2014_1 under the sea master

Under the sea

There is no mistaking the Ramform Atlas as she hovers into view by the docks on a sun-kissed day in Bergen. Described as ‘unique’ and ‘special’ - even ‘beautiful - by maritime experts, the ship has been called the ‘world’s most advanced seismic vessel’ by its Norwegian owners Petroleum Geo Services (PGS).

Text: PATRICK REILLY Photo: CHRIS MALUSZYNSKI

It is not hard to see why the 104 m x 70 m powerhouse comes with such a boast. She can tow 22 seismic streamer cables, sail twice around the world without refuelling and keep operating using just two of its three propellers.

But more than anything else, it is the design of Ramform Atlas which turns heads.

“It’s shaped like an iron more or less,” says Simon Sortland, Project Manager in application and engineering for Wärtsilä, which supplies the engines and propellers that power the vessel.

He adds; “The special design of the ship’s stern creates a huge surface behind it to carry as many cables as it does. She’s the biggest animal in operation when it comes to acquiring seismic.”

So distinctive is the aft of Ramform Atlas, measuring in at 70 m, that it sparked a headline in a Norwegian national newspaper suggesting that it was a bit on the ugly side. Those instrumental in the ship’s design and construction hold a rather different view, naturally enough.

“I think Ramform Atlas is quite beautiful actually. It’s built for purpose. She has a certain charm,” says Einar Nielsen, Vice-President of special projects with PGS.

LISTENING TO ECHOES

The purpose is, of course, seismic research and in that Ramform Atlas is breaking new ground by utilising the latest technology.

Attempting to find new reserves of oil and gas is a constant challenge for the industry’s big players. The data produced by a marine seismic research survey can detect and map reservoirs that may hold oil, and save the energy giants a fortune. 

Investing in a reliable seismic survey is certainly cheaper than pursuing a drill in a potentially empty well.

How the process works is complex and requires a dedicated team of seismic experts onboard and onshore to probe and analyse the vast reams of data provided by a typical survey. Marine seismic works by directing pulses of sound into the seabed. 

The echoes are recorded by thousands of hydrophones towed behind the vessel and these signals are used to form a picture of what is happening several kilometres beneath the seabed.  

“Essentially we are sending low frequency sound waves into the earth and interpreting the reflections to see what is underneath the seafloor. When geophysicists then look at this data, they can identify the different layers, different materials, and see if there is any oil or gas and then decide if they want to drill,” says Clare Madden, quality-control geophysicist on the seismic operation, aboard the Ramform Atlas.

Vessels conducting seismic research at sea have been around for a while. Initially, towing one streamer was the limit of expectations but acquisition capacity has grown rapidly over the past two decades. The latest PGS fleet now has the potential to use 22 streamers, with the thousands of sensors capable of covering an area greater than 12km2.

Or to put it another way, 3.5 times the size of Central Park in New York.

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“SHE’S THE BIGGEST ANIMAL IN OPERATION, WHEN IT COMES TO ACQUIRING SEISMIC”

NEW CREW FACILITY STANDARDS

The Ramform Atlas has only been in operation for a handful of months and she has already been deployed on her second research mission in the North Sea.

Her sister ship, Ramform Titan, was launched in April 2013 and has since conducted a number of successful research surveys.

Both were manufactured in Nagasaki, Japan. PGS Maritime Superintendent Olaf Brunstad said it takes “15 to 18 months” from the first steel being cut right through to the ship’s delivery.

Sailing from Japan to Norway takes over a month and the Japanese influence is keenly felt onboard. For instance, the passageways on the decks are adorned with images of ports in Nagasaki while the ship’s main muster station, which doubles up as a cinema, has several large Japanese artistic creations.

Even the picture hanging over the bed in Captain Roger Skogvik’s cabin is one of Mount Fuji bathing in a rich sunset.

“Your cabin is somewhere you need to relax and there is plenty of space to do so here and it is also very quiet,” says Skogvik.

Long gone are the days of crew-members bunking together in a cramped cabin. Ramform Atlas has a crew of 80 with the vast majority having their own single cabin, decked out with a 46’’flat screen television and a courtesy telephone to call home.

The ship isn’t just noteworthy for its wide aft but for setting new standards in terms of crew facilities. You can find a music room complete with electric guitars and a drum kit. There are also computer games and a swimming pool.

But perhaps most surprisingly of all there is a vast sports hall, which is used for basketball and indoor football, along with a substantial gym and a sauna.  

“We liaised with a naval architect company (Yran & Storbraaten) which is mainly involved with cruise vessels such as Disney cruises. Due to the shape and balance of the boat we ended up having some extra volumes and stability so they came in with a new approach and basically redrew a lot of things to create this set-up,” says Einar Nielsen, Vice-President of Special Projects for PGS.  

Nielsen adds that providing such off-duty entertainment helps alleviate boredom and bolsters morale amongst the crew, which work on a five week on/off roster.  

He adds; “There was a tendency that the crew just met at work and then in the mess room for their meals. After that they disappeared into fairly large cabins. With these facilities they are interacting a lot more and it has become extremely popular.”
 

BRAVING THE ELEMENTS

A typical voyage for the Ramform Atlas can take several weeks from start to finish to carry out seismic research. Being able to operate successfully in difficult conditions is another key attribute of the vessel. Sister ship Ramform Titan experiencing this first hand when it encountered harsh weather in the Falkland Islands in early 2014, but was able to carry on unabated with the project.  

Stopping is a last resort for this ship which is laden with expensive technology. As such there has been considerable resource allocated to ensure that it keeps running, whatever the weather throws at the Ramform Atlas.

None more so than in the engine and in particular the propulsion side, where technicians have found a solution which guarantees improved redundancy.

With six 3,840 kW genset engines built by Wärtsilä the Ramform Atlas certainly doesn’t lack for power. PGS and Wärtsilä have a long relationship - with the Atlas the latest in a long line of vessels equipped with drivelines and power units supplied by the Finnish company.

“The engines are the most important part of the ship, especially for one as high-tech as the Atlas. For this vessel we are dragging a lot of equipment around so redundancy is critical and the engines have performed well,” says Per Christian Upshal, Chief Engineer in the engine control room aboard the vessel.

As for the three propellers, which generate 6000 kW each, they are a source of pride for Wärtsilä’s Simon Sortland.

“The propulsion side is quite special as the power is split on three shaft lines. Having three propellers on the aft end of the ship is unusual and that is mainly a redundancy issue,” he says.

Sortland adds; “If one propeller fails for whatever reason then the ship can continue operating using just two. Of course this comes at an additional cost, but the benefits for acquiring seismic make it worthwhile.”
 

CAN’T STOP, WON’T STOP

Time is money so taking the ship out of the water to carry out maintenance on the propellers is not ideal given the costs involved. Another issue is finding a suitable drydock which can accommodate a vessel with a 70 m wide aft.

To counteract this, a special habitat can be fitted to the propeller being worked on that enables engineers to seal off the nozzle, propeller blades, and sterntube, and carry out repairs while the ship is still floating. All of which means the vessel can be running again in a few days instead of taking weeks.

“The main issue for a propeller on a seismic vessel is that it needs to create high thrust and it needs to be quiet. Noise emissions need to be as low as possible so as not to disturb the seismic signals,” says Sortland.

Indeed the vessel will only use all six engines (it has a transit speed of 16 knots) when she needs to get from A to B as fast as possible. For seismic research four, or even three engines is the norm.

“Once we put the streamers into the water we cannot stop - it is as simple as that. It doesn’t matter about the weather or the conditions, this boat needs to keep moving. But we need to do that safely and that is what she’s designed for,” says Neil Jackson, Party Chief for seismic operations onboard the Ramform Atlas.

Jackson adds; “We need a vessel that is reliable and has redundancy and the Ramform Atlas has both.”
 

WHALE WATCH

With great power comes great responsibility and the Ramform Atlas has to be mindful of environmental concerns as she spans the globe. Just off the mess room, where the crew plough through 17 kilos of coffee a day, is an observation lounge used by marine mammal observers.

For instance, if the Ramform Atlas encounters a whale then the seismic source is immediately silenced. To prevent that and to ensure coordination with other offshore activities requires extensive planning and liaising with local environmental and fishing authorities well in advance of any potential mission by the vessel.

Nothing is left to chance right down to hiring in translators who speak the native language to communicate with local fishermen when exploring in remote areas. 

“It’s a symbiosis. We live and work in the ocean and we all have to live and work together,” says Pamela Risan, Communications & Marketing Manager for PGS.

HAPPY AT SEA

Owned by Norwegians, built in Japan and set to go around the world it is no surprise that the ship’s crew hail from all four corners of the globe.

Walk along the passageways and you will hear a variety of accents. In this international environment English is the official working language for the Ramform Atlas’ 80 strong crew.

Every 35 days there is a crew change, usually done by helicopter although there is also a special transport boat which can drive aboard and do the change by water instead.

Being away for five weeks at a time is a “way of life” for Brazilian seismic navigator Afrânio Gomes Neto. He is tasked with positioning all of the seismic equipment along with Polish colleague Izabela Waszczyłko.

“There is a very good atmosphere amongst the crew and there are a lot of things to do when you are off-duty. I enjoy my work as every day there are new challenges and tasks,” she says.

Gomes Neto adds; “For my job it’s fantastic to work on such a brand new ship. You get used to this kind of life and I certainly can’t see myself going to work in an office. I intend to retire doing this kind of work.”

Both of the navigators live in their respective home countries and join the Ramform Atlas wherever the crew change occurs. Seismic research is a global business and as such needs brainpower from everywhere.

LOOKING AHEAD

As for the future of the industry it is doubtful that the limit has been reached with 22 streamers.

“In the past they said you couldn’t tow more than one streamer but that’s like saying that all the inventions have already been done,” concludes Einar Nielsen.

Until then the Ramform Atlas will continue to lead the way in this most high-tech of engineering endeavours.

Wärtsilä CPP’s

Wärtsilä 32

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