HSEQ and compliance specialist Alasdair Adamson explains how to ensure ship-to-ship operations run smoothly and efficiently
A ship-to-ship (STS) transfer of cargo, fuel or personnel should be a comparatively safe and effective operation. But that is very much dependent on everyone involved, from the master to the welders and fitters doing their job with diligence and care.
There is no point in towing a string of fenders offshore for an hour and a half only to find the safety locking pins on the shackles have come off and the fenders are in danger of drifting away.
STS operations are becoming a routine procedure and it is important that complacency does not creep in. The organisation that goes into making a successful STS operation starts at the very beginning, with the development of safe, reliable procedures which everyone must adhere to. These procedures should begin at the nominations stage and go all the way through until the hoses have finally transferred, mooring is affected, last minute pre-departure checks are undertaken, and the operation can be written down as a success.
Decision making must be clear and unambiguous, particularly when different nationalities are working on the same job, as a lack of clarity can result in catastrophe.
At every stage of the operation, there are decision-making points that can be taken to ensure a ‘go’ or ‘no go’.
The operational control of an STS operation is co-ordinated by a triumvirate of experienced personnel: the person in overall advisory control (POAC) and the two masters. This is the central decision-making fulcrum upon which all else pivots. If any one of these three says no – be that because of weather, moorings, or a potentially marginal situation – then the operation can be stopped.
There are some things which, on paper, would appear to be satisfactory, but during an operation the unexpected can occur, meaning concise, clear contingencies and emergency procedures must be in place and understood by all.
It only takes one piece of equipment to fail to bring the best laid plans to a grinding halt. With that in mind, it is extremely important that vessel officers are diligent in their inspections of third-party equipment, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Standards are far higher on vessels owned and operated by large enterprises such as oil majors. Their staff will go through every checklist and verify each detail against their own inhouse procedures. On the other side of the coin, in West Africa for example, where I have extensive experience, the approach is somewhat less robust.
“The life of the hose is affected by various factors, not simply age”
In terms of the specifics, it is important to understand and check the certification of the equipment being used; for fenders that means checking the safety valve pressure tests against the manufacturer’s guidance. But elsewhere the guidelines can be less clear; for example, a transfer hose needs to be withdrawn after four years of use in the US, but that same hose can still be used in other parts of the world. While the US legislation is designed to mitigate incidents by keeping the operating life of the hose to a minimum, the reality is that the life of a hose is affected by various factors, not simply age: throughput – the amount of cubic metres that have gone through the hose is a key factor in the integrity of a hose, as is the compatibility of the liquids that have passed through it. You must also consider maintenance, pressure testing, storage – the list extends far beyond years of use.
If you can prove, via documented evidence, that you know exactly how your hoses have been used, then there is a very good case for extending that hose’s life out to five or six years, based on this evidence. But you do need the documentation; in the absence of objective evidence, it is very difficult to prove a full and complete knowledge of how the equipment has been used over time.
Returning to the subject of West Africa, this is a fascinating region in terms of how commercial pressures have raised the operational bar in terms of STS safety. When I was involved in the region a few years ago, one of the first things we did was move our whole base of operations to Togo, including all our maintenance facilities, which was previously located in Lagos. Togo offered a far easier operating environment and access to and from the vessels was much easier.
The refining capacity in West Africa is not great; there is a lot of oil, but very little refining. As such, the vast majority of fuel has to enter via an STS operation. We saw a higher standard of mother ships coming down from Europe and other parts of the world, which influenced the local operations there. Standards crept up and more questions were asked of local safety procedures. The alternative was aborted operations and with more commercial pressure at play, this became intolerable.
Elsewhere, we have seen other guidelines that, despite being well intentioned, have not had the impact they were designed to achieve. Marpol chapter 8 2012 for instance was, to my mind, unnecessary because if you have responsible shipowners and responsible third parties involved in STS service provision, then everyone is very aware of the safety requirements, regardless of the guidelines. Environmental damage is something that as an industry we have to be very careful about, but no amount of legislation will deter the occasional rogue operator.
As a master, my contract is such that I would not hesitate to stop operations, abort an approach, or wave off a ship that I thought would put my vessel, my people, or the environment at risk. Even alongside and during transfer, as master you retain the absolute authority to make whatever decision you feel is necessary.
Mr Adamson was discussing the subject during a Riviera Maritime Media webinar, titled: STS operations: know your legal and operational responsibilities, held August 2020