A shining example of teamwork under duress
By Ray Scippa
It was March 2020. The Polar Endeavour was en route from the U.S. West Coast to a shipyard in Singapore for its required dry dock maintenance scheduled to start April 1.
Initial underwater inspection in dry dock.
2020 Endeavour Shipyard
Deck: Captain Nelson Lloyd Bourgon; Chief Mate Crystal Parker Maass; 2nd Mate Michele Handtmann; 3rd Mate Matthew McMahon; 3rd Mate John Rodriguez; Bosun Clarence Dials; AB Jonathan Straley; AB Ron Murchison
Engine: Chief Engineer Jeremy Nichols; 1st A/E Alexys Nielson; 2nd A/E Franz Carmine; 3A/E James T Payne; Utility Abraham Dorado Valera
Galley: Chief Steward Alex Kurrus; Cook/Baker Daniel Sieniki
Polar Shoreside Team: Engineering Superintendent John Strebel; Engineering Superintendent Andrew McIsaac; HSE Construction Advisor Wayne Bishop; Materials Coordinator Lee Payne; Pumproom Specialist Larry McDougall; Bridge Upgrade Specialist Steve Wall; Bridge Upgrade Specialist Dale Schults
As the ship passed Hawaii, the crew was nearly finished cleaning the 900-foot-long vessel’s cargo tanks.
Welding is part of the dry dock process and cannot be done with oil residue left in the tanks. During the three-week voyage, the crew worked around the clock, using high pressure hot water, and getting into the tank with shovels to remove any remaining gunk.
Three days past Hawaii, they got the word – Singapore was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We turned her around,” said Polar Tankers Operations Manager Doug Lamson. “They stopped cleaning and headed back to Alaska.”
The ship was put back into service transporting oil from Alaska to the U.S. West Coast.
To return the ship to service, Polar Tankers had to apply to the regulatory authorities, in this case the United States Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping for extensions. That meant completing extension surveys – dive, hull, boiler, engine room and safety inspections – to get a three-month extension.
“It was a lot of work, but the team got it done,” said Engineering Manager Bob Hayes. “And it allowed us to do some more trips on the West Coast and take an export load to China.”
When the Endeavour transported the load to China in July, local COVID-related restrictions kept the crew onboard waiting for three weeks before the oil could be delivered. By then, it was time to go back to Singapore where the shipyard had re-opened. On the way, the tanks would need to be cleaned again.
The Endeavour finally arrived at the shipyard layberth in Singapore on August 7th.
“When we got to Singapore, the rules had changed, and our 23 crewmembers could not leave the ship. They couldn’t even walk down the gangway and go on the dock,” Hayes said. “Some of our crew had been on the ship for close to 90 days.”
A skeleton crew trapped onboard
The start date of the dry dock project was pushed back to late August. Singapore provided a lay berth where the Endeavour and its crew waited for two weeks.
Engineering Superintendents John Strebel and Andrew McIsaac served as project managers on the long- delayed shipyard project.
Soon after Endeavour’s arrival, the 10 crew members who had reached the end of their contracts prepared to depart the ship. Normally, during a shipyard project, the onboard crew starts the project, and half are relieved halfway through. COVID restrictions, aimed at abating the spread of the virus within the community, would not allow that.
“COVID restrictions included regulating the movement of people in and out of the country,” said Strebel. “Crew members were allowed to depart to go home but new crew would not be permitted to fly into the country to take their place.”
The rule, according to McIsaac, was that new crew could arrive only within three days of the ship’s sailing. In other words, no new crew members could come until late October.
“So now we’re looking at a half crew to do a full shipyard,” said Strebel.
The project would be completed by the 13 still onboard – five from the engine room department and eight from the deck department. Enough credit cannot be given to the dedication and commitment of the remaining crew members during the yard period. The project's success was due to their tireless efforts.
“That was definitely a challenge,” added McIsaac.
To make things even more difficult, the onboard crew was not allowed to step foot on shore. During a normal shipyard project, crew members doing onboard inspections would have the opportunity to leave the ship and go into the shoreside shops to observe work being done.
“That was disheartening for the crew,” said McIsaac. “Getting into the yard to see both sides of the overhaul process is a big part of their learning curve. Now they were captive onboard. It was a huge burden on the crew and the shoreside staff.”
Quarantine at the Hard Rock Hotel
As part of the shoreside staff, Strebel, McIsaac, Materials Coordinator Lee Payne and HSE Construction Advisor Wayne Bishop flew into Singapore on Aug. 11.
“We landed in Singapore and had no idea what to expect,” Strebel said. “We sat in the airport for a few hours, going through interviews and inspections. Then at 2 a.m. they lined us up, led us out to a private bus and took us to a hotel that was selected by the Singapore government, which would be our quarantine hotel for the next 14 days.”
During the airport wait, McIsaac said they learned they would be staying at the Hard Rock Hotel.
“We Googled it and saw pictures of a four-star hotel. We got excited, thinking we had hit the jackpot. It was quite a shock when we arrived and learned the quarantine rules and requirements. They said, your key will work once, upon entry to your room, you cannot leave again unless told to by immigration inspectors."
Strebel said they got video calls every day from immigration.
“They would ask you to sweep the room with your camera so they could ensure that you were actually in your assigned room. Every other day three immigration inspectors would knock on your door and you would have to present your passport and verify that you were truly in there,” added Strebel.
The rest of the shoreside staff flew into Singapore in subsequent waves. Once each team member completed quarantine and tested negative for COVID-19, they were able to roam free.
Preparing for potential lockdown
The Endeavour crew did not know how many local support workers would be released by the government to work each day. Local yard workers, who live in dorms, were COVID tested every 14 days. If one of the workers tested positive, they would lock down the entire dorm.
If there was an outbreak onboard, the vessel would be isolated, thoroughly cleaned and everyone tested. They had to approach the work each day thinking what should or should not be started with the looming potential for a lockdown in mind.
“If the ship or the shipyard was to lock down,” Strebel said, “we needed to be able, in short order, to get the ship out of Singapore.”
They prioritized work to clear regulatory requirements and get the ship back into service, but the intent was to complete the full scope of work.
“We kept pushing toward that,” Strebel said, “keeping our options so we could leave sooner if we had to.”
In the end, they completed the full scope of work except for some large capital projects accomplished later back on the West Coast.
Ice cream, KFC and Dunkin Donuts
Under the circumstances, keeping up crew morale was a challenge.
“Normally the crew would work a 12-hour shift from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then go into Singapore for dinner,” said McIsaac. “This time they could not leave the ship. We asked them ‘if you could have anything from onshore what would you want?’”
The first request was ice cream, perhaps the hardest thing to get in Singapore where the temperature was 82 degrees every day. They made it happen.
“Then we did a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner,” said Strebel, “a little bit of America. It went a long way. Their whole world lit up.”
When the crew was finally allowed down the gangway into the dry dock for the first time after months onboard the ship, they were greeted with a selection of Dunkin' Donuts specialty iced coffees.
Three to go in 2021
On October 25th, the Polar Endeavour left the Singapore shipyard. She completed her sea trials, received her full certificates and the Condition Assessment Program Grade 1 rating required to do business.
“It was a huge accomplishment considering the circumstances,” said Strebel. "The entire crew of the Polar Endeavour should be proud of the efforts they put forward during this challenging project."
Strebel and McIsaac left Singapore by air on Oct. 28 just two days before their visas would have expired.
In 2021 three Polar Tankers – the Discovery, Enterprise and Resolution – are scheduled to undergo dry dock. The Discovery arrived in January and encountered new requirements. Everyone needed to be tested and have a negative COVID test before being allowed onto the dock. All shoreside employees and vendors must be tested every seven days.
“We are taking it one step at a time,” said Bob Hayes.
In the words of Global Marine & Polar Tanker Manager Chris Bulera: “They have the Endeavour’s shining example of teamwork under duress to guide them.”