The boats that service Robin Rigg
Paul Quayle is driving me the short distance from E.ON's Operations Facility to Workington's Prince of Wales dock, but a goods train has parked itself across the nearest access road and we have to enter the port by another route. We drive along the dockside but there's no sign of Robin Rigg's two service boats - they're moored outside the dock gates, unable to enter before high tide. It's a "weather day", which means the conditions on the Firth are too rough for the boats to work out amongst the wind-turbines. Although the driving rain has ceased the waves are still piling in against the shore.
Paul hands me a high-vis vest, a life-jacket and a white hard-hat, and I struggle with recalcitrant buckles while he punches a number into a keypad and lets us through a metal gate. Grey water sloshes against green-rimed pillars and the wind hums through the rungs of the metal stairs.
Windcat3 - leased from Windcat Workboats - is moored closest to the stairway and Paul speaks to her skipper on his phone; in seconds, E.ON's own boat, Solway Spirit, has reversed out of the way and Windcat shifts laterally then turns so her bow is square-on to the platform. It's so quick, so easy - and I step down onto the deck.
The skipper of Solway Spirit grins and shouts that they'll see me soon and as I go into Windcat's cabin and take off all the safety gear, Nikki Mallett puts on the kettle. Nikki is the skipper ("Do you want my Sunday name?" she asks. "It's Nicole, but nobody'll recognise me"). Paul is more interested in the tin of biscuits, and there's a lot of joking about how the biscuits were rescued from the Solway Spirit.
Today Windcat's crew is Brian Akitt, from Silloth, who is both skipper or crew as necessary. Brian is ex-Royal Navy, and a volunteer lifeboatman. He did his Windcat training in Holland and this is his first job servicing a wind-farm. Nikki works for Windcat Workboats, and before her current three years working on this E.ON project, had spent nearly six years servicing Dutch wind-farms. She knows the twin-hulled Windcat well. "I drove this one over from IJmuiden, it was a four-day passage. And we've been to Ireland, too. There're only a few jet-boats in the fleet, and not many people know how to drive them. So sometimes we get called up if they're stuck - Brian or myself have to go and help."
Her Dad is also one of Windcat's skippers, and when I ask when she started working on boats, she smiles: "I grew up on boats - I've been around boats since I was about three weeks old. My parents used to take me out with them in their fishing boat, so I've always been around water - sail or power. I was always out water-skiing or fishing when I was little." Nikki was in the Olympic youth wind-surfing squad when she was fifteen, and worked for her father's powerboat school from her mid-teens, so it's easy to see what she means when she says of skippering Windcat, "It's better than working for a living!"
The boat's interior is a surprise, it's like a cosy room, with a small galley, table and chairs, a clutter of books and magazines, an area for hanging wet clothes, and windows on all sides. Stairs by the bridge lead down to the heads (toilets), a shower, and four bunks. It feels comfortable, and Nikki agrees: "It's a nice homely boat, we love this boat. "
Windcat is twin-hulled and jet-propelled and can travel at up to 25 knots in suitable conditions, so the eight miles to the windfarm can be covered in as little as 25 minutes. "It's a very different ride, not like any other boat I've been on. She's very stable," Brian says and Paul, who has been listening, agrees. You have only to look at the array of objects lying around to see that: in a yacht everything would need to be slotted into pockets or tied down.
Nevertheless, the logistics of moving people and objects, some of them sharp-cornered and heavy, from heaving deck to ladder, can be pretty formidable. Previously, when I had been looking round the Robin Rigg Operations Facility with Sally Shenton, the Site Manager, (read the story about Robin Rigg for more on this) she had explained, "The trick with offshore wind is planning ahead and being organised. It's a half-hour boat trip out, you take half-an-hour getting the technicians off the boat - and there's the same at the end of the day, getting them all off and into the boat and the trip back again. We aim never to forget things and to be extra-organised!"
The boat is also, as I have already seen, very manoeuvrable, with the ability to move sideways as well as forward and astern. It must approach a turbine tower very carefully and it must be sufficiently stable for the technicians to get off onto the ladder, and for the lift-bags and the tool-boxes to be clipped on and winched up by the crane.
In theory, neither Windcat nor the Solway Spirit are suitable for servicing the turbines in greater than two-metre waves, because it can then be difficult to transfer people to the ladders: interestingly, Windcat is designed to have reduced buoyancy in the bow so that it doesn't lift too much with each wave.
"But whoever's on deck will be watching the waves and will tell them when to get off," Nikki explains, and she and Brian laugh: there are clearly some amusing stories there.
Later, Dave and James on the Solway Spirit are talking about the ladders, and they point out that at low tide it can be as much as a 20-metre climb. "The first-timers can be a bit nervous but generally they're okay," James says, "but sometimes one of them will be looking up and going ooof!"
"And they're wearing those heavy one-piece suits. Earlier when it was so hot they were really sweating," Dave adds.
The support vessels are ready for use 24 hours a day, with a night crew to keep them in readiness for when the day crew arrive at 7am. The crews do a 12-hour shift, ten days on and four days off, and the technicians they transport might be out working on the turbines all day. "We just move about according to the techs," Dave says. "Some days we can be really busy, going from one turbine to another."
As Nikki says, "Every day's different - different tide, different wind, different swell. In the construction phase I saw three or four of the towers being built, it was amazing, and we were really busy taking out different contractors. But they're all reliant on us as skippers - we need to be aware of the weather, and need to be able to get them off. It's the skipper's decision as to whether we go - and it would be our fault if we couldn't get them off."
Has anyone had to stay out on the turbines? "Not here." There are more shared grins. But it's early days at Robin Rigg, and only this morning the Spirit had returned to the dock through four-metre waves.
"One of the techs was sick on the way back, Dave's only just finished clearing it up!"
Paul interjects: "There are sleeping bags, ration-bags - enough for 3 days' survival - on all the towers. Playing cards ..."
When I eventually step down onto the deck of E.ON's Solway Spirit, I'm greeted by the beaming skipper, David McConnell, and James Maginnis - and the alien. There is a constant jokey and good-humoured atmosphere on the two boats, and Dave tells me, "I've lost count of the funny things that happen." He and James tell me some funny stories as illustration. "We play a lot of jokes on each other, there's a lot of banter going on."
Solway Spirit has a deeper cabin and although she too can transport twelve technicians, she is much more cramped. "It's based on a day-boat, there's only one bunk below," Dave explains as he shows me how some equipment can be folded away to make more space at the table. We're chatting about what it's like to move the technicians and their equipment around the windfarm when Dave unexpectedly asks, "Would you like to go outside and see what it's like?" - in other words, to drive out of the protection of the harbour wall into the Firth? I most certainly would! It takes no time at all for Paul to get clearance from E.ON's Operational Facility and when Dave radios the harbour control, saying he's got a visitor on board and wants to go out "for five minutes", there is immediate assent.
I join Dave in the cockpit and he pushes down the arm-rests on my tall, comfortable seat; James steps out and unties us from Windcat and brings the fenders inboard; Dave presses the starter, pushes a couple of levers, and we slide sideways then turn and head out to sea. The engines are surprisingly quiet as we motor past the just-visible sandbar, where cormorants are squatting drying their wings - and then we're out into the swell. It's still fairly sheltered, the waves are only a couple of metres high, but Dave grins and tells me to "Hang on tight!" as the square bow rises and then crashes down into a deep trough. The swell seems huge, and I'm gripping the arm-rests tightly - but the boat sits well and stable despite the roller-coaster of the waves, and it's also exhilarating. All too soon we turn, leaving a frothy white wake, and now, with the waves on the stern, all is quiet again and we potter back towards the steps. James had been sitting in the cabin talking to Paul, but now his smiling head appears in the companionway. "Bit of a difference now, eh?"
James used to have his own trawler, working out of Kilkeel, County Down, before he joined the Solway Spirit as crew and skipper; he too is a lifeboat volunteer, and he was on Spirit when it helped rescue a yacht off Whitehaven. "We got given the E.ON 'Take Care' award for that rescue, the boss came and presented it."
Dave, too, was once a trawlerman, based at Fleetwood: "I was on deep-sea trawlers when I first left school. Out in the Atlantic - it was horrible!"
I've become used to discovering that the men who work in the ports, and in Fisheries' Protection, and on the Solway's other boats, all know each other; the sea is a strong uniter of communities and individuals. But now I find an unexpected shore's-length connection -- Dave is also a wildfowler, and a warden on the salt-marshes; he and Brian Hodgson (see the Wild-fowling story) are on the committee of the South Solway Wildfowlers Association and, like Brian, he is emphatic that the greater part of the attraction is the "being there", out on the empty marshes, with - or even without - the birds.
Nikki emails me a few days later: "We've had a few weather days this week. We pulled the guys off in 40 knots of wind yesterday and came back in with a three-metre sea! That was an exciting day! It's an adrenaline rush when the weather picks up so fast and you have to get six teams off before it picks up even more." And I could hear the laughter in her postscript: "My Dad was on the deck getting the guys off and he got soaked with waves crashing round the turbine and over the bow!"
By visiting the service vessels I've been privileged to have a small glimpse into what it's like to be at the very practical edge of the windfarm project, contending with the sea. The camaraderie and joke-playing are an important antidote to what Nikki, Brian, Dave and James have all stressed is the great responsibility that is the main part of their job; as Dave says, "It can be challenging at times. Safety is the biggest thing - we've got twelve people on board, and their lives are in my hands. I can't take risks."
Text and photos (unless otherwise stated) are copyright of Ann Lingard, July 2011
I would like to thank the skippers and crews of Solway Spirit and Windcat3 for the very enjoyable, informative - and amusing - morning I spent in their company, and for their insights and stories about their work.
As a condition of my being allowed 'unprecedented access' to the crews, this Solway Shore Story was subject to editing and approval by E.ON.