Up against it: the view from Seacat Services
Mon, 28 November 2016
Everybody these days is familiar with windfarm support... or are they? Stevie Knight talked to Seacat Services about the sometimes harsh realities of CTV operations.
“It’s easy to assume the technicians are the only ones working hard, but at least they are on a nice, solid object,” Andy Calderbank-Link, Seacat Services’ fleet operations manager told MJ. By contrast “if the weather is rough the boat crew can spend the next eleven-and-a-half hours fighting to sit upright”.
Managing director (and CTV veteran) Ian Baylis concurred: “It gets to the point where it becomes very hard to do the basics like making lunch.” And, he admitted, the necessary trip to the toilet can also become an issue. It’s not just the muscles that feel the wear, there’s also mental tiredness: “You have to keep checking the weather, looking at the sea states to see if it’s still safe to keep working,” added Mr Calderbank-Link.
More, certain weather-related hazards call for immediate action: “The minute anyone spots lightning, it is a case of everybody off the turbines and clear the field,” he explained.
Seacat Services’ marine superintendent TJ Bailey pointed out that even though the energy companies employ sophisticated weather monitoring, this can still leave a bare 30 minutes to get everyone into the boat and away to a safe distance: “There’s no messing around, no time to take cargo or for technicians to pick up tools or personal possessions.”
However, most of the time it’s a judgment call: “There’s obviously a drive to get the job done on schedule. But for safety reasons it may be that you have to get technicians off the towers before the weather gets too high and hard to keep the boat secure on the landing,” he said.
There has been, Mr Baylis admitted, “more pressure” on these decisions in the past: “Sometimes you’d have to face difficult questions such as ‘why did you stop when the other contractor carried on?’ These days there’s a better understanding... we are doing things now that the older boats would never have managed. And so they know they have to rely much more on our judgement.”
It’s not just rough weather that calls for experience explained TJ Bailey. Although normal transfer operations “might seem like you are a taxi shuffling people around all day long” in reality it demands far more than just a driver: “We are asking a lot of a three-man crew – they have to have some kind of technical knowledge, right down to the electronics,” said Ian Baylis and added that it’s a set of talents not necessarily found in other industries, where crew are used to having an engineer onboard, “and haven’t had to get down and dirty with a screwdriver”.
Moreover, if something’s not quite right, a pragmatic response requires a balancing act: “Can you take mitigating measures and keep the boat functioning till you can attend to it properly, or do you have to pull away immediately...?” Experienced back end support from shore can be critical added Mr Calderbank-Link: “Sometimes an apparent showstopper can be fixed over the telephone or there’s a work-around. And sometimes it’s ‘no; you can’t go on till it’s fixed’.”
While the industry has grown fast, some elements have resisted change: the bow transfer method hasn’t evolved much over the years because despite a number of innovations “as yet no-one’s come up with as efficient an alternative for this size of vessel”, he explained. So, it’s still a matter of pushing up against the landing, the technician connecting his harness and stepping off the vessel and onto the ladder.
Mr Calderbank-Link underlined that safety is about expertise – and attitude: “It can’t be a matter of saying ‘quick get off the boat, I want to get out of here". You have to settle down on the turbine, make sure you are happy with what’s going on around you, and most importantly get in tune with the environment.”
Little ‘tricks of the trade’ also facilitate the transfers. It’s often useful “to spend a few minutes against the landing to allow the heat to get into the rubber fender so that it sticks better” he explained.
However, these moments have another purpose: it gives the crew member on the foredeck time to “feel” the conditions and rhythm of the sea as there’s often an interval between bigger waves that can yield a few minutes of easier transfers.
The crew has seen a massive industry shift since Seacat Services’ inauguration in 2011 – and in some cases the company has even helped move common practices forward.
“We came in at the end of a transition: a lot of boats that weren’t designed for this industry – like fishing boats adapted by a rubber fender – were being replaced by specialist tonnage,” said Ian Baylis.
“So, we made the decision to put fit for purpose vessels into the market; we had technicians’ welfare in mind and getting from ‘a-to-b’ in as broad a range of weather conditions as possible - as well as flexibility.” Of course in a developing market, the idea was to say ‘yes’ to as much as possible and go the extra mile.
But by exceeding expectations, “you could say the industry made a rod for its own back”. He added: “We have all collectively raised the bar and as a result customers expect additional services in their next tender.”
The same pressure has also changed working patterns.
“At Seacat we do time on, time off rotations – you need that time out as it’s pretty intense,” said Andy Calderbank-Link. However since the energy companies realised they could squeeze in a night shift, there are now two main patterns – with very different requirements.
“If you are on a 24 hour day you do your 12 hours, hand the boat over, problems and all, to the next shift, transfer to the hotel vessel, have a good hot meal cooked for you and fall into a bed with nice clean, laundered sheets. You even get a gym, cinema and a connection to Skype the other half.” However, the vessel itself doesn’t get much time off and the crew need to be that much more sensitive to any maintenance issues.
By contrast “a 12-hour shift is really more like 14 hours”, explained TJ Bailey. “You do a day’s work and then go and moor up somewhere quiet or get back to port... but you still have to cook, go round and shut everything down, plus refuelling once every four or five days and schedule in any maintenance. Then you’ve got to get up early enough to do all the engine and generator checks, making sure the vessel is ready for the passengers the next morning. So it’s important that we man vessels with sufficient crew to hit targets - and still maintain those hours of rest.”
Seacat Services personnel were some of the first to overnight on the workboats whilst in port: it’s fairly common practice now but in the beginning they were told ‘it will never catch on’. However not only does it generally keep the boats in better condition “but if something happens you are on the spot to fix it, much better than turning up in the morning to find your battery’s flat from an alarm going off all night” added Mr Bailey.
Despite the willingness to adapt to industry requirements, there are limits, and Seacat’s MD is firm about them: “Even if the boat has good cabins, there’s no way it would be safe to continue making transfers while people are trying to sleep onboard. After all, the vessel is making regular controlled contact with the towers – no-one can rest properly while that’s happening and when you are on duty, you need to be extremely alert.”
According to Ian Baylis, the pace of change for wind farm support is quickening: “The sector is in a similar position to the oil and gas industry of 20 years ago, but we are now catching up in ‘dog years’,” he explained; everything is moving several times as fast.
Development is being helped along by the free flow of information. Rather than battening down the hatches on problems, there are cross-industry meetings and safety forums so there are now more “full and frank discussions of the good, the bad and the ugly – even quite contentious issues” he added. This also covers stakeholder relations: “We are dealing with different players, including local fishermen and boat owners: some still think, ‘who are they to come crashing into our port?’ But the wind farm is going to be there for 25 years at least, so we have to try to integrate into the local community,” added Mr Calderbank-Link.
What of future vessels, given the changing nature of operations? “There will be more of a mix including walk-to-work style vessels - but CTVs will still be out there, although with a wider range of duties,” predicted Mr Baylis. “Vessel sizes aren’t going to get much bigger, since the boats still have to be nimble and you’ve got to think about the forces pushing onto the turbine’s landing. The bigger your boat the heavier it is.... so I think there will be a cap at 30m or 32m vessels.”
Seacat Services itself probably isn’t going to undergo radical change despite a new vessel or two he concluded: “When we had a review, one of our skippers said ‘don’t alter anything – let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Source: Stevie Knight