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Seafaring A-Z Alphabet – “O” is for…


Seafaring “O” is for…

Let’s get this rolling with:

Oil Tanker

Oil tanker

Oil Tankers – Tankers carrying liquid cargoes such as crude oil, finished petroleum products, liquefied natural gas (LNG), chemicals, edible oils, wine, juice, and molasses are some of the mainstays of shipping.

They play an important role in international trade with a share of over 33% of the world tonnage. Tankers come in varied sizes ranging from handysize tankers to ultra large crude carriers (ULCC) with a deadweight tonnage ranging between 320,000 to 550,000.

Historically, liquid cargoes were carried in amphora, pots then into casks and barrels. But a revolution occurred when it was decided to pour liquid into the holds – and low, bulk liquid cargoes were born.

The move to carry the liquid without the weight and hassle of barrels or other vessels made incredible sense. It was lighter, cheaper, faster and easier – and it became the norm. With the move to tanks filled with liquid, the need for specialised designs was born.

A liquid cargo in a cask was in essence handled no different from bales of wool or cotton. Suddenly bulk liquids changed everything. The 2700-ton “Gluckauf”, built in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1886, became the world’s first “true” oil tanker, with separate tanks for the oil built into her hull. Gluckauf had a bulkhead along her centre-line, and further transverse bulkheads to divide her cargo space into eight tanks.

Above the tanks was a trunk to allow cargo to expand. A pump room separated her tanks from the engine room. The engines were placed right aft and she had a navigational bridge almost amidships. In essence she had all the traits of a modern tanker.

From 1886 onwards the tanker industry saw significant technological advancements. Vessels increased dramatically in size and carrying capacity and progressed from coal-fired engines via steam-turbines to diesel engines.

From the turn of the century onwards demand for oil rocketed. Initially tankers carried already refined products, as the trend was for refineries to be placed close to oil fields. Politics, wars and costs meant that refineries were soon built in importing nations, and so the need to ship crude oil took off.

Oil tankers had played a massive role in the Second World War – and the end of the war did not stop the growth of the oil tankers sizes. The biggest oil tanker in that time was the “Bulkpetrol”. She was built in the end of the 1940s and had capacity of 30,000 tons, which stayed the norm until the middle of the 20th Century. At that time a tanker of around 25,000 ton was a big one and the overall size of tankers was generally limited by the maximum that could use the Suez Canal, about 30,000 tons gross.

A series of Suez Canal closures saw owners look to round the Cape of Good Hope. As a result, tanker sizes began to grow significantly. In 1955 the “Bulkpetrol” was overtaken by “Sinclair Petrolore”, which had a capacity of 56,000 long tons. The battle to be the biggest tanker was hotting up and records kept falling.

In 1959 the 114,356 dwt “Universe Apollo” became the first tanker to pass the 100,000-ton figure: within a decade ships five times that size were being planned. The biggest oil tankers were built in the 1970s after the 1973 oil crisis. Thus a new generation of tanker was born, the VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers) and the ULCCs (Ultra Large Crude Carriers).

The biggest oil tanker and biggest ship ever constructed – “Seawise Giant” was built in 1979, with a DWT of 564,650t and 458.46m in length making her the longest ship ever built – longer than the Petronas Towers are tall! She served from 1979-2009.

For a more in-depth history of tankers and to see the top ten biggest ever –



Oil Pollution Act – The Oil Pollution Act 1990 was passed by the 101st United States Congress, and signed by President George H. W. Bush. In the face of an environmental disaster the Act was set to mitigate and prevent civil liability from the future oil spills off the coast of the United States.

It forms part of oil spill governance in the United States, and requires that companies must have a “plan to prevent spills that may occur” and have a “detailed containment and clean-up plan” for oil spills. The law also includes a clause that prohibits any vessel that, after March 22, 1989, has caused an oil spill of more than one million U.S. gallons in any marine area, from operating in Prince William Sound. Alaska.

The Act was drawn up in the wake of the “Exxon Valdez” disaster in Alaska. The State’s Governor Jay set up a Commission to examine the causes of the oil spill and issued recommendations on potential policy changes. The Commission issued 52 recommendations for improvements to industry, state and federal regulations and the Oil Pollution Act incorporated 50 of them.The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest oil spill in U.S. history at that time – and so it was perhaps inevitable that it would lead to massive change, both operationally and from a liability perspective.

The act also banned single-hull tank vessels of 5,000 gross tons or more from U.S. waters from 2010 onward, apart from those with a double bottom or double sides, which may be permitted to trade to the United States through 2015, depending on their age. Thus the double-hull tanker came into effect.

While the intentions of the Act were to keep US waters clean, there were some knock on effects which served to muddy the maritime industry, as owners sought to limit their liability and some tried to hide deeper behind corporate veils.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill is remembered for as much as its maritime regulation reform it established as for the immense damage the accident inflicted on the environment. As a result of the Exxon Valdez, the oil industry is better equipped to deal with large spill and the liabilities associated with the transportation of oil in the United States, as is the global maritime industry.

OPA90 also expanded the federal US government’s ability to oversee oil spill prevention as well as establishing the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which created a billion dollars per spill incident. The act also create criminal liability for corporate executives for knowingly hiring incompetent personnel and operating inferior vessels.The IMO’s Civil Liability Convention (CLC) and the OPA Trust Fund divide financial and criminal liability between the ship owner and the oil industry. And, oil spill claimants are now guaranteed pay regardless of fault.

Sadly OPA did not have entirely positive consequences – it forced some shipping companies to try and mitigate the liability risks. Single ship owning companies were seen as the answer, and these were often registered in offshore jurisdictions.

Oily Water Separators – An oily water separator (OWS) (is a piece of equipment specific to shipping and is used to separate oil from oily waste water such as bilge water before the waste water is discharged into the environment.

Bilge water is a by-product of shipboard operations, there are oil leaks from running machinery such as diesel generators, air compressors, and the main propulsion engine – these fall into the bilge and mix with water.

The contents of the bilge cannot simply be pumped overboard, it has to be separated, and OWSs have alarms and automatic closure devices which are activated when the oil storage content of the waste water exceeds a certain limit.

These discharges of waste water must comply with the requirements laid out in MARPOL 73/78. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) publishes regulations through the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC). On July 18, 2003, the MEPC issued new regulations that each vessel built after this date had to follow. This document is known as MEPC 107 and it details revised guidelines and specifications for pollution prevention equipment for machinery space bilges of ships.

Each OWS must be able to achieve clean bilge water under 15 ppm of type C oil or heavily emulsified oil, and any other contaminates that may be found. All oil content monitors (OCM) must be tamper-proof. Also whenever the OWS is being cleaned out the OCM must be active.

Anyone with a basic grasp of science may scream out that oil and water do not mix – and they would be right. However, simply letting oil and water separate themselves – a process called “decanting”, does not always meet the 15 ppm criterion. So separation has to be forced, and that is where the OWS comes in.

An OWS is fitted with an oil content meter (OCM) that samples the OWS overboard discharge water for oil content. If the oil content is less than 15 ppm, the OCM allows the water to be discharged overboard. If the oil content is higher than 15 ppm, the OCM will activate an alarm and move a three-way valve that, within a short period of time, will recirculate the overboard discharge water to a tank on the OWS suction side.

An OCM takes a trickle sample from the OWS overboard discharge line and shines a light through the sample to an optical sensor. Since small oil droplets will diffract and diffuse light, a change in signal at the sensor will indicate the presence of oil.

An OWS must be able to clear out contaminants as well as oil. Some of these contaminating agents include lubricating oil, cleaning product, soot from combustion, fuel oil, rust, sewage, and several other things that can be harmful to the ocean environment.

Record keeping is a key component of the operation and all Cargo vessels where MARPOL Convention is applicable must have an oil record book where the chief engineer will record all oil or sludge transfers and discharges within the vessel. This is necessary in order for authorities to be able to monitor if a vessel’s crew has performed any illegal oil discharges at sea. Sadly not all crews abide by the rules, and this is where the “magic pipe” offences occur. A magic pipe is a means of tampering with the OWS – and it allows waste liquids to be discharged directly into the sea regardless of the ppm.

In the United States, magic pipe cases often attract large fines for shipping lines, and prison sentences for crew. Cases are often brought to light by whistle blowers, and there can be substantial dollar rewards for cases in which crew report infractions.



Officer – Medieval shipping fleets were almost entirely composed of merchant ships enlisted into naval service in time of war. From time to time a few “royal ships” owned by the monarch were built for specifically warlike purposes; but most nations did not maintain a permanent core of warships in peacetime.

As such the naval organisation was often haphazard, but onboard this meant that the “merchant” way of life and ranking systems were the first levels and it was only when navies split into commercial and military that differences emerged and evolved.

Today, ships officers usually work in either the deck or engineering department, and the exact duties depend on the rank, size and type of vessel. During the initial officer training programme, a Merchant Navy officer is required to gain a Certificate of Competency (CoC) as an Officer of the Watch (OOW). Additional skills and experience will be gained while on the job, under the supervision of more senior officers.

The Merchant Navy provides clear training routes to enable progression from the junior level OOW to more senior levels. The next levels of competency are recognised through the award of the “chief mate” or “second engineer” certificate. The highest level of competency is master’s or chief engineer’s certificate.

The Deck Officers

The captain or master is the ship’s highest responsible officer, acting on behalf of the ship’s owner. The captain is legally responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the ship, taking responsibility to ensure that all the departments perform legally to the requirements of the ship’s owner and the law. The captain represents the owner and hence is called “master”.

The Chief Officer/First mate is the head of the deck department on a merchant vessel, second-in-command after the ship’s Master. The Chief mate’s primary responsibilities are the vessel’s cargo operations, its stability, and supervising the deck crew. The chief mate typically stands the 4-8 navigation watch. The chief mate works closely with the bosun on deck issues such as maintenance of the ship’s hull and cargo gear. The chief officer assumes command of the whole ship in the absence or incapacitation of the master.

The Second officer/Second mate is a qualified OOW, directing the bridge team and navigating the ship. The Second mates’ primary duty is navigational, which includes updating charts and publications, keeping them current, making passage plans, and all aspects of ship navigation.

The Third officer/Third Mate is the least experienced qualified OOW and holds a navigational watch – usually the 8-12, thus enabling other officers to often be on hand in case of any problems. The Third mates’ duty aside from watchingkeeping is in matters of safety and fire fighting gear, inspecting lockers, lifeboats, and all equipment onboard insuring that it is safe and operational.

The Engineering Officers

The chief engineer on a merchant vessel is the official title of someone qualified to oversee the engine department. The qualification for this position is colloquially called a “Chief’s Ticket”. The Chief Engineer, commonly referred to as “The chief”, or just “chief”, is responsible for all operations and maintenance that have to do with all machinery and equipment throughout the ship.

The second engineer is the officer responsible for supervising the daily maintenance and operation of the engine department. The Second reports directly to the chief engineer, and liaises closely with the engine crew.

The Third engineer is usually in charge of boilers, fuel, auxiliary engines, condensate and feed systems, and is the third most senior marine engineer on board. Depending on usage, “the Third” is also typically in charge of fuelling (a.k.a. bunkering), granted the officer holds a valid Person In Charge (PIC) endorsement for fuel transfer operations.

The fourth engineer is the most junior marine engineer of the ship, they are usually responsible for sewage treatment, lube oil, bilge, and oily water separation systems. Depending on usage, this person is called “The Fourth”, and usually stands a watch – similar to the Third Mate, this is likely to be the 8-12.

Electrical and Electro-technical officer – the “lecky” is in charge of all the electrical systems on the ship. The role is slightly to one side of the engine department, and is one of the most vital positions in the technical hierarchy. The electrician or Electrotech usually reports to the chief engineer. Deck and Engine Cadets complete the usual hierarchy, and these are new entrants undergoing training – both in phases at sea and in colleges ashore. Some vessels, but not many, may still carry pursers looking after administration and catering. While on cruise ships, there is an entire department dedicated to hotel and guest services.



Offshore – For millennia shipping consisted of ships which carried cargo or people from place to place. While fishing vessels went to sea for their harvest, there was little work which went on at sea.

The “Great Eastern” perhaps can be considered the first “offshore” vessel as it laid telegraph cables at sea – but it wasn’t until ships began drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 1947 that the real “offshore” industry was born.

The first commercial offshore oil well drilled by a “mobile” rig out of sight of land, in 14 feet of water in a Shoal Area off southeastern Louisiana was the start of a boom – and some 70 years later the occasion has been rightly recognised in the annals of the petroleum industry – an event which created a whole new phase of finding and producing crude oil and natural gas. The offshore industry primarily comprises the offshore oil and gas industry, the submarine cable sector and the offshore wind energy industry. Key to these are offshore platforms, drillships, supply vessels, rigs, wind turbines and cable ships – just some of the core components of this industry which while it may share the seas with more traditional shipping, has an identity very much of its own.

Offshore platforms or oil platforms are giant structures used for the purpose of drilling and extracting gas and oil from wells, located deep beneath the ocean floors. These platforms have onsite processing and storage facilities, as well as provide accommodation for the crew.

Offshore platforms are designed to last decades in the harsh environment and can be “fixed” or “floating”. There are different types of platforms that can be operated in a wide range of water depths from 200 to 12,000 ft. Among widely used oil platforms today are: fixed platforms, Compliant Towers, Semi-submersible Platform, Floating Production Systems, Tension Leg Platforms, Drillships and Spar Platforms.

Providing stores, safety and a link back to the shore, are the supply vessels which are specially designed to support the offshore oil and gas industry. They form the primary mode of transportation for carrying goods and occasionally even the workforce to oil stations far into the Ocean.

Some of them such as drillships are used as offshore platforms for oil and gas explorations and productions. Offshore ships can broadly be classified into Platform Supply Vessels (PSV), offshore barges, and all types of specialised marine vessels, such as pipe layers, dredgers, and shuttle tankers.

These are highly advanced, technical vessels. They have pioneered the use of technologies such as Dynamic Positioning, and they have allowed mankind to not just pass over the sea, but to exploit and even harness some aspects of it.

The industry has been going through a tough time of late, as oil prices have fallen. Drillships are laying idle, and there has been a number of companies which have slashed their workforce – and many have sold or laid up their vessels.

Over board


Overboard – Falling overboard is one of the perennial fears for any seafarer. Whether washed off deck by a wave, or falling off equipment – the fact is that it can happen. Thankfully trained seafarers tend to be fairly good at staying on the ship. Sadly the same cannot be said for cruise ship passengers.

Since the year 2000, hundreds of passengers have fallen overboard, be it by choice, accident or something darker – and there are many instances of suspected murder which has seen people pushed into the sea.

The number of overboard passengers has been ramping up – for years it seemed that an average of just 10 overboard incidents was the sad toll each year. However, 2015 recorded the highest total when 27 people toppled into the sea. This is an upwards and worrying trend.

It seems that male cruisers are much more likely to go overboard than female, and that the average age of passengers who go overboard is 41. Passengers are most likely to go overboard on the last night of their cruise, and many are found to be either drunk, climbing on the railings or jumping between balconies.

You might think that falling overboard means definite death – but incredibly, not so. It is understood that in recent years as many as ten people have been rescued, one after 18 hours in the water. It is more likely to end tragically though, and so every effort and ounce of common sense should be applied in keeping out of the water.

Upon plummeting into cold waters, victims invariably go into what is termed “Cold Shock Response”. An abrupt fall in skin temperature prompts an involuntary gasp, inevitably swallowing seawater and often leading to drowning. 60 per cent of deaths in cold seas occur in the first few minutes of entering the water. So even if you’re spotted going overboard, by the time the cruise ship turns around it may well be too late.

If the first moments don’t kill – a further 20 per cent of victims succumb to hypothermia, which can set in after 30 minutes, and the final 20 per cent die as they are being rescued – a surprising incidence that experts attribute to victims suddenly relaxing with the arrival of rescuers.

The temperature of the sea is a major key to survival and, not surprisingly, falling into the tropical Caribbean rather than the chilly waters of the North Sea gives the edge. Providing of course that the sharks don’t get you.

As a rule of thumb, it is estimated that in waters of around 5°C, victims have roughly 60 minutes before hypothermia sets in; at 10°C this doubles to two hours; and at 15°C it extends to six hours. When the water is above 25°C the threat shifts from “cold to creature” – as the wildlife becomes increasingly interested and hungry.

Owner – A ship owner is the owner of a merchant vessel (commercial ship). In the commercial sense of the term, a ship owner is someone who equips and exploits a ship, usually for delivering cargo at a certain freight rate, either as per a freight rate or based on hire.

The registration of ships was made compulsory by the British Navigation Act of 1660, in the reign of Charles II, and a certificate of registry was granted to the owner or owners. The British Registry Act of 1786, in the reign of George III, enlarged the scope of the boundary of registration and made it compulsory for every owner of a vessel of 15 tons or more to have the tonnage measurement ascertained and a certificate of registry to contain full particulars, dimensions etc.

The more information authorities have, then of course the easier to raise tax revenue, and the Act for the Registration of British Vessels in 1845, which consolidated a number of previous Acts, definitely laid down that the property in every ship or vessel of which there are more than one owner shall be taken and considered to be divided into 64 equal parts or shares, and the proportion held by each owner to be registered.

Records as far back as the early part of the 17th century show that ships were held in shares, and managed by a person recognised as the managing owner, who had ordinarily a share in the ship. According to Lloyd’s Register, in the 17th century the master appears to have been considered as an owner of shares, a partner in the adventure, and taking the position of managing director.

Under English law and UK registration, ships are in 64 shares, which is by virtue of something of an ancient custom. The 64ths rule seems to have been selected as halving the ship and of each resulting shares until the whole is reduced to sixty-four parts is practically convenient. Other theories state that ships were built with 64 ribs, or that taxation used to be 36%, leaving 64% to be shared amongst the owners.

The UK practice is not the only way – for instance French and Italian ships are in 24 shares, while Cypriot and Liberian ships are divided into 100 shares. Alas for centuries unscrupulous individuals and companies have sent ships off to sea without adequate resources or support – a way of dealing with abuses and safety failings was needed and this came to a head with the introduction of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code. This slightly side stepped the issue of “ownership” and instead honed in on the reality that ships were either owned or operated by a company.

The ISM Code doesn’t differentiate such subtleties – if you are the owner, if you are the operator you are still compelled to act. These parties are instead termed the “Company” which is defined as the ship owner or any person, such as the manager or bareboat charterer, who has assumed responsibility for operating the ship.” The Code establishes safety-management objectives and requires a safety management system (SMS) to be established by “the Company”, which is then required to establish and implement a policy for achieving these objectives. This includes providing the necessary resources and shore-based support. Every company is expected “to designate a person or persons ashore having direct access to the highest level of management”.