Job on DSV Favignana in Civitavecchia Italy, December 2006.
In November 2006 while at home on leave from Baku, Idrotec, the company who had given me a start in the ROV business , contacted me with an offer of two weeks work in Italy.
They had trusted me enough to employ me in Mexico and then Egypt eight years previously, when I was a total trainee. Okay, while I was very grateful to them, they had always been notoriously slow payers, so I suggested if they really wanted me, that they go through my agent
Although they phoned me directly, my suggesting that they contact my agent would 1) protect my payments because it would be coming from them and not from Idrotec and 2) I knew that the owner of Idrotec did not like to use agents because they (the agent) got very serious very quickly if they weren’t paid on time. So I thought it unlikely that I would have to go away before Christmas.
I was surprised when, later that day I got a phone call from Paul (my agent) to tell me that Idrotec wanted me for a two week job beginning the first week of December.
I agreed, once I was to be paid my normal day rate, and it was guaranteed that I got home for Christmas.
On Monday 1st December 2008, I flew from Dublin to Milan to meet with my two work colleagues, a trainee pilot and a trainee instrument technician, and then drive our hire car to Civitavecchia, the port on the Tyrrhenian Sea coast adjacent to Rome.
The ROV, its tool shack and control van was to be delivered to the quayside first thing the following morning.
It was quite a long drive, so we didn’t arrive at the hotel in Civitavecchia until 7 PM that evening. It had been a tiring day, so after a nice meal, I slept well that night.
At 6 AM the following morning I met my colleagues for breakfast, and at 7 AM we were at the birth where our boat the Favignana awaited us, and shortly thereafter the truck arrived with our equipment.
Using the docks crane to lift everything on board took until mid afternoon, after which we could start on the wiring and installation of our equipment.
The divers from Impresub were already on board, so there was no shortage of willing hands to give us assistance with moving things around.
We finished installation the following day mid-morning.
Once we had tested our gear, we attended a ‘Project Briefing’
The job was to repair an 18 inch pipeline which had been dragged by a ships anchor into a small gas jacket, 5 miles offshore.
The jacket was used as a loading facility for small tankers, those small enough to be able to work in relatively shallow water (30 m). There had been floating hoses attached (since removed), which the tankers would pick up and attach to their storage bay, and once the refinery onshore opened the valves, fill up with natural gas.
Of course dragging a pipeline through the jacket will have made a bit of a mess of things on the seabed; indeed by all accounts everybody had been lucky that there hadn’t been an explosion, given that there will always be residual amount of gas in those facilities.
A definitive inspection of the damage either to the pipeline or the jacket had not been possible without an ROV, so our first job was to thoroughly inspect everything, and prepare an engineer’s report that the divers could work off as they repaired the damage found.
I didn’t envy the divers on board, because they shared the boat with several million cockroaches and other vermin, both species of which scuttled around on deck and in the galley with gay abandon.
We had our equipment on board by mid-afternoon on that first day, and we started wiring in and integrating our gear with the survey. We left the quayside in Civitavecchia and we were alongside the work site by 3:45 PM.
The engines of the Favignana were unbelievably noisy, sounding like they were going to come through the deck at any moment.
At 6 PM we three ROV people, two surveyors, two diving supervisors and one diving superintendent transferred to a rigid inflatable for the trip back to Civitavecchia, and dinner at our hotel. Unfortunately we had to surrender our hire car that evening, so we were dependent on the diving superintendent to collect us each morning and deliver us back to the hotel each evening.
For the next two weeks we followed a strict timetable, with only two days down for weather.
6 AM breakfast
6:30 AM collection by diving superintendent in his car.
6:35 AM, cake shop to buy several boxes of pastries, breakfast for the divers, and midday mid-afternoon coffee breaks for us.
By lunch on day two, we were ready to make our first dive on the site.
We launched our refrigerator –sized, but much heavier ROV, by diver muscle, nobody had thought to tell Idrotec that the davit on the Favignana did not work, so the electric launching system had not come down with the rest of the equipment. I notified Idrotec that we needed the launch and recovery system.
My concern was primarily for the divers, who were doing all the heavy lifting, but they seemed oblivious to any risk, and after a few days we had developed a reasonably safe and efficient method of launch and recovery.
The pipeline kicked off at an eccentric angle, and was kinked where the flukes of the anchor had lodged underneath, stripping the concrete weight coat and the paint coverage down to bare-metal.
I had the diving superintendent in with me watching everything while I drove the ROV.
He was a very dark and hairy Sicilian with a foul mouth, even though none of it was in English.
I had worked with Italians long enough to understand a lot of their swear words, but he pushed the boundaries of my knowledge out to heretofore unimagined filth.
He didn’t even swear in Italian, he used Siciliano, the patois of Italian used in Sicily.
As I flew the ROV here there and everywhere, around the damage to the pipeline in response to him pointing his dark and hairy index finger at the screen and swearing lustily, my face burned with shame at the insults rained down upon everyone, including god and his mother.
As he swore at everything, I passed on relevant information to my trainee pilot who made rough drawings with measurements taken from our sonar.
Occasionally I had to overrule the diving superintendent in order to steady the ROV on the pipeline to take a measurement.
He had not been aware that such accuracy was possible using a sonar scan, and once I had explained it to him in my schoolboy Italian, he had me taking measurements of everything.
It took several hours to survey the damaged pipeline, so when I finished, we recovered the ROV and rode back in on our rigid inflatable at 6 PM.
The following morning I resumed the inspection with my Sicilian interlocutor,
We had original engineering drawings showing angles, depth and measurement between flanges on the pipeline, so we could compare what we found with what had been.
I followed the pipeline, approximately 80 feet and then I found that the pipeline had bent itself around one of the legs of the jacket, ripping the piled in base partially out of the seabed.
We could see the bright shiny metal were the leg had been piled in, and 1 metre off bottom we could see where the leg had bent outwards at what should have been the seabed level.
After even a cursory glance at the pipeline and the jacket, it was obvious that severe damage had been done to both.
It must have taken the pipeline a few minutes to bring the boat that was dragging it to a stop, and it was lucky that it did before either the pipeline was torn in two, or the platform collapsed.
For four days I surveyed the pipeline and the platform, trying to compare it to the original engineering drawings.
The Sicilian diving superintendent stayed with me every minute, trying to make sense of what we were seeing.
One of the divers, Gabrielle was his name, I knew him from a job we were both on in the red sea a few years previously.
He spoke a lot more English than I did Italian, so I asked him to sit in on our inspection and to translate some of my suggestions to the diving superintendent.
When I was a diver in Africa, we had a very similar situation, where a supply boat had dragged a pipeline and almost broken it in two.
We had cut the damaged section out and used what’s known as a pup piece and two Plithco sleeves, to repair the damage.
A pup piece is a shortish length of pipeline which replaces the damaged section removed.
The Plithco sleeves allow the pup piece to be sealed in place on both ends.
Through Gabrielle I explained the system to the superintendent, so using our drawings and measurements to determine the amount of pipeline that would need to be cut out, he contacted his office with the pup piece and the Plithco suggestion.
The damage to the platform was another issue altogether. It was impossible to get the ROV inside the jacket to determine that damage; the divers would have to do that.
The following day I provided diver support, giving them extra lights and allowing the diving supervisors and superintendent to oversee what their guys were doing.
30 m is at the limit of air diving, which allowed the divers a very short time working on the seabed work site, so Impresub had to send down a saturation diving system, which would allow the divers more time on the bottom, breathing a mixture of helium and oxygen.
Along with the saturation diving equipment, they sent the electric davit which I had requested from Idrotec so that we could launch and recover the RV without such intense diver intervention.
On the 17th and 18th of December we had some bad weather, which stopped us working on the platform.
I took full advantage of the downtime or as we say in the business, WOW (Waiting on Weather) to catch up on sleep, and have breakfast lunch and dinner in the hotel, with nice, and cheap, red wine and an ‘apparitivo’ of Proseco, which the hotel gave free to diners for dinner.
I haven’t mentioned our lunchtime arrangements on the Favignana.
The chief engineer also doubled as the cook.
He rustled up tasty and nutritious meals of pasta every day, which was served with our choice of red or white wine.
The image of billions of cockroaches and tens of thousands of hairy rodents, running around the boat has obviously caused me to suppress the memory of food prepared in the galley there on.
However nobody got cholera typhus bubonic plague leprosy or dysentery, so he kept a sanitary galley, and that’s all I’ll say about that!
As I type, 16 years hence I begin to feel a bit queasy, obviously psychosomatic suggestion.
Of course, just because I was taking my leisure in the hotel, didn’t mean that the wheels of industry were similarly occupied.
While we were away, the three truckloads of additional equipment had been convoying south, arriving on the day that we went back to work. Now that’s what I call good timing. If the equipment had arrived while we were on WOW, we would have had to attend the berth to install our launch skid, but it didn’t, so we didn’t!
It was simply a matter of plugging the cables into the on board electrical generator, and organising the chief engineer, cook and welders mate, to find his welding equipment so that I could sea fasten the skid to the deck.
The two days of WOW, turned into three days away from the site, while the divers saturation system, our launch and recovery skid were installed, and a diamond wire cutter and two technicians came on board.
The cutter is an Italian invention which employs a diamond (industrial diamonds one assumes) encrusted belt to cut with comparative ease through steel.
The divers would attach the cutter to the pipe; the technicians would start the cutter while the ROV watched from a safe position.
It would be necessary to make two cuts either side of the damaged section of pipe.
The damaged section would then be removed so that the distance between both ends could be measured, so that a pup piece could be prepared.
I understood that the Plithco sleeves were on their way from England, but would not arrive before Christmas.
By the time our WOW was over and all this new equipment had arrived, it was into the third week of December, so a lot of the proposed two week job spec had been taken up with determining the extent of the damage, rather than doing anything about it.
I was determined to be at home for Christmas as agreed and I contacted my agent to reiterate my determination on 19th December.
There was a great deal of activity both underwater and on the boat, and it seemed to me that they were going to work through the holidays.
However on that day, we were told that the job would be mothballed until 2 January, and the site would be secured at the latest on the 21st. The ROV system was to stay on board the Favignana; I confirmed those arrangements with Idrotec by phone.
On one of the days leading up to 21st December, a huge luxury liner called to the port and berthed opposite us.
It was so huge that I took a couple of photographs for posterity.
Its name was Costa Concordia, and if that name rings a bell, , it is because it sank close to the island Isola del Giglio in the Tyrrhenian Sea, on the 13th of January 2012, with the loss of 34 lives.
I remember very well being transfixed, along with most of the Western world by the news reports, the video and the story surrounding the sinking.
The name of the giant ship only became significant after it sank, I knew that I had seen it before and the photos I took prove that the vessel gaining notoriety around the world, was the same one that I had seen in Civitavecchia six years previously.
The name is partially obscured in the zoomed in snip, but I think that enough of it can be seen to be sure that it is the same ill-fated luxury cruise liner.
We worked right up to mid day on the 21st, and then spent the afternoon disconnecting our gear and wrapping it in tarpaulin.
At 6:30 AM on 22 December, instead of going to the cake shop after breakfast, I bid farewell to my ROV colleagues, before I was driven by taxi to Fumicino airport for my flight home.
In duty-free I bought four full-size panettone, and four bottles of Italian Proseco. I had been very impressed by the Italian panettone ceremony, which takes place in Italy and on Italian jobs around Christmas. I had seen it firsthand in Egypt some years before see, Christmas with Mr Sandman and Pannetone in Egypt, and I was keen to introduce it at home if I could.
By the time I went for my flight, between buying some gifts in duty-free for the family and my Panettone and Proseco, I must have looked like a walking Christmas tree, decorated with dangling bags and boxes. However the Alitalia flight crew were very helpful, finding safe storage for all my bits and pieces.
I was due to go back to Baku on 7 January, so I would not be going back to Civitavecchia unfortunately, because I was enjoying the job, and I would have loved to see it through to the end.
It seems that Idrotec were disappointed when they were told that I wasn’t going back, but my agent found a worthy substitute, and as I heard later everything went reasonably smoothly, and the pipeline and jacket were fully repaired by the end of March 2007.