By TIM SMITH
Fierce winds and giant waves are a fact of life for the crew of a large ship on the Atlantic – but the Oleander is built to weather the storm.
Safety bolsters to stop people falling out of bed and special devices on the stove to keep meals in pots are just some of the measures in place on the cargo ship that keeps Bermuda supplied with essential goods all the year round.
But careful planning and skilful navigation remain two of the most important factors in protecting crew and cargo against the perils of a hurricane.
Bermuda Container Line president and chief executive Barry Brewer said: “There are multiple risks associated with extreme weather.
“They include massive waves, wind and visibility. The lashing required for all containers, trailers and vehicles on board the Oleander must be increased as heavy rolling or slamming of the vessel can enable cargo to get loose and potentially get damaged or lost overboard.
“Loose cargo can put a vessel at risk.”
Mr Brewer said BCL’s standard operating procedure is “safety first”.
“The captain will select the safest route and vessel speed in order to minimise the pounding and rolling of the vessel to protect the cargo as well as the crew. Weather can still be challenging.”
The current Oleander, which has served the island since 2019, is significantly bigger than its predecessor, and can carry more than 450 20-foot containers.
It is also better designed to handle rough seas – especially considering an increase in storm activity in recent years.
Mr Brewer said a range of extra safety precautions were built into the new ship.
“When the current Oleander was constructed, crew berths were designed with bolsters around the edges of the crew’s bunks to prevent them from rolling out of their beds in heavy weather,” he said.
“The stove-top cookers in the galley are on gimbals to keep the meals in the pots when on the stove.”
Yet maintaining schedule remains a challenge when navigating major storms.
“Severe weather events are a normal part of shipping operations with people and technology deployed to help make informed decisions,” Mr Brewer said.
“Ultimately, final decisions regarding the schedule and to keep the vessel and crew safe are the responsibility of the captain.
“The challenge is to anticipate the speed, size, strength and direction of major weather systems including hurricanes.
“The captain will then need to decide whether to delay a scheduled departure to either go behind a hurricane or major storm or to depart early enough to get ahead of the system.
“While schedule is always important, BCL’s standard operating procedure is safety first.”
The captain selects the angle and direction that he chooses to navigate difficult seas.
He must also bear in mind the safe entry of the vessel into port could be jeopardised by heavy winds.
“In the past, channel markers have also been dislodged,” Mr Brewer said. “Marine and Ports personnel first must survey in case any have shifted and extra care in navigating is required.”
When the schedule is disrupted by a storm, a system is in place to ensure the island still receives its cargo in the most efficient manner possible.
Bermuda imports are built on a just-in-time inventory control system, meaning BCL provides 48-hour delivery of essential goods from the US East Coast every week.
And because importers have reliable connections to international suppliers, they can stock a two-week supply of inventory in their warehouses.
Mr Brewer said: “Planning for the hurricane season begins with the local importers increasing their stock of essential items.
“Subsequently, the process of monitoring storms commences with the anticipation and management of supply and demand before the arrival of an expected hurricane.
“Water, food, batteries, plywood, slate and tarpaulins are all stocked each hurricane season and often the week before a hurricane is expected.
“Following hurricane damage, stocks are supplemented and topped up.”
The Government, local stevedores and shipping companies all have disaster planning and recovery protocols in place in case container ships are unable to bring goods to the island for a prolonged period of time.
Mr Brewer said: “The risk of damage or loss of one of the regular container carriers should be minimal as captains receive real-time accurate forecasts and retain a safe margin from the developing hurricane systems.
“As such, a day or two arrival delay may be experienced on occasion depending upon the safety related routes that are decided to skirt major storms. There is always a worry that the Hamilton docks and/or equipment is damaged.”
He added: “Bermuda is fortunate in that before or after a major hurricane any urgently needed supplies and inventory can be quickly sourced from North America and delivered by BCL via Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, often in just two days.”
The BCL is playing its part in researching rising water temperatures which scientists believe are contributing to increased storm activity.
Forecasters have predicted 2021 will be the sixth overactive hurricane season in a row, with between 16 and 20 named storms, including up to ten hurricanes.
This compares to the 30-year average of 14 named storms including seven hurricanes, and follows a record-breaking season last year, in which the Atlantic was hit by 30 named storms.
Scientific equipment installed on the Oleander collects data such as carbon dioxide levels in the water, as part of a project involving the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and researchers from Rhode Island, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Data has shown the ocean has warmed over the past 30 years, from 1.8F to 2.1F from the edge of the US continental slope to Bermuda down to depths of 1,200 feet.
Observations from the Oleander have shown surface waters are not cooling as much during winter, meaning it takes less time for the upper ocean to reach the temperature that feeds hurricanes.
“Increasing water temperatures in the Atlantic are of concern, seemingly increasing hurricane size and strength,” Mr Brewer said.