Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bad Bunkering: Let us pray (for no mishaps)

Click to embiggnify- photo courtesy of

One of my favorite things to bitch about at work is when ships are built in such a way as to make bunkering operations scary, risky or downright just miserable. My belief is in the design stages of shipbuilding, figuring out how to get fuel in the tanks is either an afterthought or simply a series of compromises where ergonomics and optimization of safety maybe get shoved down a place or three in the list of what needs to go where and why.

Take the above vessel, a multipurpose vessel with RORO, LOLO and container configurations all in one. A versatile workhorse, perhaps, and a thirsty one, at that- a ship like this can carry plenty of fuel for itself.
Now, if you look at the photo, you'll see where I painted a red circle around the bunkering port for this ship. That's where the hose goes when this beast needs fuel. It's pretty high up, and waaaaaaaay in the stern of the ship. Now, look directly underneath the bunkering port- you'll see the turn of the bilge of the ship actually starts quite a ways forward of the bunkering port.

Now, while many places employ bunker tankers that are fair sized boats, and fairly tall themselves, many other ports simply use tugs and barges- in my case, my 30,000 barrel barge was tasked to tie up to a sister vessel of the one in the photo. We were carrying about 25,000 bbl of oil at the time, loaded deep... deep enough that regardless of where we put out our bumpers, the barge was going to fit very neatly under the turn of the bilge if we managed to get into a pickle.
Now, with safety being the number one priority of everyone involved, and an assist tug to make sure we didn't get buried, the largest problem a barge faces in this situation is that a sizable portion of the barge must hang in the stream rather than be snugged up against the hull of the ship, which is what one wants.
What followed was a very long fucking night, to be blunt. We got the barge positioned, after a very methodical and slow series of creeping moves- the tug captain had to keep his engines warm and his hands on the trigger. To top this off, an oddball ship like this one has no mooring points along the flat of the hull- there are recessed chocks here and there, but in order to put out headlines, a half-cable of mooring line has to be stretched up the 70 or so feet to the main deck, and there be shackled to a coaming or other sub-optimal massive structure. Compromises everywhere.
At the end of the night, the ship got her fuel. The tug crew got no rest, for certain, as between the OOW, engineer and deckhands (and myself), we were constantly nudging and heaving in (or slacking) lines. We had to place the barge kitty-corner to the ship to help keep the bow of the barge from getting wedged under the ship's bilge, and this meant tripling the stern lines and tightening them until the lines screamed in order to force the bow out away from the ship. As one of the tug crew said, though, "Of all the shitty jobs I've done, this one is by far the most recent."

So it goes. A few thrills, and maybe some sore buttcheeks what with all the anxious clenching, but we did manage to do the job safely. That being said, had there been wind, had there not been an assist tug, had any one of a dozen small factors been any different, and this job would have been either not possible, or could have resulted in a mishap, and the fault would have been shown to be human error, because while it is possible to rely on luck to keep problems from happening, it's better to simply build smarter... all the same, no one cares if luck was in favor for 49 bunkering jobs, but out for one.
I can't help but think that there are places in the world where the tug captains aren't so careful and experienced, where the deckhands maybe don't have radios to call in every little change in aspect between vessels closely interacting, and where maybe a person in my shoes isn't deathly afraid of going to jail if he pushes his luck in bunkering. Maybe I carry an inflated view of how we conduct ourselves, but it seems like there's got to be a better way to do this stuff when you're building a ship.

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