Cost-cutting pressures on charterers are making crewboats a more attractive option for offshore oil and gas companies
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the low oil-price environment, oil companies are slashing their upstream spending by 25% or more, focusing on cost-savings anywhere they can find them. Amid the belt-tightening, oil companies are considering switching from offshore helicopters to crewboats, according to leading shipbuilders and naval architects.
“With low oil prices, cutting costs is the order of the day among oil companies,” states Penguin International managing director James Tham. “When it comes to offshore crew change, this means ditching choppers in favour of crewboats.”
Penguin has a strong presence in Southeast Asia and West Africa. More than half of the 70 crewboats in Singapore-based MEO’s fleet, for example, were built by Penguin. In March, MEO added the fast intervention vessel Pelican Calm; based on Penguin’s Flex 42X-series crewboat design, Pelican Calm can reach speeds in excess of 30 knots, accommodate 80, with clear deck space of 110 m2 and deck cargo capacity of 60 tonnes. Such cargo capacity is a distinct advantage for crewboats.
“Think about it,” says Mr Tham, “what you pay for an hour on a chopper [helicopter] – which typically carries no more than a dozen passengers – gets you a 70- to 80-passenger crewboat for a day or more. And you can’t carry any meaningful cargo on a chopper, versus 50 to 60 tonnes of cargo that can be transported on a crewboat’s cargo deck.” Charter rates for a mid-size helicopter for 12 passengers can be close to US$5,000 per hour.
“When it comes to offshore crew change, this means ditching choppers in favour of crewboats”
Aircat Vessels managing director Jerome Arnold agrees with Mr Tham. “The recent oil crisis forced the IOCs to think differently and challenge their habits,” says Mr Arnold. “As such, they reduced the use of helicopters to the strict minimum and intensified the use of crewboats to such an extent that supply and demand have been reversed and the day rates even increased.”
Mr Arnold sees the Covid-19 crisis and current low-price oil environment accelerating the shift away from helicopters to crewboats. “Further cost reductions and postponement of exploration and production activities is inevitable,” he adds, “but nevertheless, they will strive to maintain their production.”
Mr Arnold also notes that the prolonged downturn in the offshore oil and gas market has squeezed vessel owners, forcing them to fight to ensure survival.
“Many have failed along the way, but the consequence is more or less the same: maintenance was often neglected, no investments were allocated for newbuilds, and there has been an overall erosion of the fleet,” he says. “Old vessels are being pushed beyond their limits without being repaired or replaced and more and more units are being placed off-hire due to regular breakdowns.”
The lack of maintenance and aging technology, Mr Arnold says, means adding newbuilds is a necessity.
While IOCs have begun to think differently about crewboats, so, too, has Aircat Vessels. In an effort to improve speed, comfort, autonomy and safety, the French naval architectural firm settled on designing its vessels based on surface effect ship (SES) technology.
Aircat has partnered with Norwegian design firm ESNA, an advanced naval architect with vast SES experience which has developed the simplest, more robust and reliable air-cushion system in the market, according to Mr Arnold.
He says a frustration that came out of the Covid-19 pandemic was that he was not able to physically attend the tank tests for the new model, due to travel restrictions and quarantine measures: “We had to settle for watching a webcam.”
While disappointed in remotely observing the tank test, Mr Arnold’s enthusiasm for the SES design remains unwavering. He sees the Aircat vessel design as “a disruptive solution to the legacy designs, with a technology that is adding unrivalled performance in terms of speed, safety, comfort and fuel consumption.”
One of the series of 35-m SES crewboat designs is the Aircat 35 Crewliner, with a top speed of 53 knots, business class seating for 80 and cargo deck area of 89 m2.
Mr Arnold says: “Human nature is usually reluctant to change, and we expected our paths to meet some challenges, but our designs are now actively promoted by first-class IOCs.”
To crewboats from helicopters
Admittedly, Mr Tham says, helicopters do have the advantage of speed over crewboats. “But in a lousy market like this, what’s the rush?” he says. Older crewboat technology can make the transition from choppers to crewboats difficult. “Especially when many of the crewboats out there are hot, dim, cramped and foul smelling (think sea sickness),” he says.
He describes Penguin’s Flex-42X – one of which, Alkahfi Chief, won the OSJ Support Vessel of the Year Award – as its ‘change management solution’.
Several new designs have come off the drawing board over the last few months, advancing Penguin’s research in the areas of hybrid-electric propulsion; these include the world’s first live-aboard service accommodation and transfer vessel (SATV) for the Taiwanese offshore wind market and a Covid-19 emergency medivac vessel for Southeast Asia.
Dubbed the ‘Fast Multi-Role Rescue Vessel’ (FMRV) and based on its Flex-40SC crewboat platform, the vessel is capable of safely evacuating 30 suspected Covid-19 patients accompanied by five or six medical personnel. To keep the crew safe from possible infection, the bridge and crew accommodation areas (green zones) are physically separated from the casualty area (red zones), with separate access points and HVAC systems.
Besides designing and building crewboats, Penguin also owns and operates vessels. Mr Tham says demand for its vessels remains strong. “All of Penguin’s crewboats under its Pelican subsidiary are on charter, and the company plans to deploy another 12 to 14 more new crewboats around the world in the next 12 months,” he says.
“Helicopters have the advantage of speed, but in a lousy market like this, what’s the rush?”
Penguin’s partner in developing Ventus Formosa, the SATV for the Taiwanese offshore wind market, was UK-based designer BMT. The naval architect’s US division president Kai Skvarla says 2020 started off as a strong year, with investment in new vessels to underpin efforts in US offshore wind and fleet recapitalisation programmes. “Since the impact of Covid-19 became widespread, we have seen the urgency of new projects dissipate while companies focus on more immediate concerns,” says Mr Skvarla.
He says that while travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines have made it a challenge to service customers and conduct field work, the firm’s engineers are well equipped to operate and collaborate remotely.
“BMT’s diversity in the maritime space has always been a key part of our ability to weather the ups and downs,” points out Mr Skvarla. “Over the past few years, we have made investments in our technology infrastructure to facilitate remote work, which has paid off enormously in this crisis.”
Active in North American tenders
Spanish naval architectural firm MP Engineering is finding favour for its vessel designs in the offshore oil and gas and renewables markets. “We have developed crew transfer and SATVs, with evaluations underway in two different tenders for North America,” says MP Engineering principal Marcelo Penna Sr.
Mr Penna says: “We have been working with several US shipyards, putting together a final offer that would put us in the game while meeting the Jones Act.” Adds Mr Penna: “This has proven to be less competitive than our European prices, but still on the targeted workframe. We do think those can be improved by slightly reworking both the engineering and the building process, but we are confident at this stage.”
MP Engineering’s main project, the 60-m MP625, was born three years ago from a previous shadow vessel for the superyacht industry which, as Mr Penna describes it, “turned out to be an ace in terms of seakeeping and comfort”.
MP Engineering decided to further develop the design as a cheaper and safer alternative for crew transfer by helicopter, aiming at several working areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, North Sea, Guyana, Brazil, West Africa, Western Australia and South East Asia.
It was also approached by Dutch walk-to-work technology provider Ampelmann regarding the development of a new CTV with a dynamic gangway.
Mr Penna explains that MP Engineering is working with a former BP executive who now runs an operating company in the Gulf of Mexico. An MP Engineering design was used to respond to a tender for Shell in January, which is still in negotiation.
According to Mr Penna, the same operator has presented MP’s 40-m MP150L SATV for a tender for new Massachusetts offshore windfarms.
Adds Mr Penna: “We are confident, following the interest shown in the past months, that our model is a disruptive vessel with superior seakeeping and comfort capacities compared with the current monohulls and catamarans in the market.” He cites results from tank and CFD tests that indicate MP’s design could operate in 99% of the weather conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.
MP Engineering is building partnerships with operators and builders in several regions, especially the UK, Northern Europe and Southeast Asia. One Malaysian operator has presented an MP Engineering vessel to Malaysia state-owned oil company Petronas.
No disruptions on newbuilds
With a broad portfolio of vessel designs that cuts across offshore oil and gas and offshore renewables, Australia-based naval architect Incat Crowther has seen varying degrees of disruption among its customer base.
However, technical manager Dan Mace says: “The 82 Incat Crowther design vessels under construction have not been subject to any prolonged shipyard closures, and no significant supply chain issues have been reported.”
Among its designs for offshore energy projects are the 39-m catamaran-hull CTVs MHO Gurli and MHO Esberg, some of the largest of their type in operation, the 25-m crewboat PSA Summit, used for transferring personnel and cargo to a floating storage and regasification unit and two 57-m fast support CrewZer class vessels, Seacor Puma and Seacor Panther.
Mr Mace says vessel operators are taking the available time to work on planning and design work for new projects to enable construction contracts to be put in place and building started once certainty returns to the market.
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