Saturday, February 20, 2010

Craptastic Ship Design!


Let's say you're going to spend... I dunno, between 15 and 75 Million US Dollars to build yourself a nice bulk carrier, or a handysized container/breakbulk ship... or even a reefer boat... whatever, you're building a new ship. Congratulations.

Why would you design a ship that is completely miserable to fuel up? Wouldn't you want your bunkering operations to be safe and fast, so that your crew can do the million other things to be done on board?

Now, chances are, unless the ship is being built for a highly specialized run between two ports, your first concern might be usability. You want your new ship to maximize profitability over the long term, and, aesthetics aside, this means being built to last, but at a low cost. OK.

Still with me? Check this out:

(Photo courtesy of

This is your average medium-sized self-unloading bulk carrier, a versitile workhorse of about 450-feet I think. Now, once every few weeks or so, someone is going to have to bring their barge alongside, tie up to the ship, and pass a very, very heavy fuel hose to the ship, and transfer around 1000 tons or so of fuel oil. Now, the barge that does that will be anywhere from 150- 250 feet long herself, here in the US. If that barge is loaded, it may be carrying 3,000 tons of oil for other customers who are waiting in line. The barge might be big, and it might be heavy, is what I'm saying... and to add to the pucker factor, the barge will have to get within a meter or so of the ship, and then be lined up such that the fuel hose will be in the neighborhood of the fueling connection on the ship. Get what I'm saying?
There's a delicate dance to be done when a larger-sized bunker barge needs to line up with a ship.

Here's my bunker barge moored alongside a pretty little ship. Notice the little hose snaked between us. This is a small hose used for transferring small parcels of diesel. The fuel oil hose is twice that size, and the 30-meter (100-foot) hose we use most often weighs several tons, even when empty.

Now, take a look at that first ship again.

The fueling connection (called a manifold) for this ship is through a small hatch (door) on deck level, inside the house, about 15-20 feet (5-6 meters) inside the doorway. The doorway is next to the whaleback, under some stairs used to get from the elevated poop deck (the deck at the stern of the ship) to the main deck.

What does this mean? The gentleman who designed this ship put the bunkering connection somewhere where it can't be easily accessed, where a crane or boom can't get at, and where the guy who watches over the fueling operation can't see or hear anything going on elsewhere in the ship!
Anyhow, with the assistance of 5 men, two chainfalls, a length of rope and several crowbars, the crew was able to get my fueling hose to the bunker connection, which included dragging roughly 1000 lbs. of hose and steel through a narrow hallway without mechanical assistance. I'm pretty sure that I saw one guy stagger off holding the small of his back. I'm assuming that he didn't get that sore back from watching porn in the TV room.

Now, another awesome thought about ship design: If you're going to expect your ship to be refueled, you need to put the barge somewhere. This has several implications.

1) Take a good look at the shape of the hull of the ship at the base of the house. Beautifully curved- a hydrodynamic wineglass-shaped stern with a lot of reversed tumblehome, in fact. Very nice in a sea. Not so nice for a bunker barge to get close to. In fact, it is very easy to get ones' barge and/or associated tugboat pinned under that flaring stern, or to poke a hole in the side of the ship should the barge not land squarely against the hull. This happens about once a year between Boston and New York, alone, and always results in spilled oil, it seems.

2) Without a flattish hull profile, it gets increasingly difficult to get a barge smoothly and squarely against a ship's hull. Note the second picture, however. The ship in that photo had a hard-chined stern- lots of hull for us to bounce off of in the process of getting tied up... but then again, the manifold on that ship was midships.

About 20% of all reefer ships ('fruit boats') don't have any chocks or bitts for another ship or barge to make fast to along the working portion of the cargo deck.This means that a couple thousand tons of ship and fuel might just have to be shackled to your handrails, which, for the most part, are designed more to support hands than bunker barges. There's always a 10% or better chance to break the sturdiest of handrails when this is done, which is part of the reason why reefer ships usually look like pieces of shit when viewed up close. Lots of repaired welds, dents, and bent steel.

And this brings me to the crux of my questioning. When designing a ship that has fuel storage tanks throughout the hull of the ship (an oil tanker, conversely, will usually have its' bunker tanks aft of the cargo tanks, just forward and maybe under the forward portion of the engine room and machinery spaces), like many bulkers, break bulk carriers and container ships of all sizes, why wouldn't you put a fueling point midships, where the crew and barge can easily work unimpeded, and the fueling point is in the middle of the main bunkering line that runs the length of the ship anyhow?

For that matter, why not have more than one manifold, to give the ship maximum versatility in terms of being able to bunker in almost any port? The only ships I've seen with multiple bunkering manifolds are oil tankers and a couple of old rickety OBO's (which, in the end, don't even have forward fuel tanks, anyhow). For the cost of 2-4 extra valves, a meter or two of modestly-sized piping, and a pressure gauge, bunkering could be done with 1-2 people on deck, as opposed to 5, and I wouldn't have had to watch Ivan Ivanoff stagger away like a drunk trying to shake off a rabbit punch. Realistically, one lost-time injury could pay for a second bunkering station in ships of the sort I've shown here.
I can't say much about manning in the international fleet; I suspect that a replacement is always a phone call away, and I've heard of foreign ships sticking AB's with internal injuries on 12-hr flights, only to have the sailor die in the air. In the US fleet, however, there are plenty of retirement-age sea-lawyers just waiting with baited breath for a soft-tissue injury or a blown knee to counteract a long career of living paycheck to paycheck. Imagine the JHA (Job Hazard Analysis) that would go along with an awkward bunkering operation like what I saw today. OSHA would shit kittens.
The US doesn't build ships better than anyone else; they just cost 10 times more than anyone else's ships, and take 10 times longer to build. We have the same bunkering issue; All the same, fueling-related injuries and accidents make up a visible portion of the media- covered shipping news. Minimizing those incidents should take greater priority, and could be done with a few strokes of the architect's pen in newbuilds.

Finally, when the day comes when criminalization of accidental oil spills is a more uniform practice, dingleberries like me, responsible for refueling operations, are going to have to protect ourselves, and that means refusing bunkering jobs.


Anonymous said...

One would think the bulker would have a couple of hose extensions that would be lighter in weight. Get out the maniflod built like a fire hydrant, bolt it to the deck, hook up the extension, wait for you to arrive and plug into your side of the hydrant.

Unknown said...

The Tsarevetz has been uploading bunkers for 12 years, it is in class and passes port state inspections all over the world. The owners or charterers aren't going to rebuild the ship to save an American barge operator a little extra labor.

If you really feel that ships like that are too dangerous to fuel then refuse to do it, it's a simple no drama solution.

The bottom line is that the high road leads to the beach, which one are you going to take?

Master of Towing Vessels Association said...

Bravo, Mr. Pirate, you hit this one right out of the park. It was so good that I forwarded it on to where it has just been posted for the broader maritime audience to chew on. And Rick, your the-vessel-is-in-class-and-passes-port-state-control-inspections statement completely misses the point. It's not about current classification standards or the Coast Guard or the owners or any other entity. It's about doing away with (rather than perpetuating) stupid vessel design features that decrease safety and efficiency, increase risk and needlessly subject mariners to injury. This problem is easily surmountable during the design stage, IF anyone actually gave a damn. It's really easy to not give a damn when you're not the one who has to hump the hose.

Dan said...

@ Rick:

Wow, what arrogance.

Why does someone have to choose between (A) turning down a job, and (B) making a comment intended to improve conditions in the future? Since when was that an either-or proposition?

And what does it matter whether a ship has been around 12 years or 120 years; does longevity equal good design?

People do stupid things for many years all the time; is that really an argument against improving things in the future? If you caught your kid doing drugs and he said "But Dad, I've been doing drugs for 12 years," would you say, "Well OK then, no need to change anything, just keep on shooting up!"

Paul, Dammit! said...

Joe, that'd certainly be nice, but it sounds like a lot of work for the crew, which, in my opinion, still causes a manpower issue.

Rick, your points are also all very true, but it's not the bunker barge operator, the classification society or the bodies in charge of port state control inspections who have to pay for lost-time injuries or reduced productivity related to poorly thought-out design...The guy I watched stagger off yesterday was surely no good as anything but a seat warmer for a time, and he was on the clock. Compromised crew productivity is surely a source of loss in the revenue stream; for that reason, sub-acute injuries are a good indication of issues that need addressing. Plot the cost of lost productivity from injury, extended hose connection time, and cleanup against time, and the impact of the physical bunkering setup becomes a significant source of potential loss. That was my point. The crew's aching backs don't significantly affect my bottom line, and obviously the architect felt the same, or was encouraged to ignore the thought whatsoever. When, however, safety and efficiency can be tied favorably to a bunker manifold design, it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity, and that opportunity principally exists while the ship design is in the planning stages.

Had I been unable to be sure that my ass and the gear that I oversee was safe, I would have refused the job, as you said.

Great point, too, about the high road leading to the beach. It also leads away from courtrooms, which was the central point that I touched on. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be on the beach if I have to choose between the two. I can drink beer there.

Unknown said...

The barge operator is not responsible for the design or construction of the receiving ship. His responsibility ends at the rail. Which by the way "...means that a couple thousand tons of ship and fuel might just have to be shackled to your handrails ..." is a legal nightmare just waiting for someone to come along with the handcuffs. The company and tankerman need to spend a bit more time worrying about that type of operation and less making medical diagnoses from the deck of a bunker barge.

Having spent a few years running a bunker barge fueling ships in a solo operation,followed by working as an inspector for a state agency with oversight of ship bunkering in state waters I am fully aware of the labor and risks involved in dragging a large hose along the deck, lifting it to the rail and connecting to the manifold.

Whining about how a ship is designed is pointless, calling the COTP to report a dangerous condition such as inadequate mooring facilities or manifold locations that require overly tight radius hose bends is much more productive.

Sure a bunker port on the side at barge deck level would be nice but not many ships have them and the economics of a geared bulker design don't leave much room for such niceties. The design is legal, it exists, and it will continue to exist. Choose your battles, demand proper mooring facilities, that is something the CG can understand.

Paul, during the pre-bunker conference did you check the block that said the mooring was adequate on those reefer ships? Did you check it off as acceptable anyway? Does your form have a tick box for ergonomically acceptable hose routings?

The CG and environmental overseers could care less about what kind of struggle a third world OS has to go through but they do care about having a paper trail warning them about inadequate mooring or questionable procedures.

Paul, Dammit! said...

Rick, thank you for the more detailed Q&A- obviously, this is an issue that is worth addressing!

First off, I operate 100% in a CYA-compliant manner- I'd never shoot myself in the foot by perjuring or otherwise compromising myself on a discoverable document should something unexpected happen! My employer signs my paycheck, and therefore it's in my interest to refuse to put them in a compromised position through action or inaction on my part. You know what this job entails, and that a good company supports tankermen who can say 'no' to unsafe practices done in the name of expediency. I am fortunate enough to work for such a company.
I wrote this article because it's a thought worth exploring, and not being led by my ego, I asked questions that people with more expertise may be able to comment upon with greater gravity than I bring to the table... and you've done just that. Your opinion is well thought out, reasonable, and, based on your eyebrow-raising level of irritation at my asking a question that isn't often asked, it's obvious that you've been around this industry. All the same I know more than I did at breakfast today. So why, then do you insist that this isn't a question worth exploring? I'll agree that it's very much an intellectual exercise, but the opportunity to share and gain knowledge is valuable to me.

I dispute that there is no value in commenting on my observation of a potential or sub-acute injury in the course of a bunkering evolution. The obligation and necessity of reporting, preventing, acting on, and learning from such things is exactly why the ISPS code exists, and why ISM practices are subject to standardization.
Finally, I very much want to address your somewhat insulting assumption that by acknowledging the practice of shackling to a handrail that I tacitly endorse or practice such things, and consequently could be foolish enough to write about it in public. As it happens, I work on a tall, beamy barge, as far as bunker barges go. I simply can't shackle to a handrail, even if I wanted to (and believe me, sometimes I want to. Dragging 150+' of ice cold wet hawser back on board after a job sucks!) Too much barge under the water, and too much sail area above. All the same, it doesn't take a detective to understand that shackling is in most cases the SOP work-around to a chockless ship. I have no problem stretching out half a cable of hawser between the bullnose of a ship and the ass end if that's what it takes to moor. I come from a shipping background, and prefer the shock absorption of a long lead. I don't put my ass in a sling or on the line, ever. Period.

Thank you very much for your comments and suggestions, especially regarding the obligation to report something as part of due diligence. I am fortunate, as I said, to have a proactive employer that is willing to handle such things and feed back as part of the continuous training process.

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