This month we get a chance to hear from Captain Sean Rathbone, one of the Masters of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s two ships. Currently Captain of NLV Pole Star, Sean Rathbone has been with the Board for 24 years and has seen three ships brought into its service. We get a unique insight into the working of the Board’s ships, crew life and developments in the capabilities of the ships that go where most would choose not to.
How did your career at sea begin and what brought you to serve with the NLB?
I started my sea career with Blue Star Ship Management of Liverpool in 1978. I went away as a Deck cadet, gaining my Second Mates Certificate in 1982, Mates in 1987 and finally Master’s in 1990. I served on a variety of vessels from general cargo, reefer, container and for one trip, a troop ship. I attained the rank of Chief Officer with Blue Star by which time I was married and had a young son. I found that I was missing too much of my family growing up as I was doing 4-5 month trips with only 2 -2½ months leave. I didn’t fancy the North Sea where you could get month on/month off, then saw an advert for Junior Second Officer in Northern Lighthouse Board and knew someone already working for the Board. I phoned him up and asked what it was like. His words were “Get in here, it’s like what going to sea used to be like”, I applied for the post and was appointed to the Board in July 1992. Although I took a step back in rank and a pay cut, I was now getting month on/month off and a much better work-life balance.
You currently serve on NLV Pole Star, which is predominately a buoy tender – what does a typical day on Pole Star look like?
There really isn’t a typical day for either of the Board’s ships that’s what makes the job so interesting. Pole Star is predominately a Buoy Tender, but has other roles to carry out. If we are carrying out buoy work, we will either have been steaming overnight to get to the area, anchored nearby or been alongside loading or discharging buoys. We will typically work away servicing, replacing or repairing the buoys in the area during daylight hours and anchor nearby overnight. The area of responsibility for Northern Lighthouse Board is from Berwick upon Tweed around the Scottish coast to the Solway Firth including the Northern Isles, Outer and Inner Hebrides and peculiarly the Isle of Man. This area is split up into seven smaller areas, each having a similar number of buoys. The time of year that these areas are covered has been decided over many years of experience and is broadly down to the weather, for instance Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland are serviced in the mid-summer months as generally the weather and sea conditions are best in these months.
What is the best thing about being Master of Pole Star?
That has to be the fact that, as Master, we generally decide what the ship is doing on a day to day basis. We have a Marine Manager in Oban who coordinates our work and informs us of any extra duties to be taken on, but as explained, the servicing areas are decided a year in advance. I don’t think there is another job at sea where the Master would get the freedom to carry out their job as I do with the NLB.
How manoeuvrable is Pole Star?
Pole Star was the first Northern Lighthouse Board vessel to be fitted with a Dynamic Positioning System, DP, the ship has Diesel Electric propulsion. We have 3 x 750 Kw diesel alternators producing 415v ac to power 2 x Rolls Royce azipods. The azipods have 360º rotation and have variable speed motors. We also have 2 x variable pitch tunnel thrusters forward. This makes for a highly manoeuvrable vessel. She can pivot around a single point and stop from full speed in 1-2 ship lengths. This level of manoeuvrability greatly enhances our ability to service navigational buoys in more adverse weather and tidal conditions than we could with our older vessels. We also service many contract buoys often in small harbours on the west coast of Scotland; we could not have taken this work on without a vessel with this level of manoeuvrability.
Where is Pole Stars’ home base?
Home base for both NLB vessels is Oban. We have an excellent stores and maintenance facility which was greatly modernised a few years ago. The berth itself is the most sheltered in Oban, our forefathers must have known the weather was going to get worse over time, and Oban is positioned practically in the middle of our area.
Can you describe the type of environment the ship operates in?
The ship operates in a, sometimes, extremely hostile environment, especially in the winter. We have to deal with high seas and gale force winds at times. These are some of the most challenging times for the ship and its crew as these are when we get most of our buoy casualties. Although we cannot always fix the casualty when the weather is at its worst we have to get to the station to see if there anything that can be achieved. Pole Star being a relatively small vessel can be very lively in a seaway.
What has been your most challenging time with the Board?
There are many challenging times when you are in command, whether it be dealing with personnel problems, weather, equipment failures or difficult jobs. I have always found my job not as a challenge, but as a new experience to cope and deal with. One of the busiest times I have had with the Board is as Chief Officer when I joined the current NLV Pharos at the shipyard in Gdansk, Poland before she was brought into service. Having been transferred from Pole Star I had to help prepare Pharos for the handover to NLB and sail her back to Oban to begin service with us. This, for me, was both challenging and a very proud moment in my career.
How often are the buoys visited and maintained?
The buoys are now on station for up to eight years due mainly to a new paint system being used. They are visited either annually or bi-annually, this is all down to location. The main factor in determining how often a buoy is visited is due to the wear on the mooring chain. A buoy’s mooring chain is typically three times the depth of the sea in that location. The wear occurs as the chain is first in contact with the sea bed, this is called the working part. The mooring chain starts out from new measuring 38mm and as it drags across the seabed, depending on the nature of the bottom, wears down. At each service this is measured and recorded. A sandy bottom is the worst material for wearing a chain down. It is allowed to reduce to 28mm when a portion is cut out and a new piece of chain is shackled in. The sinker, a solid clump of steel ranging from two tonnes to eight tonnes, is inspected for damage and this completes the work done on the mooring. Meanwhile the body of the buoy is scraped clean of marine growth and high pressure washed. The Second Officer will open up the superstructure panels and check the electrics. The buoys now have LED lanterns, solar panel and batteries, these can now all last for up to 10 years, a far cry from my first years with the Board. Having made sure that the ship is in the exact position of the buoy, this being far easier with DP, the sinker is lowered to the seabed along with the mooring and finally the buoy is placed back in the water for another two years.
What happen when a buoy fails?
If a buoy fails, our monitoring centre will be informed by Coast Guard or other shipping passing or in a good number of stations the buoy now has monitoring on it and it will inform the monitor centre of a problem. Some of our buoys have AIS broadcasting their position to vessels in the area. Other monitored buoys transmit the state of the batteries and times that the light comes on and off. If we get a failure we will be dispatched to fix it as soon as possible. We have a range of spares on board to enable us to deal with, not only our own buoyage, but that of our contract customers as well.