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Sullom Voe ‘operating safely’ despite new vessel control system concerns

The two tankers involved in last week's ship to ship transfer, Heather Knutsen and Speedway, were late in leaving the port due to issues with the VTR system. Photo: John Bateson

OPERATIONS at Sullom Voe have not been significantly hindered by the problematic installation of a new vessel traffic service (VTS), the port operators have said.

Port engineer Andrew Inkster, who has been heading up the VTS project for the council’s ports and harbours department, said that at no time had port operations been unsafe and that the procurement of the VTS system had been rigorous and to a tender drawn up by consultants ABPMer.

But he did acknowledge that there had been significant problems in commissioning the approximately £900,000 system supplied by Xanatos Marine and installed by its partner Marico Marine.

The council’s defence of its decision to install the Xanatos system comes after allegations that the system was unfit for purpose, operations have been delayed and that the port might be operating illegally without an operational VTS in place.

Inkster and harbourmaster Greg Maitland have refuted these allegations, saying the only delay was during a ship to ship oil transfer between the tankers Heather Knutsen and Speedway on 13 September.

Inkster said that whether Shetland Islands Council Ports and Harbours would continue with the procurement or start to “consider alternatives” should become apparent by the end of the week when Xanatos and Marico technicians will have undertaken examination and testing of the system.

He said: “We are not suggesting that the contract has gone as well as we had hoped but we have addressed that.

“This is not a situation that will go on and on and on, but we have to give the supplier a fair chance to sort it out.

“We will be in a position by the end of this week to know whether they are going to meet those requirements or they can not. After the next couple of days of critical testing we should be able to make that decision.”

Xanatos won the contract to install the VTS system as the bidder – one of six “major players” in the industry who put in tenders – which offered the best combination of cost and capability under the council’s regular standing orders.

It was picked after the competing firms made presentations at Sellaness that were evaluated by engineering staff and VTS operators who unanimously agreed Xanatos came top of a table that awarded points for both cost and effectiveness.

The process also involved a visit to Nanaimo Harbour in Vancouver to see the Xanatos system installed there.

Inkster said that the Xanatos bid had fallen at the lower end of the price range, but “when you combine quality and price Xanatos were the clear winners.”

If the system had not met the standards of the tender then it would not have passed the evaluation, whatever price it was.

The contract covered the installation of new radars at Brough near the Toft pier, at Vats Houlland in the Sullom Voe Terminal and a smaller radar on top of the port building at Sellaness. As well as this equipment was installed for VHF and automatic identification system (AIS) at Scousborough, Aith Ness, RAF Saxavord and the terminal.

The council called in independent firm AFS Consultants for a second opinion after the problems with the system became apparent.

After AFS confirmed the operators’ reservations about the system a notice to mariners was issued owing to “ongoing technical issues” with the VTS upgrade, asking all vessels to switch on their AIS and call into port control. Port control was also to issue by radion “securite”  giving an hour’s notice of tanker arrivals at the pilot station or departures from berth.

Inkster said that AFS had never suggested there were safety issues with port operations and a three-day audit by ABPMer had also come to the conclusion the port was operating safely.

Maitland said that no vessel would be allowed to move within the port unless it was deemed safe to do so.

He said that VTS systems were really designed for ports with daily multiple-vessel movements, whereas Sullom Voe was averaging one tanker a week at the moment.

There was an argument that the port did not even need a VTS system, but that anything that added another layer of safety to operations was a good thing.

He said that the instructions contained in the notice to mariners would likely be maintained as they were good practice and procedures to enhance safety at the port were constantly being updated.

Maitland added: “We have upgraded a 12 year old system with the latest technology. It is far more sensitive than the equipment we had in previously and one of biggest issues is that it is picking up everything.

“One of our biggest concerns was that oversensitivity, so that the VTS picture of what was happening could be compromised.

“VTS is an aid to navigation, navigation lights are the same. One light going out will not stop operations. We must have [alternative] control measures to make sure things keep moving.”