Safety: Onboard & Living Large

Friday, February 21, 2003

No one ever said that working on the inland rivers or in the Gulf of Mexico on a vessel was a picnic. It is axiomatic that the hours are long, the work physically demanding and the workplace environment potentially dangerous. That is why newer deliveries emphasize crew habitability. Vessel owners and operators know that well-rested and well-fed crews are safer crews and safety cannot be over emphasized in this severe setting. That is why there has been a significant upgrading in crew accommodations, galleys and entertainment and communications options. The three workboats profiled below offer proof positive that today's "crew friendly" boats are safer and more enjoyable places to work.

The Modern Crew/Supply Vessel

No vessel type has more personnel on board than a crew boat. In addition to a five to six man crew, these speedy, all-aluminum vessels carry from 65 to 100 offshore employees at speeds from 25 to 35 knots using four or five high power diesel engines coupled to either propellers or water jets. Habitability is a key concern in the design of these vessels.

With more rigs operating in deep water, farther from shore, trips to and from these structures take longer, even at the high speeds these vessels attain.

The newest crew/supply boats have food service and communications capability for passengers. For example the Granville C. McCall, delivered in May of 2002 by Gulf Craft, Inc, Patterson, La., for Seacor Marine, Houston, Texas has ice cream, soft drink and candy vending machines as well as the typical coffee service. Other vessels built by Gulf Craft for Seacor have email and fax capability so the passengers and the crew can have quick and easy contact with home or office.

The most significant upgrade in crew/supply boat passenger comfort has come from higher quality seats in the passenger cabin. "Passenger seats are much more comfortable than those of just a few years ago," said Scott Tibbs II, comptroller of Gulf Craft. "The seats have foot rests, can recline, have headphones for music and TV include drop down tables," Tibbs added.

The crew has not been left out of the new people-friendly crew boat design. Typically the staterooms have no more than two occupants and in some designs the captain's stateroom and head is located in an area on the same deck level as the pilothouse. Air conditioning in the main deck house and crew spaces in the hull is now standard. A clothes washer and dryer are included in most crew/supply boats. The galley area of a modern crew boat is typically larger than in the past and is better equipped. Most galleys have a combination lounge/messing area with TV/VCR and stereo equipment.

Modern navigation and communications systems plus automated delivery of rig liquids and dry bulk has reduced the workload of the entire crew and made for safer operation of the whole vessel.

With 4-5 diesel engines in a modern crew/supply boat the reduction of the noise and vibration from these engines is of prime concern. "We certainly insulate the engine compartment and isolate engine vibration, but we also put as much distance as possible between the engine compartment aft and the crew quarters forward," Tibbs added. With longer boats, now up to 195 feet with Gulf Craft, additional distance is being put between the crew stateroom and the major noise and vibration sources.

Towboat Habitability

Towboats, especially line haul vessels, often operate weeks at a time without touching a port. Keeping crews well rested and well fed in this environment is challenging. "Our crews feel as if their accommodations on our towboats are their home," said Mike Lindgren, VP of Operations for Riverway, Inc., a Minnesota-based firm that owns seven towboats and over 500 barges mostly shipping grain and other bulk commodities down the Mississippi River.

"To us habitability is not only a safety issue, it is a matter of retention of our long term employees," Lindgren added. "It just makes good sense to take care of our crews," Lindgren added In 2001, Riverway placed into service the Bootsie B., a 8,000 hp line haul towboat, that has been in constant service since delivered, mostly pushing up to 40 loaded barges per tow from St. Louis to New Orleans, and returning empties to St. Louis where they are broken in to smaller tows (because of the locks on the Upper Mississippi River) and transported northward to grain loading silos.

Bollinger Shipyards, Lockport, La. built the Bootsie B. "The vessel was designed in house with considerable input from Riverways to be very crew 'friendly'," said Robert Socha, marketing manager of Bollinger. Since most of the noise and vibration on a vessel emanates from the machinery spaces, considerable design effort went into engine room insulation and engine vibration isolation. The vessel was built with the entire deckhouse mounted on a vibration isolation system cutting noise. Each of the two propulsion engines and two generators also received noise and vibration abatement treatment that included the use of oversize exhaust mufflers. The chief engineer's station is located in a separate enclosure to centralize engine room controls and to reduce noise exposure on the engineering personnel. The entire vessel can be operated from this station.

Accommodations for the 11-12-man crew are superior. Each stateroom has two twin beds, an individually controlled fan coil unit for heating and cooling and a head. In addition there is a crew lounge with TV/VCR and stereo. The galley/mess area is large enough to hold the entire crew at a single seating and features the latest in marine cooking equipment. The Bootsie B has been operating almost continuously since mid 2001 pushing barges from St. Louis to New Orleans with stops along the way. Grain and other bulk commodities make up most of the tows. Trips back upriver are usually empty barges, although "out of 35-40 barges, we may have 5-8 full," Lindgren said.

Supply Boats

Like crew/supply boats, supply boats are sailing deeper into the Gulf, serving rigs that may be 100-150 miles from shore. These longer voyages make crew habitability very important to the owners of these vessels and the oil companies that charter them. The 240- and 260-ft. vessels recently put into service by Tidewater, Chouest and Hornbeck are crewed by 15-18 persons. Each vessel has a large galley, staterooms for the crew typically two people per room, although there are single quarters as well.

These deepwater vessels also have accommodations for workers who are operating special equipment on the vessel or are working on a rig installing special equipment or involved in repair projects. For example, Leevac Industries LLC, Jennings, La. built two 240-ft. supply boats in 2001-02 for Hornbeck Offshore Services, Mandeville, La. These two boats, named Innovator and Dominator, were contracted before they were completed to Sonsub, Inc., Houston, Texas to act as ROV support vessels.

In addition to a crew of 12-14 to operate the vessel, Sonsub had a special two level module built and installed on the deck of the vessel that contained the ROV control equipment on the first level and an office, conference room, lounge and staterooms on the second level. All accommodations are heated and cooled with restrooms and showers.

"The accommodations typically were for 7-9 persons in ROV operations, two surveyor personnel from another company contracted by Sonsub and 1-2 rooms for the clients of Sonsub helping to oversee the project," said Marco Sclocchi, vp of marketing for Sonsub. "Surveying and other aspects of ROV support missions are extremely delicate and precise, so we have to have a good home away from home for our personnel and we certainly want our onboard clients to be as comfortable as possible on these voyages," Sclocchi added.

Both the vessel crew and the Sonsub personnel used the vessel's galley. The two boats each have 14 staterooms with a total capacity of 36 persons.

Food variety and quality plus the quality of the accommodations had to be first rate since many of the missions of this vessel lasted for 30-60 days or longer. Using the ROV to dig trenches for pipelines was a typical project and at least one of these trenches was over 60 miles long.

The vessel was also set up to transport dry bulk, fuel oil, water in below deck tanks and cargo on the aft deck for missions not involving ROV work. On these missions, the ROV module would not be occupied and the boat crew would be manning the vessel.

There seems to be little doubt as the search for oil and gas ranges further out into the Gulf, the crew/supply boats and supply boats will also be traveling greater distances to serve these rigs.

Crews being farther from shore and working in the harsh environment of deepwater Gulf for longer periods of time will need the "crew friendly" accommodations now being provided to complete their work safely and in a greater degree of comfort. Towboat crews working on the inland waterways may not face the harsh conditions of the Gulf of Mexico, but the long trips and often-congested conditions on many of these waterways bring their own dangers that can compromise safety.

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