The age of the worldwide fleet of long-distance towing and salvage vessels, and the growing complexity, scale and value of projects, means that investment in new units may be necessary
According to data provided by Clarksons Research, as of 1 June 2017, the ocean-going tug fleet consisted of 234 vessels. The larger portion of the fleet is controlled by state players, as typified by China Rescue and Salvage (which owns 49 ocean-going tugs), the agency responsible for reaction to casualties and incidents along the length of the Chinese coast.
Commercial towing and salvage players tend to maintain smaller fleets, across a more diverse range of assets, including ocean-going tugs, but also conventional offshore support vessels, cranes and barges for wreck removal or lightering activities. They also often charter in additional tonnage, where necessary, including units from the wider offshore construction sectors. Governmental maritime safety operators, notably in Europe, sometimes also contract out their coastal safety standby operations to third party operators.
Although these government operations are a key part of the safety of the maritime industry, plenty of incidents occur outside territorial waters, or need specific technical skills or operational scale. Here, the commercial salvage operators can be a crucial part of the rapid response to a casualty, which is often needed to give the best chance of avoiding pollution or a total loss.
According to the International Salvage Union, the number of ‘dry’ salvages (salvage operations of vessels in distress, as opposed to wreck removal, also known as ‘wet’ salvage work) rose in 2016. A total of 306 such salvage operations were recorded, which represents a sizeable increase of 44% year-on-year to the largest figure since at least 1999.
Clarksons Research says it could be argued that is something of an upward trend developing in dry salvage activity over the last half decade, given that 2014 was also a relatively active year. To some extent, this might well be expected: the fleet has grown substantially over the last decade. It remains to be seen if the next few years confirm this suggestion of a trend, or if the uptick in 2016 was merely an outlier.
2016 was also a historically active year for wreck removals, with 131 projects recorded, which is the highest figure for a long time bar the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
However, average revenue from salvage operations fell to US$1.3Mn, down by 79% on 2015. Clearly, the higher volume of work is a positive for the salvage industry, but the average levels of revenue are down after being buoyed by a couple of very large removal projects (principally the Costa Concordia and Rena salvage cases).
The commercial salvage industry is relatively diverse, with a number of smaller, regional outfits, but there are also some players which have relatively larger reach. In terms of open Lloyd’s Open Form cases as of mid-2017, the most commonly employed companies are Tsavliris, Smit Salvage, Five Oceans Salvage, Svitzer and T&T Salvage.
Clarksons Research notes that the average age of the ocean-going tug fleet is quite (27.1 years) and is an issue that might need tackling. Of course, there is plentiful supply of large anchor-handling tug/supply (AHTS) vessels in the market which could potentially be chartered into the salvage market if needed, or even acquired. On the other hand, said Clarkson Research, some requirement may exist for specialised vessels equipped to handle the new generation of the largest vessels. There have also been conspicuous examples of investment in anchor-handling and salvage tugs, not least by companies such as ALP Maritime. The last 12-18 months have also seen a number of particularly impressive and record-breaking long-distance towage operations by established vessel owners such as Singapore-based POSH.
After the successful towage and positioning of the INPEX Ichthys central processing facilities in Q2 FY17, the POSH Terasea joint undertook the towage and positioning of the Ichthys floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) unit and the Shell Prelude floating liquefied natural gas (FLNG) platform, along with work on the Egina FPSO unit, which was scheduled for Q4 FY17.
POSH evidently expects that the liquefied natural gas market will provide operators like it with more work in the future, and says it is witnessing “a changing energy landscape” with gas as the fuel of choice to power global economies in the future. As it noted recently, massive offshore gas fields have been found offshore Canada, Australia, Mozambique and Israel, projects that will make use of FLNG solutions that could generate more long distance towage work in due course.
It cites the example of Petronas’ Satu FLNG project, which offloaded its first cargo of LNG in April 2017. POSH Terasea was responsible for towing the Satu FLNG unit to the Kanowit Field offshore Bintulu, using two ocean-going tugs of in excess of 400 tonnes bollard pull to position the massive vessel at offshore location. With a length of 365 m and breadth of 60 m, with a storage capacity of 177,000 m3 and a production capacity of 1.2 million tonnes per annum of LNG, the project was a particularly important one for POSH and its joint venture. Shell’s Prelude unit is also now in place offshore northeast Australia, having been towed from Geoje Shipyard in South Korea by three ocean-going tugs operated by POSH. Prior to project, Shell and POSH used simulators operated by HR Wallingford to plan and practice the complex towage operation.
As highlighted above, among those to have invested heavily in newbuild anchor-handling and salvage units capable of long distance towing is ALP Maritime, whose 305 tonne bollard pull newbuilds have already been put to good use on a number of projects.
One of these high spec units, ALP Defender, recently completed the tow of the Randgrid floating storage unit (FSO) from Singapore to Stavanger, Norway, having been delivered as recently as 30 June 2017. Days after being delivered, ALP Defender departed for South Korea to be outfitted and spool towing wires on board. There was some time pressure, as the vessel had been chartered to Teekay to tow the Randgrid FSO on its mobilization voyage from Singapore to the Gina Krog oil field in the North Sea as soon as the new ship was ready. The 12,500 nautical mile tow commenced in July 2017, departing from Singapore with a route around Cape of Good Hope. Bollard pull and speed calculations made for the project showed that the voyage would take 58 days. On 26 August the convoy entered the English Channel for a rendezvous with steering tug Multratug 3, which connected to the stern of the FSO to guide it. The convoy arrived in Stavanger on 30 August, three days ahead of schedule, having maintained an average towing speed of in excess of 10 knots.
The company notes that, in a market where the objects that are being towed are getting larger and larger and the potential environmental and financial exposure associated with them is growing, the need for more powerful, more sophisticated long-distance towage units is increasing, hence its investment in the 305 tonne bollard pull, dynamic positioning class 2 (DP2) towing vessels. In keeping with the growing demands on long-distance towage and salvage operators, the DP2, ice-class 1B vessels have a high level of redundancy, significant anchor and chain handling capacity – thus eliminating the need for additional vessels during mooring operations – excellent fuel economy and particularly large bunkering capacity, reducing and in some cases eliminating fuel stops during long-distance projects.
As an example of just such a long distance tow that did not require bunkering stops it cites the example of Bumi Armada’s Kraken FPSO project, a milestone project for ALP Maritime that saw the company contracted to project manage, tow and install the Kraken FPSO, towing the massive unit from Singapore to the Kraken field in the North Sea over a distance of approximately 8,800 nautical miles.