Convoy Escorts Floating Gas Plant On Dangerous 3,000-Mile Journey

April 2014, Vol. 241 No. 4

Sarah Yuen, Freelance Journalist

When OLT Offshore LNG Toscana had to move a huge LNG platform from the Middle East to Europe, they knew special preparations were needed. Drydocks World of Dubai had just finalized conversion of the carrier to a floating LNG platform.

Aware that the platform would need to be towed from Dubai to Europe through some of the most dangerous waters in the world, the owners turned to UK-based global risk management advisor Drum Cussac for help. The operation was months in the planning and required extensive preparation for an armed security operation which went beyond just putting guards on the vessel.

The task was huge, both in the size of the vessel and the length of the journey – nearly 3,000 nautical miles. The timing of the journey virtually guaranteed bad weather; the crews could expect winds of more than 30 knots, and four or five meter swells. But the biggest challenge was the route. Two tugs would pull the 288-meter-long, 100,000-ton platform at an average speed of 7 knots through the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Seam some of the most dangerous waters in the world.

David Pickard, Drum Cussac’s COO, said: “The owners were very nervous about the route as more than 1,600 nautical miles were in the designated high-risk area. We’ve been conducting large-scale offshore projects requiring considerable planning, risk assessments, project management and detailed security plans for more than five years, and have handled many of these types of escort tasks.”

The flag state regulations of the LNG platform and the two designated tug vessels prohibited the carrying of firearms on board by private security operators. So, after discussing every possible eventuality that might befall the vessel during transit, Drum Cussac chartered two escort vessels, the Canopus and the Karin, from GAC Marine in Dubai, which could carry armed guards, to protect the other three.

Drum Cussac Security Project Manager Paul Hodges was assigned to deliver the approved security plan for the voyage.

“We went to the United Arab Emirates several times to do a full health, safety, security, environment (HSSE) and vulnerability assessment, and to identify hardening measures to further protect the vessel from the risk of opportune attacks by pirates while en route. The same in-depth assessment was extended to the two tug vessels which would be equally vulnerable to any pirate attack,” he said.
Armed guards protected the vessel during its journey.
“GAC Marine had a facility in Abu Dhabi expert in facilitating the hardening modifications required on the tugs. The modifications to the LNG platform were carried out at Drydocks World, which has refitted and repaired more than 6,000 vessels and has the Middle East’s largest floating crane.”

When advising on the hardening of any vessel, Drum Cussac’s priority is to comply with BMP4, which lists the best management practices for protection against Somali-based piracy, but not to recommend fortifications that would contravene SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) regulations, and inhibit the crew going about their daily duties.

In some cases, protection measures can interfere with a crew having to abandon ship for any reason. Therefore, Drum Cussac took great care not to restrict access to lifeboats or other life-saving appliances, or make walkways and stairwells impassable, in its recommendations.

“It is a delicate balance to protect against piracy and not endanger the crew, but it is one in which Drum Cussac has extensive experience,” Hodges said.

Security grates, razor wire, temporary removal of stairways and blastproofing of windows were among the security measures Drum Cussac could recommend and some of these were implemented.

“The platform had some highly vulnerable areas, especially at the stern, but essential precautions were put in place before she put to sea,” Hodges said.

During pre-sailing certification Drum Cussac met with the flag-state authorities to ensure all the planned hardening measures complied with national regulations. Sixteen Drum Cussac security consultants were selected to protect the convoy. Mission-specific training in the UK was reinforced upon their arrival in Dubai at briefings chaired by the contractor’s towmaster and the captains and chief officers of the engaged support vessels.

Once en route, with the two armed support vessels taking up guard positions at the front and the rear of the convoy, crew training continued, with more crisis management scenarios and anti-piracy drills practiced, in accordance with Drum Cussac’s standard operating procedure. By then the convoy was entering the high-risk area.

“From that moment on, the Drum Cussac security teams were on 24-hour watch. The sheer lumbering nature of towing a huge floating gas platform with just two 75-meter tugs meant we could never drop our guard. We had extra bridge lookouts in place all the way through the most vulnerable areas,” Hodges said.
Security grates, razor wire, temporary removal of stairways and blastproofing of windows were among some of the security measures taken.
The floating platform, two tugs and two support vessels with the armed guards on board moved at a slow but steady 6-8 knots across the high-risk area for 12 worrying days for the owner. Drum Crussac was confident it had mitigated all risks.

“At night, all non-essential external lights were extinguished, however, even this was a massive challenge, taking 24 hours to disable them all, some of which had not been turned off for four years,” Hodges said.

In close cooperation with the captains and their senior officers, Drum Cussac had instituted strict and extensive lockdown procedures in the event of an attack. This included the use of passwords for secure communication between the crews. Everything was practiced, analysed and re-practiced in planned and spontaneous drills and crew debriefings.

Each craft had a citadel with food and water, a satellite phone, VHF radio and a medical kit that would serve the crews’ needs for at least 72 hours in the event the platform or tugs were taken over by pirates. Drills showed that all of the crew, even those on the platform, could reach the protection of the citadel within two minutes.

While no firearms were carried by security consultants on the engine-less platform, non-lethal escalation of force procedures were practiced and ready to implement. These included audio and visual deterrents, among them dummy weapon profiles that could be displayed to prospective attackers to deter an attempted boarding.

Back-up support was provided by an operations management team at Drum Cussac’s 24-hour Response Center in Poole, UK, which tracked the transit’s every move, and provided up-to-the-minute intelligence reports to the vessels. Despite the convoy’s inherent vulnerability, no attacks were attempted on the vessels.

Fifteen days after setting out from Dubai the lumbering convoy left the high-risk area en route for Suez, where the two tugs with the platform in tow arrived five days later. Drum Cussac’s escort vessels peeled away two days out of Suez, stopping short of Egyptian territorial waters, and retraced their route back to Dubai with Drum Cussac security experts still on board for protection throughout the return journey.

The OLT Offshore LNG Toscana’s platform is now in full commercial operation off Italy.