The Magazine for Underwater Professionals
When dealing with the evacuation and rescue of saturation divers, having the right people with the right equipment and plan in place matters, writes Mimir Marine director Gerard Laden
When his body was recovered, a note was found stuffed in Captain-lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov’s pocket. On a small notepad in blue pen, he had written “there are 23 of us here … we have moved to compartment 9 … we have made this decision as a result of the accident, none of us can escape”.
The world watched in shock! On 12 August 2000, wondering what went wrong, the Russian submarine Kursk was stranded on the bottom of the Barents Sea, as a failing rescue unfolded.
For the evacuation and rescue of saturation divers, “watch and wonder” and getting it right only after every other possibility has been explored is unthinkable. Having the right people with the right equipment and plan in place matters!
The initial accident (an explosion) on the Kursk was later established to be a result of inadequate training and a lack of maintenance. Russia’s cash-strapped fleet had been starved of investment, which led directly to the initial loss of 95 lives; the Russian rescue failed due to a poor emergency response and out of date equipment on the rescue submersible. Could the 23 men who evacuated to compartment nine have been saved with better equipment; who can say for certain?
What we can say for certain is that the chance of such an accident occurring was already in play before 12 August 2000. The Russian Federation Navy had been suffering repeated budget cuts year on year. By 2000, the annual budget was typically spent in the first half of the year. Sound familiar?
The lesson for senior managers here is that saving money can be expensive. The oil industry is about share price. A major accident in a “bear market” can be catastrophic: to reputation, share price and market position. In comparison, a “bull market” can withstand the loss. Training, equipment maintenance and upgrade programmes are the key to avoiding foreseeable unwelcome events.
After the Kursk incident, opinion on the streets of Russia was clear. One old man commented “… if not for everyone going into business and thinking only of themselves, things like this wouldn’t happen’’.
In the July/August 2012 issue of this magazine an article about hyperbaric evacuation described the first – and very successful – simulated UK dockside hyperbaric evacuation of divers from the Bibby Sapphire hyperbaric lifeboat into a mobile hyperbaric reception facility (HRF). The mark of a “good practice” is when it becomes a “common practice”. The International Maritime Contractors Association (IMCA) and the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP) have now published guidelines on the role of portable HRFs.
In 2012, Subsea 7 commissioned the design and manufacture of a mobile 24-man HRF to support its global diving operations. The company has also upgraded its existing Asia Pacific HRF capability, increasing the number of diving vessels this HRF can support. Technip also has a portable HRF that it is able to pre-deploy overseas.
Subsea 7 and Bibby Offshore are members of the world’s most comprehensive and successful HRF syndicate. Operated by Mimir Marine, it provides an 18-man highly portable HRF. The equipment is kept on three 40-foot (12-metre) specialist multi-axial trailers on Hull docks, on immediate notice to mobilise to any port that a lifeboat may be recovered to; no lifting operations, no packing, all stowed and ready to go. This means that the HRF can be on site in hours, from Scrabster on the tip of Scotland to Kinsale in Southern Ireland. Mimir Marine has successfully completed 16 first time, 100% successful lifeboat trials on 13 different designs of lifeboat from five manufacturers on five continents.
Following BP’s introduction of a policy mandating access to a HRF as part of hyperbaric evacuation planning, the diving industry has witnessed a marked increase “globally” in emergency response preparations.
Subsea 7 has taken the lead. It has deployed a HRF in support of diving operations in Vietnam, Angola, St John’s, Canada, and Carmen in Mexico. Bibby Offshore positioned a Mimir Marine supplied 18-man HRF on Shetland to support a BP West of Sheltland diving operation late last year. Technip located a mobile HRF in Israel in support of the DSV Wellservices’ 240-metre hot tap.
Professionally prepared plans are needed for successful and safe lifeboat mating trials. Mimir Marine has mated the entire Subsea 7 diving fleet, including, when in place, both port and starboard lifeboats. The company has also mated all four of the Bibby diving support vessel lifeboats, with the Mermaid Endurer completing this before undertaking diving operations in the North Sea – an impressive expression of commitment to safety from Bibby.
With lifeboat mating trials, the “watch and wonder” approach to what went wrong is easily avoided. How? By using competent engineers, training and having good procedures in place – the process must be repeatable, when it really matters.
The competency and experience so important for success lie within the HRF mating trial personnel. Such qualities cannot be found on an audit sheet. An audit is a bit like doing a pre-flight check on an aeroplane, with lots of boxes to tick – what it does not do is actually establish if you can fly the plane, hence the potential for a crash and burn experience.
What next in evacuation planning?
The requirements of the lifeboat should be well organised when it makes port. And therein lies the concern, the lifeboat arriving in port. There is a consensus that decompressing the divers in the lifeboat is not the preferred approach as the lifeboat crew will be occupied with other non-deferrable tasks. Additionally, any problems encountered as a result of the decompression would introduce a foreseeable and avoidable complexity to an already complex situation.
How to get the lifeboat home?
The boat must head for the nearest appropriate harbour. In flat calm conditions, and ONLY in calm conditions, towing offers a speed advantage. All hyperbaric lifeboats are designed and well equipped for towing. In other than calm water, towing is likely to be too problematic. It is difficult to quantify the practically of towing in bad weather, a result of the lifeboat being tossed by the sea and the resulting G-force effect on the crew and diver occupants.
What can be done to help?
A “good practice” approach is that of Statoil in Norway which has multi-task vessels able to recover a lifeboat via an inbuilt stern ramp, with one vessel normally on station. Once the lifeboat is recovered the vessel can make better headway in any weather, provide additional life support services to the lifeboat and provide psychological reassurance to the confined divers that their environment is again under control as the lifeboat is delivered to a hyperbaric reception facility.
Unfortunately, this “good practice” is far from “common practice” and only available in the Norwegian section. This simply leaves the global diving community with the problem of “avoiding a reasonably foreseeable event”.
The future: “ramp over troubles waters”
Thinking ahead, Mimir Marine presented the IOGP with a concept solution at a meeting in Aberdeen in September 2014. Mimir Marine’s idea is a deployable stern ramp that is able to fasten to any platform supply or anchor handling vessel and recover the lifeboat for safe, secure transit to harbour. Such vessels are ubiquitous globally.
With Mimir Marine having completed so many successful dockside mating trials, I can say that a solution for recovering the lifeboat is close, it simply needs commitment from the industry – which is vital if we are to avoid the “watch and wonder” scenario of having an excellent HRF facility in harbour waiting for the lifeboat that is stricken and isolated, unable to reach its definitive life-support facility.
No doubt there will be a global response to assist any incident, as there was with the Kursk. However, it will require a specific set of equipment and procedures to safely recover a hyperbaric lifeboat. As the report into the Kursk rescue operation states, “a concentrating of surface support vessels was of no help”.
Botched rescue attempts due to a lack of training, planning and know-how, and very notably hindered by weather, are not new in diver rescue. Star Conopus, Wildrake and McDermott DB29, sound familiar?
The widow of the Kursk’s captain, Olga Kolesnikov, said her husband, before leaving on the submarine’s last voyage, had written her a poem. ‘’And when the time comes to die,’’ he wrote, ‘’though I chase such thoughts away, I want time to whisper one thing: my darling, I love you.” Some will remember the DB29 in the South China Sea and the stories of letters to loved ones Sellotaped to the legs of divers confined in a saturation chamber in the face of deteriorating weather and a failing rescue.
Avoiding the foreseeable...
Out of the blue, 32 people died on a flat calm sunny day when the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground; the vessels’ salvage cost two billion dollars! Yes, two billion US dollars. Survivors pay too; there is a potential lifelong cost of post-traumatic stress and individual hardship – the Italian captain received a 16-year prison sentence, ten years for manslaughter, five causing a marine disaster and one for abandoning his passengers.
...avoiding the foreseeable
NASA had known about Morton Thiokol’s design flaw in the Space Shuttle’s O-rings since 1977, but failed to address it properly. It turns out that everyone knew of the problem. Sound familiar? The foreseeable failure happened nine years later in January 1986, to the Challenger space shuttle.
It is the last piece of the jigsaw that completes the picture, and what a splendid picture and achievement that will be.
To finish, a poem taken from the biography of Charles Lightoller, the senior surviving officer of the Titanic; a man who witnessed both disaster and a failed rescue. The Titanic received a series of warnings, and was a tragedy both foreseeable and avoidable.
Though the gales should lash and harry, pile on all the rags she'll carry,
Listen to the reef points drum,
And tautened backstay drone.
Up and down the old man paces,
Keep the padlocks on those braces!
So keep them on you bullies keep them on!
Though the gales should rip and tear you,
And toil and moil should wear you,
Crack it on! Crack it on!