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'Ship-to-ship transfers are very safe'

PUBLISHED: 15:22 18 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:37 06 July 2010

The tankers anchored off the Suffolk coast between Lowestoft and Southwold have been making the headlines in The Journal over recent months.

Conservationists and tourism bosses have expressed their concerns about the damage any accident or spillage would cause to Suffolk's world-famous Heritage Coast.

The tankers anchored off the Suffolk coast between Lowestoft and Southwold have been making the headlines in The Journal over recent months.

Conservationists and tourism bosses have expressed their concerns about the damage any accident or spillage would cause to Suffolk's world-famous Heritage Coast.

Here pilot and mooring master MICHAEL RIGG, gives and industry insider's view.

I work as a pilot/mooring master, and specialise in Ship-to-Ship transfer operations.

The company I work for is a major STS (Ship to Ship) operator and provides a full service for charterers/owners who wish to do oil transfers at sea.

This mainly includes supplying fenders, hoses and an experienced pilot/mooring master.

My job takes me all over the world but over the past nine months or so I have done many operations off Lowestoft.

I had heard that there is some local opposition to these transfers taking place and even to the tankers just being anchored where they are.

While home recently I had a look on the internet and found a number of articles relating to the tankers off the coast here.

A lot of what I read was incorrect and some just plain hype and mis-information.

For instance one person wrote that he had seen a tug anchored off the coast and from that he concluded that some of the tankers were dragging their anchors and about to be washed ashore. Tugs are normally used to take out fenders and hoses for STS operations as well as stores and personnel and they occasionally anchor offshore rather than returning to Lowestoft.

I would like to briefly recount what actually happens during an STS operation.

Firstly, the vessels which are anchored off the coast are oil tankers (not dredgers or gas tankers as some people claim).

They vary in size from relatively small 50,000 tonne deadweight vessels to VLCC's (Very Large Crude Carriers) which have a deadweight of about 300,000 tonnes.

Many of them are being used as floating storage, the owners of the oil being speculative oil traders and waiting for oil prices to increase. Some are there to do STS transfers, and it seems this is what is causing the most concern.

Ship-to-ship transfer operations are a very safe way of transferring oil between ships.

It can be argued it is far safer than bringing a ship in to port, where it has to negotiate shallower waters during the port approach followed by manouvering in close proximity to shore structures in order to berth, and then repeat the whole process when departing.

During a typical STS operation, the larger vessel steams on a steady course and speed, usually about 5 knots (a fast walking speed). The smaller vessel then approaches on her starboard side, matches the speed and then gradually closes the distance between them until they are alongside, at which time the mooring operation commences and the vessels tie up.

After mooring the larger vessel anchors and the hoses are connected between the vessels ready for the transfer to take place.

There are numerous safety checks prior to and during the operation and the coastguard are also kept informed.

Collisions have occasionally occurred during STS operations but any damage done tends to be fairly superficial as the vessels are both travelling at roughly the same speed and same direction.

I have not heard of a collision during an STS operation which has caused a rupture of a cargo tank and cannot conceive of this happening, especially these days where all tankers are now double hulled.

I hope this brief account puts people's minds at rest and allays some of the unfounded fears they might have had.


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