Commercial diving support vessels emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, when the need arose for offshore diving operations to be performed below and around oil production platforms and associated installations in open water in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Until that point, most diving operations were from mobile oil drilling platforms, pipe-lay, or crane barges. The diving system tended to be modularised and craned on and off the vessels as a package.
As permanent oil and gas production platforms emerged, the owners and operators were not keen to give over valuable deck space to diving systems because after they came on-line the expectation of continuing diving operations was low.
However, equipment fails or gets damaged, and there was a regular if not continuous need for diving operations in and around oil fields. The solution was to put diving packages on ships. Initially these tended to be oilfield supply ships or fishing vessels; however, keeping this kind of ship 'on station', particularly during uncertain weather, made the diving dangerous, problematic and seasonal. Furthermore, seabed operations usually entailed the raising and lowering of heavy equipment, and most such vessels were not equipped for this task.
This is when the dedicated commercial diving support vessel emerged. These were often built from scratch or heavily converted pipe carriers or other utility ships. The key components of the diving support vessel are:
Most of the vessels currently in the North Sea have been built in the 1980s. The semi-submersible fleet, the Uncle John and similar, have proven to be too expensive to maintain and too slow to move between fields. Therefore, most existing designs are monohull vessels with either a one or a twin bell dive system. There has been little innovation since the 1980s. However, driven by high oil prices since 2004, the market for subsea developments in the North Sea has grown significantly. This has led to a scarcity of diving support vessels and has driven the price up. Thus, contractors have ordered a number of newbuild vessels which are expected to enter the market in 2008.
These vessels are built and designed nowadays not only to support diving activities, but they also support remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) operations with dedicated hangar and LARS for ROV's, support seismic survey operations, support cable-laying operations, etc. Owing to these nature of the modern-day vessels, they may have at any time 80 to 150 project personnel on board, including divers, diving supervisors and superintendents, dive technicians, life support technicians and supervisors, ROV pilots, ROV superintendents, survey team, clients personnel, etc. For all these personnel to carry out their contracted job with an oil and gas company, a professional crew navigate and operate the vessel as per the requirements and instructions of the diving or ROV or survey team superintendents. However, ultimate responsibility lies on the master of the vessel for the safety of every person on board. In expanding the utility of the vessel, just like liveaboard dive boats, these vessels in addition to the usual domestic facilities expected by hotel guests, the vessel will have specialised mix gas diving compressors and reclaim systems, gas storage and gas blending facilities, as well as purpose-built saturation chambers where the divers in compression live. These vessels are designed to be hired by diving service providing companies or directly by oil and gas contractors who then will also hire a diving or ROV or survey service-providing company, which will then utilize the vessel as platform to carry out their activities.
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