Seagoing Pickups

By Bloom, Jim | Sea Classics, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Seagoing Pickups


Bloom, Jim, Sea Classics


Once little more than powered barges, a whole new generation of highly efficient work boats ply the Seven Seas

Although it is arguably more crucial to our well-being than monster tankers and container ships, the hard-working, vital offshore support vessel gets little respect. There is hardly a major port city in the world that has not been visited by these vessels, but their history has been neglected by a maritime press that glorifies sexier, more celebrated ships such as aircraft carriers, guided-missile destroyers, strategic-missile subs, oil tankers, mega-container ships, classic passenger liners, blockhouselike modern cruise ships and ferries.

To a large extent, offshore drilling counteracts the terrorist threat to shore-based overseas oil resources, even though it has some security issues of its own. Additionally, it supplements the diminishing or uncertain oil supply from domestic and friendly land-based wells. The ships that serve these structures underpin the entire industry.

The offshore oil rigs, drilling platforms and the business end of the operation get all the glory, but the hardy ships that link these artificial islands to the mainland in all weathers are the forgotten heroes. I am talking about a whole family of robust little vessels that replenish and reposition the drilling platform "artificial islands." Support vessels play a vital role in the search for reserves of offshore oil and gas, and subsequent production.

The offshore supply boat sector furnishes crucial lifelines to offshore drilling rigs, fixed platforms, and floating platforms. The main services provided are: 1) Delivering drilling supplies, fuel, water, and food; 2) Moving personnel to, from, and between offshore installations; 3) Towing rigs from one location to the next and placing or retrieving its anchors (modern semi-submersible rigs are secured and braced by a network of anchors, contrasted to "jack-up rigs" or fixed rigs that sink heavy concrete and steel pilings into the sea floor); 4) Providing safety and emergency response services and, 5) Supporting offshore construction projects.

It might be useful here to briefly examine the history of offshore oil exploration and production. In the late 1800s, entrepreneurs in Summerland, California, began exploiting the numerous springs of crude oil and natural gas that dotted their landscape. These early oilmen noticed that the wells nearest the shoreline were the most productive. In order to exploit the near-shore wells, in 1887, one innovator hit on the idea of setting up a wharf and erecting the drilling rig on it. The first such coastal water rig extended about 300-ft into the ocean and, by the early 1900s, industrialists had built several more wharfs, the longest extending some 1200-ft into the Pacific.

By 1910, the widespread use of the internal combustion engine, especially for automobile propulsion, greatly accelerated the consumption of gasoline and new drilling technologies furthered exploitation of oilfields though the 1920s and 1930s.

By the 1930s, drillers were developing giant oil reservoirs in Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo and this project became an inspiration to those developers who had faith in offshore oil near US shores.

Several attempts to develop Gulf of Mexico oil had been made before the war, most of them unsuccessful. One operation, however, spearheaded in 1937 by Pure oil Co. and partner Superior Petroleum, did pay off. It was conducted on a 33,000-acre State offshore lease near the town of Creole in Calcasieu Parish about 20-mi east of Cameron, Louisiana. The companies built a 30,000-sq-ft wooden platform in 14-ft of water. Though the platform was erected less than a mile from dry land, its mere existence set a record for both platform size and water depth for the Gulf.

As America made the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy in the late 1940s, the petroleum industry was encouraged by the end of government controls on crude oil prices, while States began disputes among themselves and with federal authorities over offshore water-bottom ownership. …

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