Grand Finale for Infamous Glomar Explorer – Part 2

By Tony Munoz 2015-06-17 21:56:17

Read Part 1 here.

The story of the Glomar Explorer spans four decades and involves a Soviet nuclear missile submarine, the CIA and an eccentric billionaire. The tale is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the real-life story of the Glomar Explorer eclipses any fiction Tinsel Town could concoct.

The vessel’s history is steeped in international intrigue. The $350-million drillship – an engineering marvel that was far ahead of its time – was built for Global Marine, a company owned by Howard Hughes, the eccentric American businessman. It was supposedly to be used to extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor and was constructed at Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock (remember Sun Oil Company – Sunoco?) in Chester, Pennsylvania. Its maiden voyage took place on June 21, 1974.

Over the years, Global Marine executives and others have testified in federal court that the Glomar Explorer wasn’t really built to mine manganese but was designed and constructed specifically to get something much most precious to the U.S. off the seabed.

Project Azorian was the code name for the covert CIA project whose real goal was the recovery of a Soviet nuclear missile submarine, which was lost in 1968 about 1,500 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii. The U.S. Air Force had captured sonic recordings of an explosion that took place on March 8, 1968. Subsequently, it was able to localize the latitude and longitude of the Soviet submarine, and the U.S. Navy conducted a deep-sea reconnaissance mission that took over 20,000 photographs of the sunken Soviet K-129 submarine.

President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger approved the mission, which created significant engineering challenges as the 2,000-ton submarine lay at 17,000 feet on the ocean floor. At the time, the deepest-ever salvage operation had taken place at a mere 245 feet and recovered a satellite bucket weighing only a couple of hundred pounds.

In order to carry out the mission, a massive claw-like apparatus was built by Lockheed to fit the sub’s exact specifications. It was affectionately called “Clementine” and weighed 2,170 tons and consisted of two steel beams that were 179 feet long and 31 feet wide.

The Glomar Explorer itself was 618 feet long with a 115-foot beam, which was too large to transit the Panama Canal. So after sea trials it began its long voyage on June 21, 1974 around South America to Long Beach, which included a stop at Valparaiso, Chile to collect a few more Global Marine employees.

The evening before the ship was scheduled to arrive in Chile, a military coup overthrew the government. There were 178 people onboard the vessel including the crew and members of the CIA. It sailed out of port without incident, but it was a close call just the same.

The U.S. Navy had used a large network of hydrophones, which can distinguish military ships and submarines from ordinary maritime traffic, to locate the K-129 on the ocean floor. The camera onboard a Navy ship showed a 10-foot hole had been blown through the right side of the sub below the conning tower. It was assumed the explosion took place as the sub was recharging its batteries, which give off hydrogen gas, and was most likely ignited by a spark from the engines.

The Glomar Explorer finally reached its destination on July 4, 1974, but inclement weather delayed the salvage operation for several days. Around the same time as the recovery cage was being lowered into the ocean, the Soviet warship Chazhma arrived on the scene carrying a Kamov Ka-25 helicopter. A Soviet naval tug arrived as well to help in monitoring the U.S. ship’s operations.

The Glomar team had to carry on its operations with the Soviet Navy watching. To prevent the Soviet helicopter from landing onboard, boxes were stacked on deck, but what caused the most anxiety during the operation was debris that might float to the surface once the sub was lifted off the ocean floor.

Such a disaster almost took place on August 4 as the sub was being raised. At about 6,700 feet, the crew noticed that two-thirds of the vessel had broken off and only about 38 feet were left in the claw. On August 9, the same day that Richard Nixon resigned as President, the CIA and Glomar team lifted the remains of the sub into the ship’s gigantic moon pool.

As the CIA inspected the wreckage, several important documents and manuals were recovered. But the most pressing issue was the discovery of several bodies of the 98 crewmen who died in the sub’s explosion. While three of the crew members were identified, the rest were not. By September, all of the bodies were recovered and were buried at sea with full honors.

The Glomar Explorer returned to Long Beach in September 1974 with a number of crates recovered from the sub. The sub itself was transported to the naval submarine base in Bangor, Washington. But the CIA wanted the rest of the vessel that remained on the ocean floor.

Operation Matador was now in play, but the media found out about the secret mission and the story became front-page news. The Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. demanded an explanation from the Ford Administration. While Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not admit what the operation was about, the plan to recover the rest of the sub was scrapped.

In 1976, the U.S. General Services Administration considered leasing the Glomar Explorer, but the deal never came about. In September of that year, the U.S. Navy acquired the vessel, which was added to its auxiliary operations. The ship was laid up in Suisun Bay in the San Francisco Bay area but was kept a safe distance from other laid-up ships due to concerns about residual radiation.

GSF Explorer: A Drilling Pioneer

When the Glomar Explorer ended its military career in 1997 it headed to drydock for conversion into a dynamically positioned deepwater drillship. In this reincarnation, the vessel was capable of drilling in depths up to 11,500 feet (3,500 meters). At the time, this was 2,000 feet (610 meters) deeper than any existing rig.

The conversion was completed in two phases. The first, in Cascade General Shipyard in Portland, Oregon, saw the inclusion of 4.5 million pounds (2,040 tons) of steel to fill the moon pool and an overhaul of the vessel’s electrical, piping, ventilation and steering systems.

The primary challenge was to replace the retractable 200-foot (61 meters) gates under the moon pool with prefabricated double-bottomed sections, which were 770,000 pounds or 350 tons each and left a 74-foot by 42-foot (23 by 13 meters) drilling well.

It was the largest, most complex project the yard had ever undertaken. The ship was lifted in drydock and the gate fittings cut away and the gates lowered. The dock was then partially submerged so the gates could be pulled free, using winches and tugs. The new double-bottomed modules were then maneuvered under the ship and attached to temporary suspension brackets. The ship was then lifted to allow the modules to be welded on.

Don Wiles of Global Marine was in charge of converting the vessel to commercial use for the company. “The ship had been laid up in San Francisco Bay for 15 years, but all of the electrical equipment and cabling looked brand new when we went through it,” he said. “It was quite unique. There was one floor in the forward accommodation area that was a secret location where the CIA stored its equipment. There was also a blackboard with a sketch of the grappling hook with the sub in it. That sketch told the big story of the operation, and there it was still on the blackboard. Pretty amazing stuff.”

Electronic Power Design (EPD), the largest electrical systems integrator in the U.S. today, was brought in to preserve as much of the existing equipment onboard the ship as possible. “The most expensive part of diesel electric ships, aside from the hull itself, is the electrical system,” Wiles stated. “Global Marine needed the specialized talents of EPD and its Chairman and CEO, John Janik, to mitigate costs enough to make the venture fruitful.”

“While the Glomar job was a pivotal point in our history,” said Janik, “Doing a poor job on the retrofit could have been the end of us as well.”

The ship had been sitting for almost 20 years. When the Global and EPD teams first came onboard, it appeared that everything had been frozen in time. The interior of the ship had been pumped with nitrogen for two decades. As a result, the electrical equipment and cables were in pristine condition.

“Everything was just as the CIA had left it,” explained Janik, “down to the bowls on the counter and the knives hanging in the kitchen. Even though all the systems were intact, this was by no means an ordinary ship, and the retrofit was going to be a tough job because the ship’s wiring was unlike anything we had ever seen before.”

The EPD team searched the electrical system, which did not go where it was supposed to go. Soon they discovered that it only went to the CIA’s covert control room. All of the wires had to be removed and all of the controls systems replaced. Eventually, the ship was totally retrofitted with new propulsion and drive systems including a new dynamic positioning system, new thrusters and motors – all the while making every effort to maintain the original switchboard system.

“The Glomar Explorer was decades ahead of its time and the pioneer of all modern drill ships,” Janik added. “It broke all the records for working at unimaginable depths and should be remembered as a technological phenomenon.”

The second phase of the conversion, which included a voyage around South America through the Straits of Magellan, took place at Atlantic Marine’s Mobile, Alabama shipyard. Here the completion work involved the fitting of drilling equipment including the derrick and the vessel’s azimuthing thrusters (11 thrusters capable of a combined 35,200 horsepower).

The conversion, completed in 1998, marked the beginning of a 30-year lease from the U.S. Navy to Global Marine Drilling for a fee of $1 million per year. But after a series of mergers, the vessel became part of the Transocean fleet and was renamed GSF Explorer. It was then reflagged from Houston to Port Vila in Vanuatu in 2013.

The drillship spudded its first well in the Gulf of Mexico’s Mississippi Canyon. The well was drilled for Chevron in about 7,800 feet (2,375 meters) of water – a world record at the time. In 1999, it left the Gulf of Mexico and set off for Nigeria, working there for a year for Texaco. It drilled the first well in the Agbami field, the second major deepwater oil field discovered off the Niger Delta, the first being Shell’s Bonga Field.

GSF Explorer then returned to the Gulf of Mexico until 2005. After that it was off to Malta for drydocking at Malta Shipyards and then on to the Black Sea, where it was the first deepwater offshore vessel in those waters. The top of the derrick had to be taken down in order for the ship to go under the two bridges leading to the Bosporus Strait.

The ship spent a few more years in the Gulf of Mexico before again leaving the U.S. It did another stint in Angola and then was deployed to Indonesia to drill in the deepwater Makassar Strait for a consortium led by Marathon Oil. There it used managed-pressure drilling technology to drill fractured carbonates, a system that enhances drilling capabilities and improves safety and efficiency through early kick detection.

It spent some time in Singapore, which was followed by a contract in India with ONGC. It finally ended up idled in Labuan, Malaysia. In April, 2015, Transocean made the decision to scrap the vessel. Very few vessels have had such a remarkable history as the Hughes Glomar Explorer. – MarEx

Picture Credits Facebook: GSF in Malta (main picture), Helideck of GSF Explorer, Moonpool

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.


Petrobras Awards Compressor Contract to Asian Companies

By Reuters 2015-06-17 19:11:08

China Ocean Shipping Co and Thailand’s BJC Heavy Industries Plc have won a contract to build 24 natural-gas compressors for six oil platforms being built by Brazil’s Petrobras and its partners in two giant offshore oil areas, one of those partners said on Wednesday.

Cosco and BJC beat out other foreign companies for the work after Petrobras canceled an existing contract with Brazilian shipyard IESA in Rio de Janeiro, said Carlos Alves, president of the Brazilian unit of Portugal’s Galp Energia SGPS SA.

No price for the contract was given.

The decision to use only foreign contractors met resistance from unions and Brazilian industry, fostering complaints that Petrobras may be breaking tough national-content rules. The decision to look abroad, though, was made in part because many potential Brazilian replacements for IESA were banned from bidding because of the corruption scandal surrounding Petrobras.

“IESA had financial problems and was forced to cancel the contract, and we managed to find new suppliers through an international tender,” Alves told reporters after an event in Rio de Janeiro.

Galp owns 10 percent of BM-S-11, home to as much as eight billion barrels of recoverable oil in several fields. Petrobras owns 65 percent and is the operator, and Britain’s BG Group Plc owns 25 percent. BG is in the process of being taken over by Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

The compressors will be installed on FPSOs that will serve the Lula, Berbigão, Sururu, and the Oeste de Atapu fields. Sururu, Berbigão and Oeste de Atapu were part of the Iara prospect before being declared commercially viable in December.


New Mini-platform Seeks to Improve Efficiency

By Kathryn Stone 2015-06-17 17:09:20

A new unmanned mini-platform concept design has begun to produce natural gas in the North Sea.

The new generation “Minimum Facility” L6-B platform was created by Wintershall, a subsidiary of German-base BASF, and is specifically designed to increase economic returns. The new concept cuts costs down to nearly half of a conventional satellite platform, in large part due to its simple, minimalist design.

“The advantage of this new generation of platforms is that they can be deployed in particularly shallow waters and can economically produce even from very small natural gas fields. Furthermore, they can cut down on costs thanks to the short time needed for construction and the simple installation,” Wintershall said in a statement.

The L6-B facility was built in nine months and then transferred last June to its current location in a Dutch-owned region of the North Sea.

The mini-platform is completely controlled, operated and supplied with electricity from the larger L8-P4 platform. It is capable of maintaining two producing wells, with gas produced by the mini facility transferred to the neighboring platform via pipeline.

The company claims that the new design may be the smallest top side known, rising up only 18 meters (59 feet) from the sea. The platform is secured to the seafloor with suction piles and is made up of three upper decks. In total the substructure weighs in at 1,100 tons, and the top side comes in at a meager 100 tons.

The mini-platform gets its name from the L6-B gas field in which it is located. The field falls within a restricted military zone, with Wintershall being the first company allowed to operate in the area.

Wintershall purports to be one of the largest gas producers in the southern North Sea with 25 offshore platforms. The company has said that it plans to increase output by 40 percent over the next three years with the North Sea as a key area of operations.


U.S. Gives Shell Green Light for Acquisition of Rival

By Reuters 2015-06-17 14:42:56

U.S. regulators have given the green light for Royal Dutch Shell’s proposed $70 billion acquisition of British rival BG Group the first clearance for the biggest deal in the energy sector in over a decade.

The two companies said on Tuesday the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had cleared the deal.

The deal, which the companies aim to complete by early 2016, will require further regulatory clearances from all the countries BG operates in, including the European Union, China, Australia and Brazil.

“We’re well underway with the anti-trust and regulatory filing processes in relevant jurisdictions around the world and we’re confident that, following the usual thorough and professional review by the relevant authorities, the deal will receive the necessary approvals,” Shell Chief Executive Officer Ben van Beurden said in a statement.

“We remain on track for completion in early 2016,” he added.

Van Beurden has visited in recent weeks Trinidad, Brazil, Kazakhstan and China to discuss the deal.

The deal, which followed the near halving of oil prices since last June, was expected to spark a flurry of mergers and acquisitions in the energy industry, but so far few deals have been announced.

The third-biggest oil and gas deal ever by enterprise value will bring Shell assets in Brazil, East Africa, Australia, Kazakhstan and Egypt. BG has some of the world’s most ambitious projects in liquefied natural gas (LNG), where demand is growing as consumers turn away from more polluting fuels such as coal.


Increased Arctic Acidity May Impact Marine Animals

By MarEx 2015-06-17 12:35:03

New research by NOAA, University of Alaska, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the journal Oceanography shows that surface waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas could reach levels of acidity that threaten the ability of animals to build and maintain their shells by 2030, with the Bering Sea reaching this level of acidity by 2044.

“Our research shows that within 15 years, the chemistry of these waters may no longer be saturated with enough calcium carbonate for a number of animals from tiny sea snails to Alaska King crabs to construct and maintain their shells at certain times of the year,” said Jeremy Mathis, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and lead author. “This change due to ocean acidification would not only affect shell-building animals but could ripple through the marine ecosystem.”

A team of scientists led by Mathis and Jessica Cross from the University of Alaska Fairbanks collected observations on water temperature, salinity and dissolved carbon during two month-long expeditions to the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas onboard United States Coast Guard cutter Healy in 2011 and 2012.

These data were used to validate a predictive model for the region that calculates the change over time in the amount of calcium and carbonate ions dissolved in seawater, an important indicator of ocean acidification. The model suggests these levels will drop below the current range in 2025 for the Beaufort Sea, 2027 for the Chukchi Sea and 2044 for the Bering Sea. “A key advance of this study was combining the power of field observations with numerical models to better predict the future,” said Scott Doney, a coauthor of the study and a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A form of calcium carbonate in the ocean, called aragonite, is used by animals to construct and maintain shells. When calcium and carbonate ion concentrations slip below tolerable levels, aragonite shells can begin to dissolve, particularly at early life stages. As the water chemistry slips below the present-day range, which varies by season, shell-building organisms and the fish that depend on these species for food can be affected.

This region is home to some of our nation’s most valuable commercial and subsistence fisheries. NOAA’s latest Fisheries of the United States report estimates that nearly 60 percent of U.S. commercial fisheries landings by weight are harvested in Alaska. These 5.8 billion pounds brought in $1.9 billion in wholesale values or one third of all landings by value in the U.S. in 2013.

The continental shelves of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are especially vulnerable to the effects of ocean acidification because the absorption of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions is not the only process contributing to acidity. Melting glaciers, upwelling of carbon-dioxide rich deep waters, freshwater input from rivers and the fact that cold water absorbs more carbon dioxide than warmer waters exacerbates ocean acidification in this region.

“The Pacific-Arctic region, because of its vulnerability to ocean acidification, gives us an early glimpse of how the global ocean will respond to increased human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, which are being absorbed by our ocean,” said Mathis. “Increasing our observations in this area will help us develop the environmental information needed by policy makers and industry to address the growing challenges of ocean acidification.”

Go online here to read the research paper, Ocean Acidification in the Surface Waters of the Pacific-Arctic Boundary Regions, in Oceanography


USCG unveils maritime cyber scheme

Developing guidance for commercial vessels and port terminal operators on identifying cyber-attack risks is one of the objectives of the US Coast Guard’s cyber-security plan.
The agency’s Cyber Strategy, unveiled by USCG Commandant Paul Zukunft on 16 June, will guide the coastguard’s cyber efforts

Pirates Attack Three Ships in Three Hours

By Kathryn Stone 2015-06-17 11:25:30

Three ships underway in the eastbound lane of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) were attacked by pirates within a three hour window early June 17.

The incidents occurred within a 10 nautical mile zone around Pulau Takong Kecil in Indonesia between 2:30 am and 5:30 am. The first two vessels attacked, the Densa Shark, a Brazil-registered bulk carrier and the Pro Triumph a Norway registered LNG tanker quickly raised the alarm. The crews conducted searches and found nothing missing and no perpetuators onboard.

The final attack was reported aboard the Panama-registered Pro-triumph tanker. Five assailants tied up the Chief Engineer and First Engineer and stole parts from the ship’s generator. The pirates fled the scene after the crew raised the alarm to local authorities.

All of the attacks reported between three to five pirates in the engine room, indicating the ship’s spare engine parts were the focus of the attacks. Given the close timing and proximity of the incidents, it is possible that pirates could be from the same group. However, this has yet to be verified by authorities. Additionally, the vessels may have been targeted because they were navigating at a slower speed while making a turn.

According to anti-piracy watchdog ReCAAP, today’s incidents fall under the category of ‘petty theft’. Petty theft has risen over 88% from the same reporting period last year. So far this year ReCAAP has reported dramatic spikes in both ‘very significant’ and ‘minimum significant’ instances of piracy.

ReCAAP has again reiterated that all vessels operating in the SOMS should exercise enhanced vigilance and take additional precautionary measures to prevent boardings. The organization also repeated its call for the countries around the SOMS to increase maritime surveillance and patrols.

22 Still Missing in Vessel Hijacking

The news of today’s attacks comes as 22 mariners remain missing following the hijacking of the Orkim Harmony product tanker.

So far no signals or transmissions from the missing vessel have been received. The 7,301 dwt Orkim Harmony fell out of communication around 9:00pm June 11, while transporting around 6,000 metric tons of petrol. Though no ransom demands have been made, it is believed the vessel was seized for its RON 95 gasoline cargo.

Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) deputy director-general Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar has confirmed that six aircrafts are now involved in the search for the missing ship and it crew. A seventh aircraft from the United States is expected to join the search operation later this week. The aircraft are in addition to eight ships and three boats that are already canvasing the seas. Satellites are also being used to aid in the search.

The MMEA has confirmed that the ship did not sink, since none of the onboard automatic sensors were triggered. Ahmad Puzi has vowed to continue search efforts until the missing tanker is found.


Joint press release: ITF and SRI chart a course on maritime human rights

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI) report progress being made on the urgent issue of the criminalisation of seafarers. This follows the positive reception from the IMO’s (International Maritime Organization) Legal Committee to a paper co-sponsored by the ITF, the International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations (IFSMA), the Comité Maritime International…


Mobile port adds box capacity

Container capacity at the Port of Mobile, Alabama is increasing to 475,000 teu with the addition of two post-Panamax gantry cranes.
APM Terminals (APMT) announced on 16 June that in addition to the new cranes, it is expanding the container yard by 8 ha (20 acres) as part of a USD40 million