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Oil and chemicals experience brings tanker benefits

Chief officers’ knowledge of liquid cargoes, supported by industry partnership, has raised Fleet Management to top position in tanker operations

FLEET Management runs more chemical tankers than any other manager. It currently has 110 under management. There are also 40 medium range tankers carrying both oil and chemicals, 11 very large crude carriers and 25 other larger crude oil carriers.

The size of this tanker fleet is significant. While it reveals the confidence the company’s customers have in Fleet’s ability to handle difficult cargoes, this huge fleet says a great deal about the trust not only customers but also charterers have in Fleet Management’s capacity to carry these cargoes without incident. That trust is a consequence of the care and attention the tanker team gives to the part it plays in the global chemicals, crude oil and oil products distribution sector.

Ajit Natu is head of Tanker Operations at Fleet Management.

Capt Natu has had a career in tankers and now leads a dedicated tanker operations team with 15 former masters in Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Istanbul. Capt Natu rose through the ranks from cadet and master on chemical tankers, where he was “always learning”.

While he was at sea, the chief officer was required to keep a diary in which the peculiarities of handling and shipping each chemical was recorded. It was a kind of mental library of what to look for when loading chemicals. The master’s own experience as chief officer provide a second source of guidelines for safe handling.

The chemicals industry has evolved rapidly over the past 30 years, and today there are more than 1,000 different types of chemicals being shipped by sea. No chief officer could carry all that information around in his head, so Fleet Management now works closely with the chemicals industry in sharing specifications. The company supplies each tanker with software detailing each chemical’s requirements, and dedicated electronic equipment shows how clean each tank is before each loading.

“The industry looks at us as a reliable partner, and by selecting us to ship sensitive cargoes, their internal assurance shares risk appropriately,” he says. One of the biggest challenges for the operations team is to keep up with all the changes going on in the industry. Training the crew in all aspects of handling specialist cargoes is vital. Fleet Management requires all crew to be proficient in tank cleaning, and trains through simulation. All washing samples are analysed carefully, all information on the previous cargo is taken into consideration.

“The backbone of our tanker operations system is our crew, most of whom are Indians. Crew training for tankers is all- encompassing and with a special focus on chief officers.” A lot  of time is spent in the simulator. Crude oil training focuses on flammability and pollution; chemical tankers worry about toxicity, compatibility, and heating restrictions.

“We have ‘watchlist’ cargoes — problem cargoes that need more careful attention. Our data is part of our ‘marketing’. Fleet Management is the only manager with difficult cargo data.”

Involve the crew

Capt Natu adds: “Load planning is about compatibility. You can’t have two non- compatible cargoes adjacent, and you must ensure heating doesn’t damage adjacent cargoes. You also have to make sure loading doesn’t cause draught problems, and that discharge requirements are met.”

It could all be done with a sophisticated computer program. However, this is not this company’s preferred method. “We like to involve the crew. Where would each chemical be best stored? The charterer has the latest software, even so the master and his chief officer take time to study the cargo details before arriving at an agreement with the charterer — which might take several hours to achieve.”

And then there’s the fact that trading in chemicals is ‘fluid’ — it changes constantly. Some cargoes fail to arrive at the ship in time for sailing. This also has to be accommodated. “We have to remember that not all small ship operators have our experience.”

Fleet Management’s use of the crews’ own knowledge of the cargo and the best-available software gives it a chemicals-handling capability few others can match. This is the reason why Capt Natu and his tanker operations team are ready to take on new chemicals, such as biofuels, and new types of ship, such as Shell’s larger 25,000 dwt chemical tankers coated with new advanced polymers to aid tank cleaning. “Coatings need maintenance. If you don’t take care of the coating, you risk contaminating the cargo. Checking tank conditions is one of our basic rules.”

Capt Natu’s experience over so many years has also given him the opportunity to, as he says, “give back to the industry.” He has sat on Chemical Distribution Institute technical committees for the past five years and helped in the revision process for Oil Companies International Marine Forum and International Chamber of Shipping-published International Safety Guide for Oil Tankers and Terminals. “This is a chance for me to sit with industry leaders.” Well deserved.

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