It’s been a tough market for heavy lift vessel operators – but that’s not stopping them renewing and reinventing their fleets.
The offshore installation market has been tough, especially for those with installation vessels – resource and cash intensive assets. Depending on when you start counting from, there have been “three bad years for the installation market,” Edward Heerema, founder and owner Allseas, said, “for everyone. Oil companies have been holding back investment. There is only low-cost development and there’s heavy competition. Everyone has been going after the same job, and prices are very low.”
Jack Spaan, expert heavy lift, at Boskalis Offshore Energy takes a stronger word, calling the last three years as terrible and added that, “When I count them it’s about four. It’s a difficult market and a lot of change has been going on for contractors. Looking for efficiency in operations is very important.”
For Wout Janssens, Director Operations and Engineering, at Jumbo, “The last three to four years were horrendous in our industry. Those still standing recognize what we went through.”
Whatever the words used, there’s a theme. Operators have been reorganizing their assets and organizations and seeking new markets, from a full fleet color change (to grey, for Boskalis), to the likes of Seaway Heavy Lifting, now part of Subsea 7, looking to diversification into offshore wind and decommissioning.
The cause of this pain has been the drop in the oil price in 2014 and a slowdown in offshore installation. While some confidence has been returning to the market, it’s not necessarily feeding through to fabrication work, as evidenced by the Heerema Fabrication Group’s decision to close its Zwijndrecht yard in the Netherlands, after Italian fabrication group Rosetti Marino decided against acquiring the facility.
Yet, contractors, led by the Dutch, who have been the leaders in the offshore heavy lift market for some time, continue to evolve and adapt.
The Pioneering Spirit, introduced by Allseas in 2016, and slated as the world’s largest vessel, in terms of gross tonnage (403,342gt), breadth (123.75 meters), and displacement (900,000 metric tons), has proved its capabilities, both for lifting out decommissioned facilities in one fell swoop, to installing new topsides, such as the new 22,000-metric-ton drilling topside for Equinor’s Johan Sverdrup project offshore Norway last year, as well as the 26,000-metric-ton processing platform topside and the 18,000-metric-ton living quarters for the same development this Spring.
The vessel has also left her mark on the pipelay market, with the installation of the two 930-kilometer-long, 32-inch TurkStream pipelines in 2,200 meters water depth. Never before has such large diameter pipe been laid at such depths, with the vessel exceeding lay rates of 6 kilometers per day.
In the first half of 2019, the vessel – the world’s largest capacity heavy lift crane vessel with 48,000-metric-ton lifting capacity – will be equipped with a 5,000-metric-ton special purpose crane. Work on the vessel’s jacket lifting system, which will go on the Pioneering Spirit’s back deck, is also ongoing, with major fabrication contracts now awarded. Initial installation activities are planned to start toward summer 2019, with the delivery and installation of the main components expected late 2019, early 2020.
Despite the torrid environment of the past three or four years, Allseas is also continuing work on the Amazing Grace, a single-lift vessel even larger than Pioneering Spirit.
“No one took us seriously [with Pioneering Spirit] until we awarded the building contract for the hull in 2010. So, when we built it, we didn’t know all of [the operator’s] plans,” explains Heerema. “Some facilities were too long, too high or wide, so we couldn’t do them. We looked at what we would need to do all of these.” The result is Amazing Grace, which will be able to reach around any platform in the world. “The design has not been finalized, but we are progressing very well,” says Heerema.
While the 1980s song is “Fade to Grey”, Boskalis isn’t planning on fading at all, despite a rebrand to that color for all of its vessels. Boskalis has been breaking records, with the heaviest cargo record broken last year with the transport of the P-67 floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel aboard a semisubmersible heavy lift vessel, the Boka Vanguard (previously Dockwise Vanguard). The P-67, weighing 90,000-metric-tons, equivalent to Pioneering Spirit’s displacement, was transported from China to its new home offshore Brazil, where it is operating for Petrobras.
The grey paint job is aimed at bringing all Boskalis’ assets under a single brand. Following an extended period of acquisition, its fleet now includes assets from the legacy Dockwise (orange), Fairmount (green) and VBMS (black and yellow) businesses, as well as two large dive support vessels, from the former Harkand fleet (red).
Boskalis recently also broadened its renewables business, acquiring 11 survey vessels and 12 smaller vessels via the Gardline acquisition, three large cable laying barges via the acquisition of Bohlen Doyen, and a trencher capable of burying cables down to 8 meters depth.
More broadly, Jack Spaan says the market conditions have meant older vessels have been made redundant and reorganization has been needed in the industry. “For Boskalis, we have had a combination of new vessels, procurement of vessels, discarding vessels or possible life extension,” he says.
One of Boskalis’ moves was to convert a former heavy transport vessel into a heavy lift vessel, by adding a 3,000-metric-ton Huisman crane and dynamic positioning capability. The 220-meter-long, 43-meter-wide Bokalift 1, which entered the market in 2018, is the result. “Before the conversion, Boskalis had to hire in external crane capacity,” says Spaan. “The Bokalift 1 is able to transport, lift and install platforms and offshore wind turbine foundations.” Boskalis is studying the potential for a second crane vessel and has added a construction support vessel to its fleet by taking out a multi-year charter on the Lewek Falcon. “We continue to assess our position in offshore and heavy lift transport,” adds Spaan, “focusing on the top end of the market.”
Wout Janssens, Director Operations and Engineering, at heavy lift and offshore transport and installation contractor Jumbo, says today we see developments in liquefied natural gas (LNG), offshore wind and subsea tiebacks, and tomorrow, it will be deepwater oil and gas fields, such as offshore Brazil, and remote areas, like remote parts of offshore Australia and East Africa.
Jumbo has its eye on some of this work for its newbuild vessel, Stella Synergy. The Ulstein-designed X-Bow heavy lift vessel (HLCV) is expected in the first quarter of 2020.
Janssens says the vessel reflects how Jumbo sees the future, which will remain driven by cost conscious final investment decisions on projects, which has seen operators, to date, halving the cost of projects like Shell’s Vito and BP’s Mad Dog in the US Gulf of Mexico. “It’s not ‘what do we want to do’, it’s ‘what do we not want to do.’”
We were “Looking for economic and state of the art design, highest safety standards, low environmental footprint, high workability,” he says. “Working with Ulstein, [we designed] light shipweight, LNG [power], a large deck area, and the X-Bow, which makes the vessel smaller and more comfortable when sailing at speed.” The vessel has two cranes, one at 2,500-metric-ton capacity with a triple hoist for complex operations and high-capability heave compensation (AHC) for subsea lifting down to 3,000 meters, and a second at 400 metric tons with an AHC main hoist and lifting capability also down to 3,000 meters, with access to the vessel’s moon pool. It will also have a dual remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) hangar and 22-meter-diameter carousel hold.
To date, most offshore wind turbines have been installed using jack-up vessels, due to the need for vessel stability during installation. However, Van Oord has been proving the potential to carry out this work from a jack-up vessel in floating mode, a methodology that could save time. On the Walney Extension offshore wind farm, Van Oord deployed both heavy lift installation vessel Svanen and offshore installation vessel Aeolus. “The 8,000-metric-ton [capacity] Svanen installed the 56 monopile foundations. The other 31 monopiles, as well as the transition pieces, were installed by offshore installation vessel Aeolus,” says Kevin van de Leur, lead engineer at Van Oord, “Because the soil conditions at site were inadequate, a jack-up vessel wouldn’t be able to jack-up.”
The project, in 2017, meant “pushing the envelope,” says van de Leur, working with the configuration of lifting gear and ballasting, allowing listing and working closely with the marine warranty surveyor and client. It was aided significantly by developments in computing power and the ability to model operations. “Nowadays we live in a virtual reality where the only boundary is imagination,” says van de Leur. “‘Virtually impossible’ ceases to exist. The key is transforming that into a physical reality. How; the digital twin, high performance computing, artificial intelligence and very close cooperation with our colleagues on board. We want to make sure the [digital] vessel behaves as it does in reality.”
“I personally would like to explore floating installation more. We know we can do it. For foundations, it’s possible, but next generation 120-meter-height wind turbines on top of one of these towers? Over the coming three to five years, I think the industry will come up with smart ideas to make it possible to install these from a floating vessel.”
To meet the demands of the offshore wind market, the Aeolus, which can also work as a jack-up in up to 45 meters water depth, was modified to achieve an increased loading capacity, accommodation and a helicopter deck, as well as a new 1,600-metric-ton crane.