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Yeoman Bontrup: the fire and the recovery

Yeoman Bontrup on fire

Given just how enormous was the damage done to this ship in the fire she suffered back on 2nd July 2010, it was surprising to many that she was rebuilt instead of being replaced.

While the figures vary, the decision to rebuild the boat was based on the length of time from order to delivery of a new ship; and the sheer cost of a new maritime machine as sophisticated as this one.

The sister ships, Bontrup and Bridge, may be over 20 years old but are the only self-discharging bulk carriers of their kind in the world,  While the rebuild was expensive, new build would have been at least three times as much and would have cost hugely in lost shipping revenues.

With her major rebuild and the up to date systems installed, this ship has another 20 years service ahead of her.

The fire

Simon Turk

On Thursday 26th April, at the official celebration to welcome Yeoman Bontrup back to Glensanda, Simon Turk, Director of Logistics, coolly talked us through the facts of the fire that all but destroyed her and her difficult prolonged rebirth.

He has spent pretty well every waking hour from the fire to Thursday’s official welcome home, working on and with this ship – including what sounds like  taking up long term residency at the Remontowa yard in Gdansk during her rebuilding.

Yeoman Bontrup on fire

The fire began well into a loading operation, probably with a welding spark – spreading through the burning of the rubber elements in the ship’s linked conveyor belts forming its self discharging system. (You can see the fire along the ship’s boom conveyor above.) When this burning was conducted down the vertical lift forward of the accommodation block to the stern of the ship, the burning rubber met with chemicals and some oil starting to leak in the heat from the hydraulics – and air. The perfect bomb.

Yeoman Bontrup fired 2The resulting explosion blew a major steel stern plate in the poop deck – carrying winch arrays and weighing 40 tonnes – 120 feet into the air, seeing it fall straight down again to lodge against the accommodation tower. This was the strange ‘piece’ no lay observer could account for that appeared to be be a detached part of the post-incineration accommodation tower.

Four steel pillars supporting the poop deck – to the eye, we’re talking 6-8 inch diameter by, say, 8 feet high – also shot into the skies, like the con rods of a blown car engine come through the bonnet. Two were later found on the sea bed. One came back down through the accommodation tower and one hit the steel coaming on the fifth cargo hold just forward of the accommodation tower – pushing a one metre deep bulge into this heavy steel and then catapulting forwards to land much farther down the cargo deck.

2000 degree fire in stern

After the explosion, the fire became all but uncontainable. The temperature in the stern section was at 2,000 degrees – and this isn’t a typo with an added number – it was two thousand degrees. Her hull became partially transparent under this heat, the internal fire visible through it.

Yeoman Bontrup fired 1The entire accommodation tower dropped by 30 cm into the hull. There could hardly have been a more dangerously unstable scenario.

An added complication was that this was a dead ship, all electrical infrastructure burned out. No power. No systems – like pumps.

So all the water being poured into the ship to try to bring the fire under control was accumulating inside her. There were no pumps to get the spent water out – and the ferocity of the fire made any other attempt impossible. Yeoman Bontrup began to do down by the bow.

The use of water had to stop until the fire had reduced enough to get generators and mobile pumps on board.

In the current angry debate over the UK government’s withdrawal of the Emergency Towing Vehicles (ETVs – specialist tugs) based in northern waters, it is worth noting that Anglian Sovereign, the ETV based at Stornoway, got herself down to Glensanda in around 7 hours and when they saw her come up Loch Linnhe they thought she was a press speedboat. Yeoman staff of the time still talk with awe of her firefighting capacity. Imagine if she had not been there?

Saving the quarry – towing the ship out

Something like six days after the fire broke out, it had been extinguished. The next problem was immediate. There were about to be Spring tides – those with the greatest variation between the top and bottom of the tide.

Yeoman Bontrup, laden with the 70,000 tonnes of crushed stone already loaded when the fire broke out – plus water – was, at this weight and at the bottom of the tide, going to sit on the rock on the sea bed at her berth. In her weakened and unstable state, the force of gravity in these circumstances would have been likely to break her hull.

If she sank on the berth the quarry would be finished, unable to ship out its products for a very long time – if ever. The sunken ship would most probably have been irrecoverable.

There was the tiniest window of time in the necessary daylight hours – the fire was on 2nd July 2010 – before the lowest tide was due. she would have to be moved out of the berth during that period. Yeoman had no idea where to take her. They needed an interim anchorage to get her away from Glensanda while they sorted out where she could go for what must have been an indeterminate future.

Yeoman Bontrup at Lynn of Lorne

She was delicately moved to the Oban anchorage at the south end of the Lynn of Lorne. It was a difficult operation. She visibly yawed under tow – her stern starting to swing to port and starboard.

The slow road back

From then on, there was the marathon of negotiating with various national authorities to allow the tow to pass through their waters – first to Ijmuiden at the entrance to the port of Amsterdam and later from there to Gdansk in Poland.

The first tow had its early problems. The Bontrup yawed horribly – and at her size and weight this was utterly unmanageable. She could have swung to overtake the tow and become the pulling force. Generators and pumps were delicately used to rebalance her and test her steerage under tow.

At Ijmuiden she was berthed at the outer dolphins (free standing stone structures used as breakwaters and emergency berths) and laboriously unloaded by floating cranes and, eventually, shovels.

Cargo hold melt Yeoman Bontrup fired 3

Then they found that the heat of the fire had fused the polycarbonate non-stick linings of the cargo hold with the crushed stone (left above), forming a completely new material that had also, in some places, bonded with the steel of the hull. It took something like four months just to chip all of this away.

By this time it was winter, with rain and snowfalls adding weight to the fragile ship, lacking both power and systems to clear herself. She had to be made completely watertight, with all possible openings to weather sealed.

At Ijmuiden, a variety of ship yards were invited to visit and, in up to two days each, make a physical inspection of the heavily damaged ship in order to tender for its repair.

The Remontowa yard in Gdansk, whose steel work is known to be good, won the contract, not because it was the cheapest bid but because they undertook to do the job in 8 months – time is money and the company needed the Bontrup back in business.

On tow to Gdansk,. flying bridge saved and aboard

Flying bridgeThen came the tow to Gdansk, behind a giant towing barge. (The red light in the stern of the barge above is actually Simon Turk’s laser pointer as he showed where the tow was to be attached to the barge. This is one of two ‘photographs’ here – the other is the stern fire shot – that are obviously our rephotographing of slides shown at the talks on Thursday – so the quality is poor but the evidence is discernible, which is the point.

Under tow, Bontrup’s flying bridge is visible – the accommodation tower block below this had been destroyed but the bridge atop it proved salvageable – and as she is today,  no one would guess the inferno that bridge section had cone through.

Yeoman Bontrup  - the biggest barrow

At Gdansk she was first stripped out, becoming what was disrespectfully called ‘the biggest barrow in the world’. This dawn shot of her in ‘barrow’ mode, captures emptiness beyond the literal – but the relative cleanness of the shape, even then, promises a new beginning.

And now

New boom, vertical lift and accommodation block,salvaged flying bridge

Vertical lift discharge to boomVisiting her on Thursday, she seemed to bear no trace of that hell, physically or psychically. Her skipper then and now is currently putting her through system and sea trials and is reporting pretty impeccable results.

Her rebuilding has given her a literal lease of life, another 20 years, due to the technological improvements developed during her first 20 years of service before the fire and now installed. One such is the mix of electrical and hydraulic systems powering the belt arrays and considerably safer than their former all-hydraulic operation. It was the oil leaking under heat from the hydraulics that was one of accelerants of the fire.

The rebuilt lift belt discharge system is visible today, (left) ready to empty the crushed stone onto the realigned and rebuilt discharge boom – together capable of  unloading the ship at up to 6,000 tonnes an hour.

New warps

You can see some evidence of her newness in the spanking blue warps on a winch. They have yet seen little action.

swimming pool

She has a ‘swimming pool’ – she always did and has again. It’s not much use on the Baltic runs but its deep enough to give a number of standing crew members a cooling off in hotter climes.

Flying Bridge to deck

Looking down on the poop deck from the flying bridge above the ‘swimming pool’ gives a sense of the height of the ship. From stem to the tip of her radar tower she is something like 55 metres tall – If she was sitting on the jetty she would pretty much reach to the 60 metre level of the quarry where Yeoman Glensanda had erected the marquee for Thursday’s event.

Cargo gates

And looking into one of her cargo holds – the winds on Wednesday evening brought a halt to loading so the partial load allows the new polycarbonate non-stick tiles on the sides of the hold to be visible – and the gates at the bottom used to govern the self-discharging process that starts with the stem to stern conveyor belt below them.

Spare anchor

She carries a spare anchor below her foredeck – and its sheer scale is awesome – particularly since, like today’s spare wheels, it will be less substantial than one of the main anchors it is designed to stand in for in an emergency.

Anchor chain

Her anchor chain too, gives some sense of what it takes to hold her.

Engine room

The engine room, below aft, is even more impressive when yon realise that there is three times as much of the visible engines below the deck here.

Ready for keel hauling

Oh – and we discovered that there appears to be a unique form of punishment aboard for recalcitrant crew members. Keel hauling isn’t the thing these days but enforced outdoor lookouts seem to be the latest deterrent.

Yeoman Bontrup at Glensanda

Escaping before we got rightly identified as one of nature’s perpetual recalcitrants and made to stand this hooded watch, we leave Yeoman Bontrup with her magisterial perspective on the operations of the quarry that feeds her. That pimple in the background is Glensanda’s Maiden’s Castle above the jetty – and the Bremanger Quarry on her funnel is the other, Norwegian, quarry she services.

Note: Some statistics

  • In her 7 years and 9 months with Western Bridge Shipping, Yeoman Bontrup did 312 voyages; transported 22.54 million tonnes of cargo; and covered almost half a million miles (490,000).

In her rebuilding:

  • 1,000,000 – one million man hours were worked by shipyard and Western Bridge personnel.
  • 2,200 tonnes of steel were replaced.
  • 31.69 miles of electrical cable were required.
  • 35 tonnes of paint were used to cover 70,000 square metres of surface.
  • 60,000 crane lifts were needed, including the removal of the cargo loaded before the fire.
  • 3,800 conveyor roller idlers were replaced.
  • 0.83 miles of conveyor belting were replaced, including the vertical lift belt.
  • 5,500 square metres of polycarbonate hold lining was replaced.

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