A Master's role working offshore in the oilfields far and wide….

from the varied career of an ex Bank Line apprentice…… An original and factual account

A Snapshot of my Reminiscences Working in some of the World’s more interesting Oil Fields 

By Geoff Walker

Having been involved in mainstream shipping most of my seagoing career and before moving ashore into ship management, I decided to spend a few years in the “Offshore” sector. I subsequently served on AHTS, PSV, Self Propelled Jack-ups, Pipe Laying vessels, Offshore Construction vessels, Dive Support vessels (DSV), and a wide variety of other Field Support vessels, including a very interesting few years as a Marine Advisor; working in the Middle East and Asian Oil and Gas Fields. This work could be very challenging at times but certainly had its fair share of satisfaction. In retrospect, I hold good memories of my time spent in the O&G sector but it is definitely a sphere of shipping more suited to the younger seafarers. Traditionally, the more vintage people on board tend to be Masters and Chief Engineers, who are there by virtue of long experience provided they can meet the stringent medical standards and levels of fitness required by the O&G industry.

I found offshore work to be somewhat different to what I had previously experienced. It was first necessary to undergo a period of additional “hands-on” training to familiarize one with the various techniques used in this challenging sphere of the shipping industry. In keeping with modern methods the offshore O&G sector is strictly controlled by Safety and Operations procedures as well as a rigid PTW  (Permit to Work) systems. It was therefore, vital that one was continually updating ones knowledge and endorsements for all aspects of HSE (Health, Safety, and Environment) as well as regulatory and other sensitive requirements of the industry. 

Apart from the ships obviously being considerably smaller and cramped, they were run and operated differently in some respects. The Master does almost everything, and undertakes the ship handling on virtually an exclusively basis, except during his rest periods, it is very “hands on” in comparison to other areas of mainstream shipping. An additional night Master is generally carried when engaged in round the clock operations. Due to the high level of concentration required for prolonged periods, fatigue can set in quickly if one is not properly rested. A momentary lapse in concentration can cause havoc, damage to the ship and/or offshore asset, but most importantly to the deck crew who are prone to working in a hostile and sometimes hazardous environment. Weather conditions also play a significant role in maintaining safe operations. Looking down from the deck of a Rig does not always give a true appreciation of the sea state and can often be misread from lofty heights. This can contribute and become the root cause of misunderstandings between some OIMs (they are in the absolute minority) and AHTS Masters. It is therefore essential, in order to uphold the highest safety procedures, the Master and crew must remain alert and be ready to quickly respond to any potential dangers which may lead to catastrophic development and consequences. It goes without saying the AHTS Master has the final call when it comes to weather working conditions as the safety of his crew and vessel are his absolute priority. Weather may always be a contentious issue but the Master is well justified in evoking the “Stop Work” procedures if he considers it necessary, and is included as standard in ISM documents under “Master’s Authority”.

Most offshore vessels are commonly referred to as AHTS (Anchor Handling, Tug, Supply) and generally fall within the 65-75m length and 2500-5000 GT range. They are extremely sophisticated, fitted with multiple thrusters (Bow and Stern) including Twin Screw or Azimuth main propulsion systems and Dynamic Positioning capabilities (DP) which provides for the most remarkable handling and station keeping features. They are very powerful ships for their size with HP ranging anything between 5-20,000+ BHP, and with Bollard Pulls that can run into the hundreds of tones. These vessels are fitted with strengthened decks which enable them to deploy, recover and handle the largest of Anchors, in addition to extra chain lockers for stowing additional anchor chain, usually needed when deep water anchor handling. In keeping with their multi-purpose role they are designed to carry large quantities of water, fuel and deck cargo as well as accommodation for passengers. 

There are a number of other specialized types of OSV (Offshore Supply Vessel) but the workhorse is the AHTS, with a primary role of deploying and retrieving anchors for Platforms or Rigs when relocating or towing oil field assets, inter or intra Field, or indeed on prolonged ocean passages. Their secondary function is that of Oil Field Support and Supply, passenger transports for Oil Field personnel and assisting in Survey work. Most modern AHTS are now DP (Dynamic Positioning 2/3) rated, which is a very accurate system used for position and heading station keeping. Masters and DP Operators require special certification in order to operate the system when in “Live” DP mode. 

For towing purposes AHTS are equipped with a very large and powerful Towing winch, usually with a Towing  Drum capacity of between 1,500-2,000m x 76 mm diameter wire, multiple telescopic Towing Pins and  “Sharks Jaws”,  devices used for clamping, when connecting or releasing towing wires or anchors. An extra towing wire is generally carried on a spare spool.

My introduction to the Offshore sector was in the North Sea, servicing Rigs and Platforms, from our base in Aberdeen. It was an excellent location in which to learn and hone skills because you always had the benefit of the most experienced of personnel as fellow crew. The weather could be very bad at times, resulting in long and stressful periods being “Hove To” whilst on station, deprived of decent sleep, whilst waiting for a break in the weather. Serving in the North Sea was considered to be an essential part of the “offshore apprenticeship” since it encompassed the full range of requirements in order to become a proficient operator and set the “Gold Standard” for offshore safety.

Following my time in the North Sea I was sent to Nigeria for 6 months before being placed in the Persian Gulf, followed by the Caspian Sea, Bay of Bengal – Andaman Sea, Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea theaters of operation.

One of my most interesting assignments was as Master of a Self propelled “Jack-Up Rig” operating in the Iranian Oil Fields. We operated it two fields, namely, Just off Kharg Island Terminal and at Nowrouz Field in the Far North of the Persian Gulf.

 Self propelled 3 leg Jack-up identical to the one I operated in Iranian waters. The 4 Azimuth thrusters can be clearly    identified. The Jack-up could accommodate 146 POB and was fitted with a 100 ton Crane. The Heli-Deck was in constant use throughout my time spent on board. Note the “Billy Pugh” personnel basket connected to the crane. The Jack-up was subject to the MODU (Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit) Code of regulation. When pinned in position, and elevated to working level, the Rig used to sway from side to side in rough seas which could be quite alarming at times, until one became accustomed to it. Stability and calculating equal stresses for the legs was a full time job for the Master. Shifting of Ballast was used for remedial action in this case.

The main function of our assignment was “Well Stimulation” so it was a relatively easy work load.

We departed under tow from Dubai to the Fields about 5 KM off Kharg Island Export terminal. When shifting intra field, from Jacket to Jacket we operated under our own power but were towed when shifting inter field. It was unassisted maneuvering when “Pinning” at respective Jackets, except for a single safety tug connected aft, in case of emergency. Maneuvering between the platform or Jacket was relatively easy using the 4 Azimuth Thrusters. Good positioning, taking advantage of any currents together with small periodic adjustments on the Thrusters was the secret to easy handling. I recall never once having to use the Safety Tug in earnest. Truthfully, the unit was a dream to handle.

The far north region of Farouz Field was good because we had Kharg Island close to hand and the sea bed was firm so did not pose a risk of high penetration or “Punch Through” by the Legs. Once Pre-load tests were completed it was straightforward working. Whereas, in the shallower “Nowrouz” Field we encountered a very soft sea bed which encouraged excessive penetration which called for regular lifting and lowering of legs, using an inbuilt water Jet systems to assist in the process.

An identical Jack-Up on location in Iranian waters alongside a Jacket, with Thrusters retracted.

 Three months on the Jack-Up without ever stepping ashore was long enough and I was pleased when I departed on an AHTS bound for Dubai and some leave.

My next posting was Master on an AHTS in the Caspian Sea. Living in Asia made it difficult to get there. I was required to take a BA flight to London then connect and backtrack part of the way on another BA flight, to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. The Caspian Sea is landlocked by Azerbaijan, Iran and Kazakhstan. 

We used 2 main bases of operation, a Port called “SPS” (no idea what it stands for) and Primorsk a little further to the south, in Azerbaijan. Both ports were in a semi derelict state, well run down after years of neglect following the Soviet withdrawal and virtual abandonment. I recall at Primorsk there was a cement works with tall chimney which belched the filthiest of emissions 27/7.The dereliction started at the breakwaters which were constructed in part from sunken ships and hulks coupled with large rocks. Their construction was very haphazard and showed no form of orthodoxy; they were built as if as an afterthought with whatever could be found, to form a harbor (of sorts). On the adjacent sandy coastlines to the two Ports were several beached Soviet warships (Destroyer types). Obviously abandoned when the Russians moved out and the funds to operate and maintain their Caspian Fleet ceased. These two Ports had been working cities originally with typical square, identical and repetitive apartments blocks, which had been very shoddily constructed during the time of Stalin. Many of these apartments were still occupied. On all these buildings it was difficult to find a straight angle or perpendicular and they had obviously been built in great haste by an unprofessional work force.  A walk around either Port area would reveal abandoned warehouses and derelict machinery, disused railway lines leading nowhere, diesel locomotives and rail wagons. These were often overgrown with flora and were nothing more than rusted out hulks. A stark reminder to the former years of Soviet rule.  

The Caspian can be a dangerous place in which to work, in my opinion. The weather could change dramatically in minutes, going from flat calm seas to a raging full blown storm with heavy seas and when Northerly or South Easterly winds blew conditions would become quite savage. Extremes in climate can be encountered, during the summer it can be very hot, humid and oppressive, whilst in the winter it is freezing cold with frequent snow falls and icy winds. In the northern part of the Caspian, where the water is much shallower and less salty, the sea freezes over completely. These conditions are severe enough to call upon the services of icebreakers. 

Baku is the main city with most of the shipyards and “Oil Donkeys” scattered around that area. I seldom went there except when visiting the office (inside the old walled city). The roads between Baku and Primorsk and SPS were very bad and home to the world’s craziest drivers. It was much safer staying aboard the ship. The city center itself is quite reasonable with an assortment of shops and hotels and of course there is the old walled city which is very interesting and worth a visit, if for no reason other than the market stalls and small shops selling carpets and modern day antiques. 

There is one other location which we occasionally visited nicknamed “Oily Rocks”. It was a rundown place with broken and dilapidated jetties, most having been abandoned for years. Basically it was a floating oil city and at its peak, home to about 2500 people and 2000 oil rigs.  At one point “Oily Rocks” produced half of the world’s oil. It still produces to this day but on a very reduced scale.  “Oily Rocks” was established in 1949 during the Soviet Stalin era, but when I was in the Caspian Sea it had long since past its heyday. I understand it is being cleaned up and rebuilt but it will be a mammoth task. Oil is now exported and piped overland from Azerbaijan to Ceyhan in Turkey, via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipe Line.

The place stinks of oil, due mainly to the thick layer of oily sludge around the jetty piles and on the rocks which are visible and surround the location. The only reason we went there was to replenish bunkers (alongside the only fully intact jetty) or to try to take shelter during adverse weather, but the sea bed is fine silt which, due to the poor holding characteristics, frequently causes ships to drag anchor in strong winds. It could be a nightmare at times so a good place to steer clear of from a Mariner’s stand point. Much safer to remain at sea and ride out the storm.

The Caspian Sea is salt water typically but considerably diluted in the northern sector, with fresh water from the inflow of various rivers. It can therefore be “Brackish” at times in some places. There is an assortment of Drilling Rigs used in the Caspian, a combination of old Semi – Submersible types and the usual 4 leg Jack-Ups. Rig moves in the Caspian were not that common so most of the time we spent ferrying supplies, fuel, water and drilling cement to the various installations.

The average water depth in the Caspian Sea is about 200m but it does reach a depth of about 1000m close to the center. The Caspian Sea sits about 27m below the level of other seas and oceans. The seabed is generally of a sticky sandy sediment. During the Soviet era the Caspian Sea was considered to be a holiday venue with multitudes swimming in the sea. In fact the water is highly polluted with oil and household residues, as well as human waste. This is evidenced by the stench when recovering the ship’s anchor.

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The dilapidated “Oily Rocks” circa late 1990s. 

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Since my time there, I understand there has been efforts made to rebuild the floating city but to what extent it has now developed I am unsure.

The Ships were all around 8000 BHP and standard AHTS with an LOA of approximately 70m. The ones I served on were Finish built. They had some peculiarities, for example, the Master’s Cabin which was quite large was on the lowest deck, instead of on the highest deck closest to the Bridge which is generally the case. In emergencies one was required to climb 4 decks to reach the wheelhouse. It was rumored that this was because in heavy weather when the ship is rolling, it is more comfortable on the lower decks. Personally I could not detect any difference. The crew messes and galleys were all on the upper decks. The ships were not kitted out for precision Dynamic Positioning at that point in time. Their handling characteristics however were quite good. 

The ships were both versatile and functional but by far the most difficult aspect of working in the Caspian was the Officers and Crews as they were all Russian speaking Azerbaijanis. An interpreter was used but generally they well intended and highly educated ex university types in the main, but without any notion of the operations of a ship and, or, the terminology commonly used. Hence, at times, getting things explained and done could be frustrating. I found it easier to translate through the Polish Chief Engineers, who were all fluent Russian speakers. The Crew in general, were good seaman but rough in their work and it became a full time job trying to improve their standards of shipboard safety. There was little discipline amongst the Crew, they often used to come and go as they pleased. The crew most certainly had their own mind set, stemming from their Soviet training and background. The Master’s were usually British or European. The Chief Engineers, as previously mentioned, were Polish, well trained and excellent technicians, who all spoke flawless English.

As the ships were Azeri Flag, the “paper” Master was an Azeri, although the expat ran the job and acted as the normal Master in command. However, I must say that whilst very few, if any, of the Azeri Masters had ever sailed outside the Caspian Sea at that time, they were excellent ship handlers. The ships were over crewed and included a Radio Officer (who’s only job was to obtain the twice daily Russian Weather Forecasts – which were very good), with an overall compliment of about 30+ Azeri crew members, another legacy from the Soviet era.

Drinking could be a problem with some of the Crew, especially the older members who were used to consumption of alcohol being free and easy as it was in the Soviet days. We always tried to sail early morning so they could sleep off the booze. Replacing troublesome Crew was almost unheard of. In the best case an offender would be removed, only to return the next trip…and so it went on. Mind you, a 1 Liter bottle of the Vodka, which they drank like water, only cost US $2. Every effort was made to prevent this practice but it must be said it was not very successful. Things may now have changed for the better since my time there.

All in all, a six week roster was enough, at the conclusion of which one was ready to face the hazardous trip to the airport and that BA jet that would take you to London, and onwards in my case. There was a high level of stress working in the Caspian, and this coupled with limited facilities, led to a high turnover of Masters. The remoteness did suite some but the majority did not stay more than 6 months or so, despite what was then an attractive tax free salary. Not forgetting the tins of top quality Caviar available at the airport for about USD $5 per tin.

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Modern day Baku

Working the Oil Fields of Asia was in sharp contrast to those of the Caspian and Persian Gulf. One enjoyable experience was when I towed a brand new Jack – Up Rig from the Singapore shipyard to its destination in the Andaman Sea. The tow was expected to take about one week each way but in fact it took us almost two months. The rig was a large standard 3 Leg Jack-Up. My vessel was acting as the lead tow in combination with 2 other AHTS which where secondary towing vessel. Departure from Singapore was uneventful. We worked our way up the Malacca Straits, past the Andaman Sea coast of Thailand until we arrived at location approximately 100 nautical miles south of the Irrawaddy Delta, mid-way between Mergui and the Andaman Islands. 

Weather conditions were perfect for our arrival but try as they may the Rig legs failed to gain any penetration when lowered to the seabed. Efforts were ongoing for about 3-4 days but without success. The result of this was that we ended up steaming around the location area with the Rig in tow whilst the charterers consulted with their Head Quarters to take stock of the situation and determine what remedial action would be best suited. After several days we were informed that the intention was to engage a small Drill Ship from Singapore to make numerous drill holes in the seabed around the required pinning area. A sort of, “Swiss Cheesing” of the sea floor, in the hope of breaking up the seabed sufficiently to allow penetration by the Rig’s legs. However, it was estimated it would take approximately one week for the Drill Ship to arrive and another week to complete the “Swiss Cheesing”, two weeks at best. This posed the question as to where we were to take the Rig because Rigs cannot just pin anywhere, the seabed characteristics and suitability first need to be established, then normally surveyed.

In our towing plan we had designated a Safety Haven, which had been pre-approved by the Warranty Surveyors, in the event the weather was too bad to place the Rig on location when we arrived. This refuge was situated behind a large Island close to the Mergui Archipelago (the name I cannot recall) which would afford suitable protection and shelter from any storms originating from the direction of the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean.

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        RIG

We slowly towed the Rig towards the point of refuge, eventually arriving at our pre-arranged and designated target area. We ended up in 40m of water about 1 mile behind a beautiful pristine island, which afforded excellent protection from the seasonal elements and provided good space in which we could maneuver. Initially we were required just hold the rig in position but the prolonged running of engines at reduced speed on the other tugs caused overheating to their engines. 

Once it was agreed that the Rig was in a completely safe position, the solution was we pay out our towing cables, then, dropped our anchor. Once the anchor was brought up, we gently took up slack on our towing wire. Both my ship and 2 other supporting Tugs did likewise so the Rig remained firmly held in position. It worked very well because we ended up remaining secured in this fashion for almost 3 weeks until the “Swiss Cheesing” had been completed.

This may not have been the most conventional method but it worked out extremely well with no incidents or moments of concern. The waters around were crystal clear and pristine in every way. We were visited every day by schools of large Manta Rays which looked upon us with curiosity as they glided effortlessly around us. Another bonus was being treated almost every night to wonderful sunsets and dawn sunrises for which the Andaman Sea is world renowned. It was a superb location in which we found ourselves and although our engines were on “Short Standby” it felt as if we were tourists.

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               Sun flare out at Sunset in Andaman                           

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                    A Typical Andaman Sea Sunset

Following a relaxing period at our Andaman resort anchorage it was time to go back to work. We reluctantly raised our anchors and configured the Combi back in to towing mode. Once the Rig was ready we gently moved away towards the Oil Field once again. Some 12 hours later we were on location and this time the small Drill Ship had done its job well, the rig was successfully pinned right on target, despite the vicious currents. The strong currents, no doubt aided by the proximity to the Irrawaddy Delta, was one of the main reasons for using 3 tugs which made the positioning and pinning of the Rig much easier to achieve with a higher degree of precision. This was a virgin territory with no Jackets or other installations in the vicinity. Upon the Rig having completed its preload tests our tow lines were disconnected and we were released. After replenishing the rig with as much fresh water and diesel fuel as we could spare, we then I set course back to our base in Singapore. One of the other tugs remained with the Rig until the arrival, a few days later, of another OSV. 

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Very similar to the Jack-Up we towed from Singapore to the Myanma Oil Fields, situated between Mergui and the Andaman Islands.

I continued to work the Far East Oilfields from operating bases in Singapore, Labuan and Thailand. In Singapore we had our own berthing location at Jurong which was convenient but heavy on one’s pocket with frequent (and expensive) visits ashore due to our extended stays between assignments. I did another 6 trips to the Myanmar Oil Fields, but working for an international company with main offices in Singapore and Hong Kong it meant we could go anywhere at short notice. My next caper was to be Labuan, then taking a ship to Dubai before returning for service in the Vietnamese Oil Fields.

I found Labuan to be an excellent base, much cheaper than Singapore and the work was interesting. I was Master on an 18,000 BHP AHTS engaged in deepwater anchor handling in the oil fields off Brunei and Labuan, occasionally we would venture out to the South China Sea fields. At one stage my vessel had held the world record for the deepest anchor handling at 1300m, for a short time. This depth has long since been exceeded. This was a fine ship and fully DP 2 which made life easier and she was fitted with the very latest of electronic equipment, including, electronic charts which was quite a novelty at that time. She was Norwegian built and owned. I was seconded there on a short term contract because the Master’s wife had been taken ill and I had been sent to replace him temporarily. On Norwegian vessels priority must be given to Norwegian Crews but since there was no suitable replacement for the permanent Master, I was given the berth. It was great working with the Norwegians, even though they were limited in their permitted duty hours and they commanded the very best of pay and conditions. The ship’s hull had been built in China, then, she was towed to Norway for fitting out. I suspect this may have been a “Dry Tow” as conventional towage would have taken too long. The ship was sensitive in terms of stability and at some stage had been retrofitted with saddle tanks to assist in overcoming the problem. The story goes at some earlier stage she had been involved in a girding incident, which apparently was close to catastrophic. I should say, I could not find any record of this on board but everyone spoke about it, especially the Chief Mate whom witnessed the drama – which I guess was the main rational behind the saddle tanks.

Labuan is a semi autonomous island in the Federation of East Malaysia. By enlarge the locals are a lovely, friendly people, always willing to assist. To be frank, we did not spend too much time at sea as we were more or less retained exclusively for deep water work, but when we did go to sea it was very challenging and satisfying. The Offshore Supply Base was limited with its number of berths so when not on assignment we either went to the anchorage (close to the renamed Dorsett Grand Hotel, previously known as the Waterside Hotel until the mid 2000s) only a short boat ride away. Most other times, if the anchorage was over crowded, we would go to a lay by berth at the nearby shipyard. There was a good night life in Labuan, along with good hotels and restaurants, needless to say our Norwegian friends became well known ashore! 

A typical crowded Anchorage at Labuan. The OS Supply Base can just be seen upper right. No room for larger ships to anchor.

In the above caption, the Waterside Hotel and Marina are located at the bottom. The Hotel is the large white building to the right of the one with the red roof. The wide expanse to seaward is Labuan Bay, a favored spot for the temporary laying-up of unemployed ships, most large tankers and container vessels.

After 3 months the Norwegian Master returned and I was repatriated home. My next assignment was to take a ship from Singapore to Dubai to undertake a short charter before bringing her back to Vung Tau in Vietnam. The voyage to and from the Middle East was uneventful and time passed quickly.

The approaches to Vung Tau can be a mariner’s nightmare due to the hundreds and hundreds of fishing boats, all darting about every which way and seldom if ever observing the Colregs. At times of bad weather it is even worse with all the fishing craft bunching together, seeking some kind of communal shelter, and which refuse to give way to larger traffic navigating in the restricted waters. Many of these fishing boats do not display lights during the hours of darkness, only flashing a torch at you if lucky. There are so many the Radar PPI is totally one big mass of “Clutter”.

Vung Tau which lies south of what was called Saigon (now named Ho Chi Minh City) in the Mekong Delta is rated as one of the most dangerous ports in my book. There are savage currents, shifting sands and what buoys there are, tend to be very unreliable, frequently drifting out of position. The weather can turn bad instantly, causing steep choppy seas in the shallow waters. Ship’s engines need to be kept at short standby for this reason as the risk of dragging and potentially grounding is very real. Masters take their ships to the anchorage but from then on a Pilot becomes compulsory. 

The Pilots I found to be very mediocre at best, and it was not unknown that they arrive on board reeking of alcohol. On more than one occasion I told the Pilot to sit out of the way, and I did the job, refusing to allow the Pilot any involvement whatsoever. However, in fairness they were not all like that but making complaints to the authorities fell on deaf ears, so a few bad eggs ended up undeservedly tarnishing the reputation of the good ones and caused Masters to become very cautious.

One of the worst things about Vung Tau at that time was the alleged fuel scams that were supposedly rampant. The charterers insisted all foreign flag vessels carry an additional Vietnamese 2nd Mate (supposedly for training purposes). We never broke watches so the 2nd Mates were on duty 12-4 am/pm as usual, coincidentally this became the time that most hydrocarbon transfers took place. Falsification of figures was not uncommon but having been pre-warned and therefore wise to the scam I always insisted we use our own correctly calibrated “Flow Meter” plus one of my other officers also remained on duty. This combated the risks of any fuel scam but it was reportedly rampant on many other vessels, not all I must admit, however someone somewhere was apparently making a fortune procuring and selling ill gotten fuel oil. We never became associated in this on my ship because I think the word got around we wouldn’t become involved in anyway whatsoever.

Typical of the DP AHTS used in the Middle East and Asian Oil Fields, during my era. There were various classes and designs for AHTS but most conformed to the standard layout.

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We were only involved with one Rig which was situated to the South West of Vietnam, I have forgotten the name. Location was about 180 miles South West of Vung Tau, right at the lower extremities of the Gulf of Thailand. Typically, steaming was around 16 hours from DOP Vung Tau to arrival at the Rig. The Jack-Up was a solitary presence in mid-ocean, looking to all intents and purposes as if a lonely sentinel. The Rig was engaged in exploration so was not within an established Oil Field at that time. Securing to the rig to offload and backload cargo and discharge liquid commodities was straightforward despite the strong surface currents and winds. There was always one AHTS on standby, attending the Rig. Standby was usually for about one week before being relieved by another AHTS, then returning to Vung Tau. 

  Rig Location        

During that era the local population seemed friendly enough but one could be forgiven for thinking one was always under surveillance, in one manner or other. There was a hunger for USD everywhere, even so a curfew was imposed at midnight by which time all crew must be back on board. It did not bother me but some of the younger crew, who became involved with local ladies, often took the risk and ran the gauntlet. Fortunately, none of the crew were ever caught or detained. I suspect their wallets may have possibly become a bit lighter at the dock gate after parting with some kind of “tribute”.

As far as I am concerned on a personal basis, one excellent feature of Vung Tau was the large number of shops that specialized in making model ships out of wood. All exactly to scale and built in the most minute detail. By our standards they were very cheap and real works of art and absolute masterpieces. Another nice thing was that the sellers would package them beautifully to reduce the risk of damage whilst being transported.

On the downside the fume congested roads with huge numbers of motorcycles, mopeds and scooters gave me a headache as soon as I walked outside the dock gate. There was no traffic code to speak of and it was common to have a motorcycle run into the side or back of you, if in a car. No one seemed to bother or stop, they just drove on. The constant honking of motor cycle horns became deafening after a while.

I spent 6 months operating out of Vietnam and I must say I hold mixed memories. It was no longer like the glory days when HCM City was still named Saigon and prior to the commencement of hostilities in the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, that changed Vietnam forever and it will never be the same, even though I am a supporter of throwing off the shackles of colonialism.

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Typical Vietnam traffic, just looking triggers a headache

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Another project in which I was involved was in the laying of a 200km Gas Pipeline between Singapore and the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. I was hired specifically as Master for an Anchor Handling Tug (AHT) chartered for the task. The tug was one of several. The project took 42 Days and was absolutely grueling. Throughout the non-stop laying period an anchor was raised, repositioned and dropped on average every 8 minutes (according to claims), thus allowing the Pipe Laying Barge to crawl along the planned route, whilst continuously laying the pipe line. During the entire jobs we only suffered a handful of days when the weather was too boisterous to work. You can well imagine my feeling of relief when I finally boarded the flight at Matak for the trip back to Jakarta, then home.

Pipe Laying and Offshore construction became my focus whilst I was based in Songkhla, Siricha and then Singapore. I had been managing a fleet of Thai Flagged offshore supply vessels operating out of Songkhla and Sattahip, but after two years the joint owners decided to separate and go their own ways. The Thai element moved out of the offshore shipping sector completely in order to focus on their large fleet of Bulk Carriers and Drilling Rigs. I was very fortunate because I moved into another comparable ship management role, almost immediately.

Apart from the ship management I also undertook marine representation, acting on behalf of charterers to oversea the deployment of anchors of Pipe Barges working in the Thai Oil Fields. My role was as Marine Advisor to the OIM and apart from the anchor deployment aspects, the role also encompassed  wide ranging maritime scope of responsibilities. It was an open contract which meant I could pull the plug anytime, provided I gave 3 months written notice. 

Typically, I would fly out to the large work Barge by Helicopter, approve then oversee marine operations and report back to charterers and OIM on a daily basis. It was an interesting job. The only snag was that once anchor work commenced it was round the clock operations until completed. In essence this meant many hours sitting in front of a computer monitor checking for correct deployment and compliance with the Oil Field regulations. It was very complex and demanding work. Stints aboard the Barge was usually around 20 days, then relieved by another expatriate MA, so I could take the chopper back to the Thai mainland and go back to work in my office. I enjoyed this work immensely because there was never a dull moment. I was later based in Thailand and Singapore for many years during my time spent working in the Asian offshore O&G sector.

The barge was relatively modern, quite comfortable with decent accommodations, and owned and operated by a Japanese conglomerate, and technical team with whom I worked closely. It was a privilege to work with such a well organized and managed group. The vessel was about 16,000 gross tons with a displacement of about 26,000 tons. Fitted with 8 x 12 ton Delta Flipper anchors, it was built for both pipe laying and offshore construction. One of her main features was a 2500 ton crane.

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                                                              Credit: Nippon Steel Corp

One of the Work Barges on which I was engaged in the Gulf of Thailand Oil Fields

Occasionally, we would be assigned offshore construction work and Hook-Ups. Below is a selection of images relating to the actual work undertaken by the Author whilst working in the Gulf of Thailand Oil Fields.

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Preparing to transfer and connect Anchors and Buoys to the Pipe Laying Barge, ready for deployment

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Connecting a Buoy to a Piggy Back Anchor, ready to “Splash”

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The Author, seen inspecting the Sharks Jaw and Towing Pins, on one of the AHTS. The image was captured before departing from the Port of Songkhla. Cat and Mouse Islands can be seen in the distant background.

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The aft working deck crammed with equipment ready for the offshore assignment.

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A Jacket Module loaded on a Flat Top Barge, approaching the Pipe Laying/Construction Barge in preparation for lifting by the Jumbo crane. Typically, the construction yards were situated in Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia (Batam).

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An Offshore construction vessel seen mobilizing in Thailand, ready for project work in the Fields.

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Positioning a pre-fabricated Boat Landing for a new Jacket during the construction process.

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You see….Reflective Tape does work effectively! The Author seen attending one of the MANY on board operations and safety meetings which play such an essential and important role in the O&G industry. The Author has his back to the camera and is wearing the Blue Coveralls.

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Using the 2500 ton Crane on the Pipe Lay Barge, to lift the upper platform section to a Jacket under construction. Operations were 24/7, day and night. Obviously all sections were pre-fabricated then towed out to the Field on a flat top Barge. The erecting of these offshore modules was surprisingly quick using this technique, it was essential to plan well ahead to ensure operations could be conducted in a window that ensured good weather conditions.

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Herewith depicted, a typical oil field anchor spread, consisting of 8 anchors, carefully designed to avoid any risk of damage to sub-sea pipe lines (indicated by bold black lines) or structures. There is a minimum distance from the pipe line at which an anchor can be laid (in the case at hand 100m either side) which is rigidly observed. The two “RED DOTS” indicate the deployment of “Spring Buoys”, connected to the anchor wire at a pre-determined distance, used to keep the wire well above the pipe line when it is being crossed. To ensure absolute accuracy the Barge and support vessels use the most modern and up to date Star Fix Navigation Systems which is usually managed by one of the international maritime survey organizations.

In this caption the Barge is in the center (working at a Jacket). The Blue lines indicate the boundaries within which anchors cannot be deployed.

(Pictures to be added shortly………)

See the book: ” A Tramp For All The Oceans” , a life story by the same author.

End

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