Local firm makes its mark in Antarctica

by Mark Burgess -

A global marketplace is what you make of it. View it from afar, marvel at the economics of massive corporations, or accept what is possible, without restriction or hesitation and put your own profile out there.

It is the latter kind of thinking that has placed Lerwick-based marine engineering firm Ocean Kinetics as a key sub-contractor in the rebuilding of a quay in Antarctica, geographically just about as far away from Shetland as is possible, but from a commercial point of view, it has just been a case of putting the right staff forward for the kind of work that will pay dividends both financially and in reputation.

Ocean Kinetics managing director John Henderson watches the weather forecast in Antarctica on his mobile phone from his desk in Lerwick, as the company’s employees go about their business on the opposite hemisphere, in an opposite season, in an alien environment almost unimaginable from afar, except for the abundance of documentaries that seek to explain the place.

“The world’s a small place these days” observes John, “It’s not much harder to get from Shetland than it is from anywhere else in Europe.” The company has previously fulfilled contracts in Jordan and Libya and is currently scoping a project in Ghana.

“Generally, workers from Shetland-based firms have a good work ethic, are multi-skilled, and open to discussion about whatever the job will entail. Shetland companies are more adaptable and can act quite quickly. We are used to the ups and downs that come with fish farming and the oil and gas industry and it makes us more flexible.”

The benefit of this approach is apparent in the contract with British Antarctic Survey (BAS), in Antarctica. Rather than engaging commercial divers who will perform a single role, the client is gaining multi-skilled experts who will tackle whatever is required to fulfil their contract – an essential principle in such an inaccessible site.

Shetland companies are more adaptable and can act quite quickly. We are used to the ups and downs that come with fish farming and the oil and gas industry and it makes us more flexible.

The project to modernise the UK Antarctic survey bases is held by BAM International, one of the biggest marine engineering outfits on the globe. They were connected to Ocean Kinetics through Arch Henderson, civil engineers and architects who have bases throughout Scotland, including Lerwick. They had worked together with Ocean Kinetics before and knew them to be a good prospect for the Antarctic role, having previously worked together to deliver temporary repairs at the BAS base, the precursor to the quay replacement.

The contract has demanded a high level of commitment from Ocean Kinetics staff. They are packaged up with everything they could possibly need for a five-month continuous stint in the Antarctic. Everyone going to the base is rigorously checked for medical and dental issues so as to avoid the necessity of any evacuation. In this late part of the summer working season, the base operates without the benefit of a functioning airstrip, relying on ice-breaker ships to ferry supplies and people to and from the base.

A placement in Antarctica is, for many, the chance of a lifetime. To visit and stay in the most pristine environment on the planet, with unique wildlife, mountain ranges and the iceberg-spattered ocean is an experience second to none. “We had no shortage of volunteers,” says John, “And those that went had to be hand-picked from a long list.”

From a working point of view, this job required a small but profound shift in working priorities. For Ocean Kinetics, and any reputable engineering firm, health and safety is always the top priority but in Antarctica, that priority is trumped by ecological safety, to protect the environment. This extends to every part of contract. Every component and tool is checked, sprayed and sealed, if necessary, to prevent the accidental transmission of invasive species to the island base at Rothera.

Another notable change in working for the divers comes from the regular presence of apex predators. Leopard seals and orcas are natural visitors to the working area and any sighting of either requires evacuation from the water to prevent incident. For any divers from Shetland, the evacuation is itself extraordinary, given the regular presence of other seal species and orcas in Shetland waters where they work, but the Antarctic rules have been set with good reason, after the tragic drowning of a scientist in 2003 when she became the focus of interest of a leopard seal. The incident was unprecedented, but has changed working practises for all at the location. Another consideration for divers is the danger of iceberg calving. While the ice sheet is largely clear during the summer working period, these smaller icebergs remain all year and have the potential to cause a lot of damage.

Another notable change in working for the divers comes from the regular presence of apex predators. Leopard seals and orcas are natural visitors to the working area and any sighting of either requires evacuation from the water to prevent incident.

In their downtime, the workers at the base have a thriving social life and everyone is encouraged to go out into the wilds to enjoy ice-climbing, snowboarding and exploring ice caves. There are also amateur dramatics to enjoy and a small bar.

When it comes to staying in touch with the outside world, workers have access to a basic internet service, so they can send emails and photos back to base. Interestingly, phone calls to the Rothera base are made through a Cambridge number, which is where the BAS is stationed in the UK.

For the technically inclined, the quay-building project itself is an ingenious piece of engineering, unlike any other. The new quay sits atop a 30˚ slope that descends to 1,000 metres. To put a perspective on that, all the seas visible from UK shores range between 50 and 120 metres. Drop something off a pier here and you are quite likely get it back. Not so at the Rothera base.

Building the quay has required the fabrication of large panels, carried by ship to the location and stitched together and pinned into the bedrock, set in grout to stabilise them, very unlike the normal process of pile-driving that would be used at home. This prefabricated system must be robust enough for both the berthing RSS Sir David Attenborough and the rigours of ice sheet and berg. The system was tested in the UK before fabrication and Ocean Kinetics were involved in the trial.

The construction, or installation of the new quay is on track, “Its all gone reasonably well,” says John, “The weather has been really good. Its been -20˚ most days , but watching the temperatures change on my phone, we’re very much getting into winter now”.

After the job is complete, the crew are taken by icebreaker to the Falklands and then flown back to RAF Brize Norton before the last leg home to Shetland. The work then continues in the next Antarctic summer season with a back fill of the new quay structure and the fitting of all the fittings and furniture that a quay requires, like bollards and lighting.

Meanwhile, Ocean Kinetics carries on with the regular work nearer to home, with a continued eye on the global market. John Henderson continues the boundary-less approach to running the business, with new apprentices employed each year and a depot established on the UK mainland. His advice to other local firms is simple: “Don’t be afraid to try. You do your due diligence of course but, on a wider market, Shetland firms always punch above their weight.”

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