Friday, October 16, 2009

No parking zone

There is an economic irony in the cable repairs my new ship is doing this month. The global financial crisis has caused a drastic down turn in shipping. With less goods being transported globally and the demand for oil so low shipping companies have found that what was a lack of tonnage just two years ago has become a huge oversupply of ships. Now that container vessels and tankers outnumber profitable cargoes shipping companies have been left with few options for these empty hulks.

Like my former 30 year old vessel, the eldest of ships can be driven aground and hacked up for scrap. Newer ships, symptoms of the last few years’ capitalistic optimism, are harder to part with. They represent large investments and will hopefully be needed again once trade comes around so owners are finding places to squirrel them away for better days.

One of those places is in the waters between Indonesia and Malaysia. The holding ground is soft clay, the depth 30 - 40 meters, the latitude (One degree north) means no typhoons and the proximity to Singapore's marine services ideal for ship storage during a financial crisis. The straits are also geographically at the center of commerce plying the Eastern Hemisphere between Asia, the Persian Gulf / Suez canal and Europe.

This choke point, all ready crowded by the traffic around Johor Malaysia and the island nation of Singapore is also one of the busiest waterways in the world. Now adding to the congestion are hundreds of ships without cargoes which are being parked in a narrow strip of unregulated water between the traffic lanes of this marine highway and the port limits of these two shipping hubs.

Looking out the bridge windows it's apparent that shipping is down. In between us and the white strip of beach that is Malaysia's southern shore there are scores of boats either swinging around their anchor, or as the case is with two massive brand new APL container ships, rafted together stem to stern in line with the strong currents. Ships of every type and size are waiting here. LNG's, VLCCs, container ships, bulkers and offshore support vessels stretch all the way from Horsburgh light to Singapore.

This strip of water also happens to be where numerous fiber optic cables have been laid under the seabed. It’s normally a cheaper route to have them laid along the side of rather than in the middle of the traffic scheme, or at least it was. Now each time a tanker's anchor is let go the unfortunate cable buried a few meters below can be disrupted, crushed or broken. Or when the ships anchor is finally weighed to fill up on that cargo of crude oil it’s anchor flukes, which have dug deep into the soft clay can yank the cable right out of the sea bed prematurely ending some one's Myspace session in Taiwan.

Thus the number of empty ships anchoring here is giving my boat a lot of work to do. There are dozens of out of service cables running along the bottom but lying on top of those are newer in service cables linking Singapore with the rest of the world and they are being crushed and broken all the time. It will take anywhere from 7 to 14 days to carry out a single repair so from the looks of this marine parking lot we could be here for a while. One of the drawbacks of mending these broken wires near the traffic scheme is having to work in very close proximity to ships swinging on their anchors or steaming past us.

For safety concerns the port authority in Singapore has restricted our operations to daylight repairs only. This should double the time we have to spend dynamically positioned in the midst of one of the worlds busiest traffic schemes. It may mean working in a precarious spot for a couple of weeks but it also means job security in very insecure times.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your insights. I'm a pleasure boat shipwright & rigger and am always interested in the commercial side... There's something quite alluring about a life at sea. I'm looking forward to following your blog.
    - Jerr