Feature: Staying the Course

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Torch Offshore LLC is a Gretna, La-based integrated offshore contractor whose niche market is the installation of small diameter flow lines and related infrastructure on the Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). In 2002, the company had revenues of $68 million, laying 227 miles of pipe.

Torch Offshore operates a fleet of nine vessels that lay the pipe and/or support this activity. The company is in the process of converting two large vessels that will give the company the ability to compete in the deepwater segment pf the market. "The company's strategy for the future is highly focused on the deepwater arenas of the world," said Lyle G. Stockstill, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Torch Offshore.

Stockstill estimates the deepwater market for his two vessels over the next five years should approximate $15 billion. "We believe both the Midnight Express and the Midnight Wrangler will allow us to establish ourselves in the deepwater niche, as we have done in the shallow water market by providing efficient solutions to our customers," Stockstill added.

The deepwater niche that Stockstill is aiming for is in the GOM, West Africa and Brazil. Sixty-six deepwater fields were brought on stream from 1998 to 2002. An identified 148 additional deepwater fields are expected to come on line in 2003 to 2007 and Stockstill believes that both the Midnight Express and the Midnight Wrangler will position Torch Offshore to become major players in the development of these oil and gas fields.

The Midnight Express is a 520-ft. long by 100-ft. wide vessel that was formerly a LASH (Lighter Aboard Ship) barge transporter named the Smit Express. Torch Offshore purchased this vessel for $9.75 million in January 2002.

The vessel was sent to Davie Maritime Inc., Quebec for a $37 million conversion. In Canada, Davie will install Torch Offshore's patent pending pipelay system, a DP-2 system, a 2,500 sq. m. weather deck, a 12 MW diesel electric generating plant, stern azimuthing Z-drives and bow thrusters, a 300 Te pedestal crane, a 2 X 20 Te gantry crane, two abandonment and recovery winches with capabilities to 7,000 ft., a helideck for an S-61and accommodations for 132 people and five offices.

"Currently, the vessel is dry docked at Davie Maritime and work is moving forward with third party suppliers of various aspects of construction," Stockstill said. Closing of the $60 million financing with Regions Bank and Export Development Canada is expected soon. Delivery of the completed vessel is expected in the first quarter of 2004.

Much closer to completion is the Midnight Wrangler, a 341- by 64-ft. vessel that formerly was the Wave Alert, a cable-laying vessel built in Norway in 1982 and owned by UK-based Global Marine Systems. Global Marine delivered the vessel to Torch Offshore minus the cable laying equipment and her DP-2 system restored. A DP-2 system had been previously installed on the vessel but Global Marine did not need that capability and the ABS certification on the system had been allowed to expire.

The vessel was sent to the Bollinger Gulf Marine Shipyard in New Orleans for drydocking and conversion. Most of the work to be done on the vessel involves the installation of two separate pipe laying systems plus the addition of two cranes. The open rear main deck has 13,305 sq. ft. of space and another 2,535 sq. ft. on the elevated deck forward of the main deck.

A 62-ft. diameter helideck is forward with capability of landing a Bell 212, Super Puma or equivalent helicopter.

The Midnight Wrangler will be able to install 4-in. and 6-in. pipe, 4-in. coiled tubing, and umbilicals, all mounted on up to four reels. The drive towers track the deck on a beam structure between independent product reels. By have four reels product lay lengths can be lengthened and/or provide for multiple product loadouts on a single installation mobilization.

The pipe, coiled tubing or other product is spooled off of the reels and is pulled up to the lay tower where the pipe is straightened and proceeds downward perpendicular to the water's surface. The pipe passes through a tensioner to ensure proper metering out of the pipe. As the pipe nears the bottom of the seabed its natural elasticity allows it to bend again parallel to the sea floor onto which it is laid. This is called a "J-Lay", the preferred method for laying pipe in deepwater.

The vessel also has a "S-lay" system where multiple welding stations located at 40-ft. intervals (the length of each section of pipe) weld the pipe into a continuous length. The "S" describes the curve in the pipe maintained by the positioning system and the tensioners onboard the vessel. The S-lay system is preferred for shallow and intermediate water depths.

As pipe from an S-lay system enters the water it passes over a "stinger" a structural member extending from the stern to maintain the minimum bending radius of the pipe.

Also to be added to the Midnight Wrangler is an ROV, used for many missions on this vessel including confirmation of pipeline lay locations. "We may also add a second ROV to this vessel," said Jack Bullock, senior engineer of the company who, along with Daniel Babin, port manager of Torch Offshore, has been heading up the conversion project.

"We are also adding a 12-person accommodations module to the raised portion of the main deck," Bullock added. "The vessel can now hold 96 persons in single, double, triple and quad quarters," Bullock remarked.

One of the main reasons for purchasing of this vessel was the excellent condition of the propulsion and electrical generation systems that Torch Offshore will use with practically no modification.

The vessel uses a pair of Wartsila 8R32 diesel engines that each drives a controllable pitch propeller. Each engine is also fitted with a Siemens 1,336 kW shaft generator. A Wartsila 6R32 diesel engine drives a 1,904 kW generator and a MAK 9M20 engines powers a 1,400 kW generator.

To fully meet her DP-2 certification, the Midnight Wrangler features three Brunvoll tunnel bow thrusters rated at 597 kW each and three aft tunnel thrusters also by Brunvoll rated at 522 kW each. Through the years, the vessel has added capabilities that although are not a part of its main mission as a pipelayer, may be useful in specific situations.

For example, the vessel can operate in a supply boat mode with below deck tanks for fuel oil and possibly other liquids as well.

"The vessel is equipped with high speed unloading pumps," Bullock said. "We may hardly ever use them, but if a specific customer situation arises, we might be glad we have that capability," Bullock noted. The Midnight Wrangler came off dry dock at Bollinger in later April 2003. Installation of the crane bases were done during this period and the installation of the two pipe laying systems, the ROV, the two cranes and other work are proceeding at Bollinger as well.

The vessel is scheduled to be complete by the end of May 2003.

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