captain, working in the North Sea, the operating companies had completely different views. Some used to attempt to programme their schedules so that their chartered ships could by lying quietly alongside on the day, which would give the crew members who lived locally the opportunity of at least spending some time with their families and the rest with the chance of phoning home and having a couple of beers. Others used to try to clear their quaysides before the day, so that they, and here we are talking about the minor functionaries in the supply chain, not anyone really important, could have a quiet time over Christmas day and Boxing day. In many cases it was just a matter of luck that one was on a ship instead of being at home, and people serving long term on individual ships and rigs could take it in turns to be at home on alternate years (as they still can).

On occasions you can be on the object at the time of the big event even though you should really be at home, and here we come to one of my many Christmases at sea. I’m not claiming it is unique, indeed it is to be hoped that it reminds others of the times they spent away, but that now they are happy to be at home.           

I was captain of the UT734 Star Sirius in 1985 when it came out from the yard in Kristiansund N, and during the winter of that year it had the job of looking after an Enhanced Pacesetter owned by Global Marine, the Glomar Arctic II,  which was drilling a well about 60 miles north of the northern point of the Shetland Islands. The purpose of our presence was that if, due to adverse weather, the rig had a mooring failure we would bravely get close to it and take it in tow. Fortunately we were never faced with this particular requirement so mostly we just drifted about, often with the machinery on standby. But on the downside we were there continuously for three months being resupplied occasionally by another of the company ships which was also charter.

We were working the offshore system of four weeks on four weeks off and had been crew changing bit by bit using the “Billy Pugh”, the personnel basket. This required the leaving crew members to stand on the periphery of a ring with their arms looped through netting panels, and hold their breath as the rig crane whirled them up into the air and landed them on the deck of the rig.  It was a process which was quite frightening, but actually seldom gave any problems as long as you did not suffer from fainting fits due to vertigo. But then the cook, who might have been suffering from fainting fits, complained about the means of crew changing, and so those of us out there seemed to be stuck even though most of us were due off, and Christmas was coming. What to do?

 Well, I could see this platform ship, the Star Arcturus, coming and going and thought that this might give us the means of getting those who were due off back to their homes for the festive season. So I communicated with my bosses back in Aberdeen and they agreed to my plan for relieving the crew. I had a job to explain to them how it was going to work without additional personnel being involved, but they eventually grasped it, and it says something for the guys from the other ship that they were willing to participate, since the process would not these days have survived any sort of risk assessment.

The plan went as follows. The Star Arcturus would appear on the location possibly in uncertain weather and probably in the dark, since it was only daylight from about ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. And here we’ll use the Second Mate as an example. The standby vessel would launch its FRC, go to the Star Arcturus, their Second Mate would climb down the pilot ladder to the FRC and he would be transferred to our ship. Our Second Mate would then be transferred to the platform ship. So now were would have their Second Mate and they would have ours, and off they would go back to Aberdeen. In Aberdeen our new Second Mate would join the platform ship actually relieving our departing Second Mate, and when on the location again we would get the new hand and the platform ship would get its Second Mate back. 

I often found myself cursing the cook, for no other reason than the transferring of people from one ship to another in all weathers and usually in the dark, was much more dangerous that transferring people by personnel basket. But in the end everyone who was due off, except for the Chief Mate and I had been transferred and so my responsibility to get my people home had been fulfilled. And in the end we handed over the responsibility for looking after the rig to another UT734, the Schelde and made it back to Aberdeen in time to get home for New Year. 


As I am writing this newsletter I realise that it is less about news and more about me, but there we are, it’s a once a year thing. So I looked back at what I had written at Christmas on previous years and I found that I had included some Christmas wishes, and as I read them I found that they were still the same as they had been, although there seems to be an increasingly loud voice about what amounts to the misuse of registries. So here they are again:-

 It is surely time that the IMO got a grip of ship registries. If a country wishes to host a registry they should be able to demonstrate the necessary expertise and organization which would enable them to train seafarers, examine them and award certificates of competency and not least carry out investigations into accidents.

I know we keep talking about it, but could we possibly make some progress towards treating shipmasters, who have had the misfortune to be involved in groundings resulting in pollution, in a responsible manner, and stop immediately accusing them of being criminals?

Could we review the relationship between the ship-owner and class? Is it right that the insurers of ships rely on the inspection processes carried out by the classification societies who are paid by the ship-owners? Hence if the ship-owner does not like what class are doing they can find themselves another.

Could we start to get real about risk assessments, and make them meaningful, i.e., a means of keeping people alive and uninjured, rather than a means of arse-covering.

I realize that I could go on. There are many lesser wishes, which might help seafarers enjoy a relatively untroubled life, most of them to do with asking ship-owners to act responsibly, and while many do, there are probably more who do not, so we don’t have a level playing field.

And one new one – could we find a way of preventing ships from running into things.                       


The Missions for Seafarers Poster

When I was a young man I happened to be Third Mate on a bulk carrier which was tied up alongside around Christmas in Philadelphia. One day some well dress Philadelphian ladies came aboard and distributed what they called “ditty bags”. These were small cotton bags which contained a number of gifts, which had apparently been collected and bagged for distribution. To be honest I was insulted, I was a professional in a British shipping company. What did I need with  charity, particularly in these modern times?

Well, distressing though it is, in the most recent modern times, seafarers all over the world need the assistance of seafarer’s charities. At the most basic levels they provide places where ship‘s crews can phone home, and access the internet and relax in a bit of comfort for a while. And even more importantly they can mobilise assistance for crews who have been abandoned without pay by their owners, often living in deteriorating conditions, without heating or regular food, and sometimes even without fresh water.

So step forward the Missions to Seafarers (A Protestant organisation)  and the Apostleship of the Sea  (A Catholic organisation). Go to their websites to donate! They and the guys they support need our help.


This newsletter expresses the views of the author Victor Gibson about marine events which are considered to be worthy of interest. It is meant to be a five minute read. Sources of information include:

International Tug and OSV Magazine
The Tugs, Towing and Offshore Newsletter.
The Nautilus Telegraph
The Nautical institute Magazine, Seaways
The BBC Home Page
The MAIB Website
World Maritime News
The Siberia Times
The Scotsman
US National Transport Safety Board Reports

The Ships and Oil website contains comprehensive information about many offshore vessels and approaching 10,000 images.

People have continued to send pictures of the day for which I am very grateful. The photos brighten the days of our hundreds of visitors as they sit at their desks – I have noticed that our numbers are considerably reduced at the weekends. By the way I have been told that a number of subscribers to the newsletter send it on to others – if you are one of the others email me for your own copy!


Due to possibly insurmountable problems no companies have been updated this month, however the information there is complete as of the dates on the introductory pages. Even if it never gets updated again I will continue to pay the bill for the maintenance of the facility, so all the info about the ships and the thousands of photos will remain available to offshore ship enthusiasts everywhere

 It has been possible to update the pictures of the day, and up to the 22nd December the following have been added:

 Balder Viking

Grampian Talisman

GSF Aleutian Key

THE HISTORY OF THE SUPPLY SHIP £37.50 inc P&P anywhere
SUPPLY SHIP OPERATIONS £27.50 inc P&P anywhere
RIGMOVES £5.75 inc P&P anywhere.
Buy all three books for the bargain price of £52.5

If you would prefer not to receive further news letters please email me vic@shipsandoil.com .

Victor R Gibson. December 2015.

To view earlier News and Views Click Here.

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