Skill, Steel and Saltwater
(Note: This article was for the youth magazine Front Vision. I wrote it as an introduction to offshore oil/gas/wind work for interested teenagers. Enjoy! Thanks to our valued client Otto Wulf GmbH & Co. KG for providing the photos used here.)
A big risk has to promise a big reward. The harder the challenge, the tougher the conditions, the greater must be the opportunity – at least, it’s this logic that has driven ocean exploration.
Imagine a 13,500 ton mobile platform that is almost as wide and as long as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, designed to drill and pump oil at a depth of almost 100 meters (a typical swimming pool is between 2-3 meters deep) in harsh arctic conditions, even when the ocean is stormy and cold. Dozens of workers can live on the platform, operating and maintaining the advanced equipment needed to gather resources. Such a platform is towed out to a resource-rich site on an ocean shelf and rigged so that it can begin drilling, pumping or otherwise extracting. Oil, gas, even some minerals can be acquired this way.
Some of these platforms can jack themselves up, others are submersible or fully submersible and are moored in place by dropping anchors to the ocean floor, while others still are installed directly into the ocean floor’s bedrock on huge “legs” which can sustain significant structural stresses.
Now imagine a ship 382 (or 477, meters fully extended) meters long ship (that’s as long as six Boeing 747 jumbo jets, tip-to-tail!) with enough capacity for over 500 crew and one million tons maximum displacement. This ship is so big that it can “eat” the mobile platforms just described and lift up to 48,000 tons – in fact, the ship was built specifically to decommission, i.e. dismantle and then pack up for removal, mobile such offshore platforms. A job that once required numerous ships working from different angles with a high degree of coordination can be dealt with by a single ship now, so large and so powerful, but also so specialized, that it can cost more than $1.5 million per day to charter (i.e. to hire in the ship for your use; ‘charter’ is a maritime term referring to a type of contract). In addition, the ship also can be used to lay underwater pipelines and support other construction works.
An industry with equipment this big, this awe-inspiring, is bound to be unusual and exciting.
That industry, subsea construction and services, is globally valued at approximately $100 billion. While Africa, North America and South America are the biggest focus areas when taken all together, Asia represents the largest individual market, generating roughly 19% of subsea demand on its own.
Another remarkable aspect of the subsea sector is that it draws in workers from all walks of life, with all kinds of training and skill levels and from a diversity of national and cultural backgrounds. Whether working as a deck hand or a highly educated petrochemical engineer, making subsea projects possible is, on the one hand, difficult and daunting but also so rewarding in terms of career opportunities. Since the language on board and in the industry generally is English, anyone can join a crew and be a part. In contrast to a lot of land-based work, national boundaries are not as important in maritime.
While on board, crew can expect to be served multinational cuisine, often Filipino. There are common areas such as lounges, TVs that can be loaded up with movies on DVD, and of course medical facilities. There is a gym with exercise equipment. Sleeping quarters include en-suite bathrooms.
The most highly skilled sailors can earn in excess of six figures in subsea work. Some officers will earn additional qualifications required in order to use the special equipment which is required to operate the ships used for this line of work. One such skill set involves the use of dynamic positioning systems. These allow a ship to compensate for the inevitable, often unpredictable currents and movements of the ocean. In this way, the ship can remain effectively stationary above a given target. This is especially useful when a ship is engaging in drilling or any other kind of other precision work that demands that the ship remain in place over a particular location for an extended length of time. Of course, the training of the crew is only part of what makes dynamic positioning possible. In a true alliance of sea and space engineering, dynamic positioning relies on Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites in orbit. These track the ship from space and permit dynamic positioning experts to triangulate location data. The dynamic positioning experts also use an array of radio transmitters to track ocean data, e.g. by comparing and contrasting imaging gathered by the radio transmitters over time.
Between navigation, engineering and thruster control, a dynamic positioning ship will generally have multiple thrusters which are multi-directional. When a current or other kind of ocean force is detected, or a wind, that input will link with the imaging and positioning data gathered from all other sources and trigger a response from the ship’s thrusters designed to counteract the calculated effect. If done correctly, this means that while a dynamic positioning ship is in a certain position, it will counteract all of the winds, waves and other draws or pushes working on it to remain fully in place.
As the ocean and the wind are so unpredictable, the demands on a dynamic positioning ship can vary greatly from one moment to another, based on the environmental factors to which it is exposed. To handle these kinds of stresses, on-board systems need to be built to high standards. Normally, contemporary diesel-electric engines are used to generate propulsion, as these can react more flexibly than older-style steam turbine generators. Beyond this, classification societies will carefully examine dynamic positioning ships and give them a “1”, “2” or “3” ranking. A classification society is a semi-private group of people who have taken on responsible for deciding whether or not ships should be permitted to set sail and engage in maritime commerce. If a ship is not “classed”, i.e. given a green light by a classification society, then it is not legal for that ship to set sail.
If a ship has a “1”, “2” or “3” rating will decide under what conditions it can operate. The lowest rating, a “1”, means that the ship has no redundancies and can only operate under very easy conditions. The tougher the conditions, the more redundancies need to built into the dynamic positioning ship. A “3” rating means that a ship is really tough indeed: it needs to be able to withstand a whole compartment on board being lost to flooding or fire, and it has to have multiple independent computer systems. This means that even in the event of a big accident, the ship can keep on functioning safely.
Safely is a major priority in the deepsea sector, as it is generally for all sailors and shipowners. Anyone involved in maritime work knows just how risky and dangerous it is to go up against the ocean. If the ship isn’t in top condition and properly equipped and prepared to withstand any rigors, it’s best to stay home and continue to prepare. The chance of a deadly mishap is simply too great. Globally, the class societies work together with governments (flag states) and ship registries to ensure that basic standards are always met. The individuals who work on board ships have to undergo special first aid, medical and other professional training in order to qualify. Next to being able to trust and rely on your ship, it’s essential to be able to trust and rely on your fellow shipmates as well!
While it is unquestionably hard work, and both mentally and physically demanding, and it requires a lot of education, training, dedication and confidence, working in maritime is a way “out and up” for many. They can leave home, regardless of their background, and can make something of themselves. When it comes to working on ships, the ocean does not care if you are rich, well connected or handsome. The only thing that matters is your level of skill and your ability to persevere and succeed. While “rags to riches” stories are uncommon in other industries, in shipping it is still common to run into shipowners who started as deck hands and worked their way up through the ratings to become an officer, then a captain; buying a ship afterwards, they used their knowledge and skill to start successful companies. Even in the absence of meteoric trajectories like that, shipping offers opportunities to all kinds. To work on board ships, it’s necessary to pass qualifications under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW); normally, this means a combination of practical, on the job skills-based learning and theoretical instruction at a maritime academy. When finished, a candidate will be able to either work as either a bridge or engineering officer or, in rare cases, as both. This rigorous process is standardized in 161 countries around the world. It is one of the few qualifications that is truly “portable” and is recognized in an industry across national borders.
Even though oil and gas are the two big draws for deepsea engineering, wind power is taking a bigger and bigger role, especially in Northern Europe, where major new projects are being pushed forward by governments and energy utilities seeking to satisfy industrial and consumer electricity demand. Many of the same systems and principles, like dynamic positioning, can be used for wind power projects, too. Modern generation ships are also able to take on a greater variety of projects, so if there is less demand in oil or gas, they can also cater to demand in the offshore wind power industry. This is the future, since ships often are built for 30-40 year working lifespans. Nobody can know the future. For this reason, it makes sense to be ready for anything. The same principle that applies to the ships working in deepsea engineering also applies to anyone contemplating a maritime career: always be ready to adapt.