The Westminster government recently extended by three months the temporary contract for the two coastguard tugs stationed in the Western and Northern Isles. It did so alongside announcing that from the end of this contract the oil and gas industry had agreed to provide coverage from its own ‘vessels’.
This raised several questions:
- What sort of ‘vessels’?
- What if they were already engaged on industry duty when a maritime emergency arose?
- How long would it take them to arrive on scene?
Now an incident which took place in Shetland on Tuesday evening (20th December) has re-emphassised the need for an independent tug provision in northern waters, ready to act at once.
Shetland Island Council operates a fleet of 6 tugs in the major oil harbour of Sullom Voe. The newest pair of these are the Spanish-built Solan and Bonxie, arriving in Shetland a year ago from the Unión Naval yard in Valencia and plagued by ongoing reliability problems.
On Tuesday night, one of them. Solan, was taking the Loch Rannoch – a shuttle tanker working in the Schiehallion oil field, out clear of Jetty 4 in the harbour. Solan was preparing to slip her rloe which was still attached to Loch Rannoch, when, without warning, she lost both propulsion and controls.
Her stern was struck by the tanker’s bow, at about 5 knots and still roped to her, Solan banged down the side of Loch Rannoch’s hull.
Then. equally without warning, the tug’s systems came back into operation and under control.
Equally fortunately, because the tanker was on her way out, she had some ability to slow her speed. This meant that the crewmen on the tug suffered no injury.
However, had the weather conditions been worse or had Solan been, for example, bringing in a fully loaded tanker at greater speed, the weight of impact would probably have led to fatalities and could have seen an out of control tanker collide with shore installations, with potentially substantial environmental consequences.
Alternatively, had Solan been hit amidships she could have been sunk or rolled over.
The maritime community on the Clyde remembers too well the night in April 2007 when the tug, Flying Phantom, towing the bulk carrier Red Jamine in fog, was struck by her, pulled over and sunk, with the loss of three crewmen.
The two new Shetland tugs were due to go onto dry dock to have their hulls modified, in response to handling difficulties, when this accident happened – the worst to date with the new tugs. Both have now been withdrawn from service.
It is not yet known whether they will return to service as soon as this particular issue seems resolved or whether they will stay out of service until their first annual inspection falls due.
Two of the most powerful tugs in the world – with a bollard pull of 90 tonnes, they were delivered a year late and in their pre-delivery trials there were problems with their steering and exhaust systems. Since they went into service, there have been difficulties with their handling under speed and with their winches.
This situation sees a major oil port, off Scotland’s north coast, dealing steadily with fully loaded shutttle tankers coming in from the oil field – with one third of its tug fleet out of service for the foreseeable future.
Has this situation – which has been well know since these two tugs entered service (Solan lost power on 14th August 2011 while bringing the loaded tanker Penelope into Sullom Voe), been factored into the decision to withdraw the two coastguard tugs from northern waters in under three months time?
Or is this yet another blind spot of the UK government’s southern urban landlubber Shipping Minister, Mike Penning?