Saturday, September 09, 2006

Touring an Alaskan Supertanker


One fine day in the summer of 2005, I fulfilled a longstanding wish of mine - I toured an Alaskan supertanker. The Alaskan Frontier was in for repairs at a Victoria shipyard. Although she was only nine months old at the time, cracks had already developed in each of her two giant rudders. The largest of these cracks measured a whopping nine feet. The crack had been spotted by chance during a maintenance dive to check on another matter. Had the cracks not been spotted accidentally, a visual inspection of the rudder would not have been required for another four years - so much for stringent safety standards!

Checks on the Alaskan Explorer, sister ship of the Alaskan Frontier revealed three cracks on one of its rudders as well. Both vessels had been built in San Diego. The contract for the rudders had apparently gone to a German company, which then subcontracted to a Croatian firm. At the time of my tour, the ship's owners were negotiating compensation with the shipbuilders. One of the issues that had apparently arisen was whether the rudders needed to be replaced, or simply repaired. In the end, it seems they were merely repaired. However, the ship had to be taken out of service for several weeks, thereby resulting in a loss of income to the tanker's owners.

The Alaskan Frontier is owned by the Alaskan Tanker Company (ATC), which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of BP. She plies the Trans Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) route between Valdez, Alaska in the north and Washington State and California in the south. She is more than three football fields long, double-hulled, 185,000 DWT and capable of carrying 1.3 million barrels of crude oil in her tanks, putting her in the Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) class of tankers. This is the same class of tankers that Enbridge proposes to use on its Gateway tanker route out of Kitimat.

She has lots of backup systems in case of catastrophic failure: twin diesel-electric engines, twin props, and even twin engine rooms. She is basically designed to withstand the rough seas of the TAPs route, which present some of the wildest seafaring conditions on the worldocean. Her hull is meant to be flexible, so that she doesn't just break in two. Thus, while she was being repaired, and was therefore empty, there was apparently a one foot bend in her from bow to stern. However, when she is fully-laden the bend is thought to be around one or two inches.

Working on a tanker is a very dangerous job, and so every effort is made to ensure a safe working environment. Like all modern tankers, this supertanker has an inert gas system designed to prevent explosions from occurring in empty crude oil tanks. Also, a blast shield separates the cargo holds from the stern section of the vessel, where the bridge, accommodation and engine room are located.

Crews work a twelve hour shift - four on, four off, then eight on followed by eight off. They also must sleep during their eight hours off. Periodically they are rotated onto home leave for an extended period of time, during which time another full crew complement takes over. In contrast to older vessels, these modern ships require relatively few crew to run them; to keep costs down and avoid human error, everything that can be automated is.

When fully-laden, the crude oil on board is stored in a total of twenty cargo tanks. There are also segregated ballast tanks, so that when ballast water is discharged, it is not mixed with crude oil as in the bad old days of tanker operations. Another improvement relates to the cleaning of empty cargo tanks. In the past, these were washed with water, with the resulting wastewater/oil mix sometimes being dumped into the ocean. Now, the latest tankers, the Alaskan Frontier included, use a system called COW, for "Crude Oil Washing", whereby the tanks are washed with crude oil which is then recovered, recycled and reused, rather than discharged to sea.

The ship has twenty-four feet of freeboard, so that when fully-loaded, heavy seas do not come washing over the deck. There are also scuppers several inches high on the deck, to prevent any crude oil or other debris from washing overboard. The cargo oil pipes that one traditionally sees on the deck of a tanker are hidden to the naked eye, instead running below deck.

What the cracked rudders on this supermodern, spanking new behemoth demonstrate is that not even the most up-to-date technology can protect against system failure. In this case, disaster was averted by a chance dive that detected an enormous crack. But, what might have happened if the crack had gone undetected and perhaps grown over time? Would the ship's integrity have been compromised? Would one rudder have been sufficient, or would it, with its own cracks, have eventually failed as well? It's anybody's guess, but it does set off the alarm bells. The bottom line is, although risk can be minimised, it can never be eliminated, even with the best of intentions.

Shipping crude oil in extremely rough seas, day in and day out, year in and year out, is an inherently dangerous activity, and nature can take its toll on both crews and equipment. Tanker companies and the regulatory authorities alike have to be ever vigilant, imposing the strictest engineering standards, regularly inspecting for cracks and the like, and learning from experience. Beyond that, there is the societal question as to whether it is worth taking the risk transporting oil in such treacherous seas, next to such a fragile and remote environment as the Queen Charlotte Islands and Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, which is sometimes referred to as The Galapagos of the North. Is it worth risking the lives of the humpback whales that are currently feeding in the area, or the killer whales that call this region home? Does Enbridge's promise of a tug escort in confined channels along the proposed Gateway supertanker route eliminate the risk, or merely attenuate it?

These are just some of the questions facing communities as they come to terms with the prospect of VLCCs regularly plying the waters of Douglas Channel, navigating past Hartley Bay and Gil Island, where the Cetacealab whale research lab is located, and eventually out into Hecate Strait, Dixon Entrance, Queen Charlotte Sound and points beyond.

My tour of this behemoth, which is still relatively small by international tanker standards, ended with lunch in the cafeteria with the Captain of the Alaskan Frontier, Ralph Torjusen, a native of Manhattan. Many thanks to him and to Mr. Anil Mathur, President of ATC, for allowing this informative tour to take place.

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