History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
|My Spring Vacation
Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cable
My Spring Vacation
As many of you know, SubTel Forum is published by WFN Strategies, one of a handful of engineering consultancies in the submarine cable world. In May 2015, I—your humble magazine purveyor—was given the rare opportunity to do a sort of “ride along” during the installation of the new BLAST Project (Broadband Linking American Samoa Territory) cable system, during which, I was able to get a first-hand experience that sitting at a desk poring over datasheets could never hope to match.
As a member of the younger, rising generation of submarine cable enthusiasts, when I was asked if I could clear my May schedule to take part in the two-week installation process, I was thrilled. Something like this—especially in such a beautiful part of the world—is normally out of reach for someone in my position. As a media outlet, we routinely report on conferences, gather data and produce analysis, but rarely do we get the opportunity to get our hands actually dirty in the real nuts and bolts of this industry.
Transit to the island nation from our east coast bastion is relatively simple: a hop from Dulles over to Honolulu, a flight path I’m well acquainted with after a decade attending PTC, followed by an afternoon with my toes in the sand and a night in the bustling tourist spot.
I can confidently say to you that I was nervous. I had never really done field-work like this before, nor traveled as far into the Pacific. Having the night to work off my jet lag at my favorite Mai Tai Bar in my favorite hotel did wonders for my mindset!
The next morning, I hooked up with the team that I would be supporting during the trip: Richard Hoffman, whose name and expertise I’ve heard about since my childhood; his son and fellow young-gun Matt Hoffman; and marine biologist extraordinaire Russ Burdge.
Richard and I would ride with the crew on IT’s CS Intrepid -- the former CS Sir Eric Sharpe—acting as representative of the owners of the system, while Matt and Russ would bounce around on the dive boat performing the environmental monitoring.
With time to kill before our afternoon flight to Pago Pago, we cruised the town, enjoyed the beach and then finally made our way over the airport. As flights go, I had expected this one to be crowded—with only two flights between Honolulu and Pago Pago every week it was to be expected.
We took off, we flew and we landed. As an old friend once said, “the only thing a flight needs to be successful is a soft landing.” Sage words, as the landing was the softest thing on the flight.
The four of us reconnected on the other side of customs—a stamp and a smile from the very appreciative customs agent that seemed enthralled with the influx of cable ship crew on the flight, all there to make their own internet speeds better. It seemed that we were anxiously expected.
That was the first, and certainly not the last time that a stranger thanked the crew and us for being there to perform this much-needed work. A Sadie’s by the Sea shuttle took us to our home for the night and, a welcome night’s sleep later, Richard and I boarded the CS Intrepid.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015—Day 1
We were able to board at noon, giving us three hours to get settled in and take the necessary tours of the ship before the Captain’s kick-off meeting. We were given what Richard described as “the most exhaustive and useful” safety indoctrination that he’s ever had. Coming from Richard, whose career is best explained with terms like “veteran” and “overly qualified”, that is high praise and also not the last of many such comments about the Intrepid’s crew.
Before the kick-off meeting, I had a chance to talk with the Chief Officer, JD, who had heard that I was an Eagle Scout. He wanted to share some pictures of the local scout troop that visited the ship earlier. As an avid scouter, I love stuff like this. I grew up with similar opportunities, running around the docks in Southampton. Having kids—scouts or otherwise—get exposure to real life changes in their communities is an incredible experience, one that I know these young scouts will carry with them into adulthood. Everywhere I go, I’m reminded of the incredible community of scouters around the world, where I spent a slice of my childhood in England and on this Canadian ship, where, even here in remote American Samoa, there are scouts.
The kick-off meeting went well: the team was introduced all around and the general plan was discussed. Unsurprisingly, the weather is everyone’s biggest concern—the wet season was supposedly finished, but surf conditions can be completely different depending on which island you’re on. It was agreed on that each day’s progress would be dictated by the dive captain and his assessment of the daily conditions. The last thing anyone wants to do is prove the wry adage “crack open a new box of divers” true. Safety will come first on this installation.
Wednesday, May 13, 2015—Day 2
We disembarked at 0900 (9 a.m.) sharp. After catching breakfast, the ship performed an early fire drill, with instructions on how to perform the duties for each station. I was tasked with assisting, as needed—the default position for anyone without daily duties on the ship. The Intrepid seems busy, with ship hands bustling about below deck, but everything was still very quiet.
Saddling up next to the first shore end, the ship and her crew got into position.
After a few hours of debate over the surf conditions and safety, a plan of attack was agreed on: the dive boat would fire a rocket-propelled line to the shore team, who would then use that to ferry the messenger line back to the ship. With the configuration of the coral, and the worsening surf conditions, using the small Zodiac to hand off the messenger to the shore team was impossible.
Rocket fired and messenger line in place, the center castle crew began the slow, deliberate process of floating the cable to the shore end. I was blown away at the seamless effort of the Intrepid’s crew: tying buoys to the cable and placing numbered markers on the cable as it inched its way out of the cable engine.
After a few short hours, the cable was fully in place and the dive team cut the buoys and sent it to the bottom. It was not a moment too soon as the surf was in full swing at this point. With the cable resting comfortably on the ocean floor, the Captain began our installation by heading off into the first segment of BLAST.
Thursday, May 14, 2015—Day 3
After laying cable all night, we came to the second shore end where the barge, the Working Girl II, was loaded with 515 meters of cable that it then laid directly into the shore end. By the morning, the barge was being dropped down into the water, the cable was already coiled on the deck in the center castle and the crew was waiting for the go ahead to begin.
Once the barge was off-loaded completely, the cable was hand-pulled into a series of roller-hooks that supported it around the starboard of the ship, where it was loaded onto the barge. After hand carrying and walking the bight, or last loop, off of the stern of the ship, the barge scooted off and laid the remainder of the segment.
The concept of walking the bight off of the ship was tricky for me, I had a hard time understanding the exact process. Seeing is believing, as they say, but in this case, seeing is understanding. We had laid the first shore end the day before, laid more cable all night and then did this shore end. But to do that, the cable was secured in the center castle, coiled onto the barge and then the bight was released from its mooring and dropped off the stern of the ship. With the barge laying the last of the cable onto the shore, the single segment was completely on the floor now. It’s a simple concept, but seems incredibly hard to grasp unless you actually see it done.
The afternoon’s install was identical to the first day’s; the team attached floats to the cable every 10 meters or so, while also marking every 10m with marker tape for the environmental survey later.
To assist in the alignment of the cable, the RFC—the Zodiac mentioned earlier—placed a buoy to mark the route and then aided in pulling the cable over into position while the floats were cut. The surf was impressive near the shore, so the shore end team walked out and cut the nearest floats themselves, allowing the divers to cut the remaining floats. Like the first landing, it was time to shove off and lay cable over to the next shore end.
Friday, May 15, 2015—Day 4
Today was a slower day. It started out with a barge landing like the one yesterday—only this time the captain himself was piloting it. The barge was loaded and landed well before 11 a.m. The crew’s deliberate, unfaltering pace drove the cable in without delays or disruptions. Richard told me once that “boring” is a great day during an installation. I realized that it’s not so much that “boring is good,” but rather, like all great endeavors, things move along with the speed and determination of a glacier. There are many, many components working in and around the endeavor. Momentum wants the undertaking to continue moving forward. But, when things are less than “boring,” or maybe even into the realm of “interesting,” the many moving parts could be disrupted. Today, I found that “boring” was just fine with me.
I spent the rest of the day catching up on paperwork and reading—with a dash of playing a little Doom II here and there…
Saturday, May 16, 2015—Day 5
“Boring” continued into the morning. A routine was in place for the seemingly ever-occupied crew members: polishing, grinding, lubing and degreasing. I learned that there was never a shortage of jobs on the ship.
The time came for the next shore end to be accomplished. Because of the depth of this landing, we used the barge to get in close again. The barge was loaded up with a little over 300m of cable to take in to the next shore-end and then we’d be underway—laying segment 3 all night on our approach to the branching unit location. The landing went off without a hitch—the Chief Officer piloted the barge right on target. The barge was there and back within an hour, all while the crew below was preparing for the long night laying our way out to where the BU will be dropped.
With the landing complete, our Environmental Team hopped in the water for a post-lay video survey—as has been the practice so far. Only this time, they would be joining us on the Intrepid for the remainder of the installation as, it would seem, travel between the islands is difficult and the Captain opted to have them on board in the interest of saving time.
With the whole gang on board now, we set off on Segment 3—the longest lay of the project.
Sunday, May 17, 2015—Day 6
Today was reasonably easy—“boring” even. The night-long steam out to the final placement of the branching unit was uneventful, followed by a seemingly endless procedure that laid the cable on the seabed, a heavy-duty buoy on the surface marking the unit.
When we came into position, the cable was still trailing behind us in the water column. The catenary had to be collapsed and the cable laid on the sea floor, which means affixing heavy duty lines to the cable and paying out enough to attach a buoy to on the surface. With the floor sitting near to 4,000 meters deep, a truly staggering amount of “ultraline” and “uniline” was paid out to act as a bookmark for our installation progress. The process took the lion’s share of the day, capping-off just around sunset with a resounding “KABOOSH” as the buoy and associated tag lines splashed into the quickly darkening waters, armed only with a single strobe light to fight off the night.
I later learned that we would stay the night with the buoy, to ward off any possible interference from any passing merchant vessels that might not see the small buoy and cause it some harm.
Monday, May 18, 2015—Day 7
To maximize the available—and largely unknown—conditions at the next landing site, the Intrepid made an early morning departure from our guardian position around the buoy and had us staring down the landing site at first light.
First impressions were not positive. The landing site was rough, to say the least.
The site was nestled next to a sea wall, which was protecting a small port from some remarkably energetic surf activity, and seemed to run the entire length of the beach and then some. To complicate matters further, the beach master and his team need two things before we could even think about starting today: transportation from the ship to the beach and for the barge to ferry 14 crates of articulated pipe to the landing station.
We’d been carrying crates of the stuff for this purpose. However, the harbor is on the opposite of a point shared by the landing station and we’d have to steam back and forth to drop off and then recollect the team. Thankfully, the process wasn’t as long as I had been expecting, as so many things have proven on this trip—we were steaming our way back over to the landing station and on site before noon.
So far, every landing station has posed a simple question: “How can I best get a single guide line between the ship and the shore?” This landing station posed a similar question. However, it came with caveats galore—things like “in eight-foot surf” and “near to hull-puncturing rocks” and “in a mighty current”. This landing has offered the most difficult conditions so far.
Hoping to make similar use of an earlier landing idea, the shore team took two rocket propelled rope launchers with them to send out to the RFC, which they would, in turn, carry back to the ship to attach to the guide line for the cable.
I asked Richard, “Why not just fire the line from the RFC,” like the dive boat did on the very first shore end—he told me that there were power lines directly behind the team.
Just tucked behind the trees, there they were: a simple arrangement of power lines—making our jobs that much more “interesting”. The shore team fired the first shot: a high arcing shot that, without a 20 mph wind, would have landed nicely. However, in these conditions the rocket stalled near the apex of its flight and fell limply into the raucous surf. The RFC team didn’t even flinch at the attempt—the line was irretrievable.
A second rocket was sent off. This time a lower, more controlled launch, the line made it successfully past the surf and the RFC was able to collect it. Getting the line to the ship would prove far, far more difficult in the stiff current. The RFC seemed to heave and post against the added weight of the coiled line—the end of which was still attached to the shore.
As the RFC raged against the current—trying to get the line to the bow of the ship—the line itself must have become entangled in the rocks near the protected harbor. As things under tension tend to do when applied to a sharp surface, the line separated and we were left empty handed for our troubles today. By this time, the workday was done with and any new attempts at the shore end would have to wait until the next morning. Hopefully, the weather, while not expected to, will subside a bit and let us work and get back to our lonely buoy.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015—Day 8
The early morning was greeted by an equally early start to the day. The RFC had ferried the shore end team and the single remaining rope launcher to the landing site before the sun had even fully risen. With yesterday’s setbacks, the Captain laid out an aggressive plan for the day—one that made the most of the early morning calm in the high tide—“calm,” of course, is completely relative.
The proposed procedure was simple enough. The shore team would fire a rocket propelled rope line towards the RFC, which would in turn collect that line and carry it back to the ship. The cable crew would use the rocket-line—a much sturdier poly line—as a lead for the messenger-line for the cable. The shore team would use a laden truck to pull the messenger line, and then cable, right onto shore. The plan was simple, but with waves like a surfer’s dream breaking 100 yards offshore, even simple plans take careful calculation and preparation and we only had one last rope launcher, having used the other three.
The morning was wrapped in a misty rain cloud. In combination with the thunderous surf, it gave an ethereal quality to the whole morning. We all watched from the ship. We watched the RFC carve lazy arcs in the sea; we watched the shore team standing ready, rope launcher aimed into the wind; we waited for the signal. With no crew near our observation perch, our only notice to leap into action was the RFC making a hasty turn and dash towards shore. At the sight of the RFC’s turn, a rocket cut a smoky grey trail into the sky, carrying the only chance of laying this landing station with it. Only this time it was aimed low and into the wind, defying the incoming storm in its trajectory. Instead of getting lost in the wave, or tied up on the rocks, this line made it. The RFC was able to collect the floating line, coil it and carry it carefully to the ship—where the crew was eagerly waiting to tie the messenger line on.
From there on, this was a textbook landing operation. The cable was successfully floated to the shore team. The floats were cut without incident and the post-lay environmental survey was accomplished without snag. The entire operation hinged on the 200-or-so yard surf-zone that denied our RFC access to the shore. After that had been defeated, there was nothing to slow the operation down. With the cable paid out and floats collected, the RFC shuttled the last of the shore crew back to the ship where we had dinner and made preparations to head back to our lonely buoy—now a day in the water longer than planned. Hopefully, the buoy is in place and without incident—the cable will be easier to collect if our place marker is still intact.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015—Day 9
With the shore end successfully and finally completed, the cable lay back to the BU took most of the night. Laying cable is down time—time to catch up on reports, or maybe some reading. It requires very little oversight, save for the occasional trip down to the testing room in the center castle to get the ever present thumbs-up that the cable is testing within normal parameters.
Laying cable is a long and careful process—one not to be rushed by anything other than the planned work schedule. That said, when your job is to monitor and observe cable laying operations, it leaves a rather large hole in your schedule. Thankfully, most of the long lays have been planned for overnight work, leaving the day team to handle the shore ends, or jointing, or whatever else the day might bring.
Every couple of days I’ve been reminded that this is actually a 24-hour operation—that there’s a whole half of the crew that I haven’t seen so far. This morning was one of those days, after breakfast, I went to check on the ship’s progress on approach to the BU location, only to find Richard grab me on my way out and tell me that he got some great video of the crew recovering the buoy in the early hours before the sun came up. I was pretty disappointed—I wanted to see the recovery in person. Alas, this really is a 24-hour operation and the body does need sleep.
With the buoy safely recovered, the long and tedious process of winding the tag line and raising the end of segment 3 off of the seabed began. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that this industry has no movements wasted; while the tag line was being brought up, the cable that we were laying was paid out, collapsing the catenary and bringing it even to where the BU will join the three disparate cables together.
“Tedious” is an excellent word to describe almost every process on a cable ship, from aligning the linear cable engine, to jointing, or cutting the armor away from the end slated for a landing—even the simple act of counting the spare cable in reserve. With millions of dollars at stake and other projects looming, every cut, every count, every joint must be perfect. I was told that jointing will take 36 hours from when the recently retrieved cable end is prepped. I’m also told that the trunk has already been spliced in, meaning that there will only be two joints to perform—hopefully cutting the overall time down by a third, fingers crossed.
The jointing team completed the first joint before switching off to the nocturnal team, who took over to complete the last joint before we lower the whole BU to the sea floor.
Thursday, May 21, 2015 Day 10
Come morning, the jointing team had completed their work—the BU was now ready to be carried to the bow of the ship, off-loaded and gently dropped to the floor. The process took most of the day, with all hands on the deck to ensure the best chances of success during the transition.
Watching the crew move the BU was amazing—a slow moving waltz with three ends of cable and a giant metal cylinder at the center. When moving something like this, anything can happen, so the crew take no chances nor do they try and rush. Using a moving hoist, they tied webbing around the BU and slowly shift it from the center castle to the forward cable drum, where it will be hoisted up and over the bow. The process has been made even more “interesting” by the relentless driving rain, a almost constant factor the last two days.
Taking every precaution, the BU is eventually lowered over the bow. When the BU was finally and securely on the bottom, we began laying the fifth and final leg of the system.
Friday, May 22, 2015—Day 11
After laying all night, we reached the last landing before the morning sun had risen. There was a buzz in the ship this morning, the entire crew was ready to complete the last shore end and get back to port. Again, the day was drenched in the ever-present drizzle of rain—only today a gorgeous crosswind accompanied it.
Weather aside, the surf conditions were perfect for our purposes and the shore end was a straight shot—a mere couple hundred yards from the bow of the ship. Instead of winding the cable off of the ship—as per our regular activity so far—the crew coiled the cable on the deck. With the other end of the cable hanging off of the bow, the crew carefully measured the length that would be needed to reach the shore end and then cut and sealed the cable. To my surprise, the deck crew began hand carrying the cable off the ship—tying buoys on as the cable moves along.
This landing was by far the fastest. Once the cable was landed, the divers cut the buoys heading towards the beach in order to lay the cable flat on the seabed, avoiding any loops which could become kinks. Just like a garden hose, the cable has memory. It wants to coil itself. Cutting the buoys near the beach allows the cable to fall in, cutting out any accidental slack that might occur.
Cable landed, shore end secured and testing accomplished, this system has been roughed out and is ready for commissioning.
To celebrate another successful project completion, the mess hall staff pulled out all the stops: a large charcoal grill was set up in the center castle with a host of meats and local salads. For the first time in two weeks, I watched the crew let their metaphorical hair down. The cable crew took to the karaoke machine, the officers told stories and everyone shared bawdy jokes. It was one hell of a good time.
With the party quietly droning on into the night, people started slipping away to bed. The job was done, but tomorrow morning would welcome early off-loading of the cable spares—a job that would require an acute attention to the cable count as it’s wound into storage containers in the port.
When we arrived at the port, our job was done. The cable was landed, we had represented the owner’s interests and now we were back. It was time to collect our passports and check back in to the familiar Sadie’s by the Sea.
With our flight scheduled for Monday night, we had two days to enjoy the town, buy whatever baubles we wanted to bring home to our families and soak up that last bit of the glorious Pacific sun.
Even now, months later, I look back on my time with the crew of the Intrepid. In a little less than two weeks I learned more than I did in the first year I was working in this industry. There’s nothing like hands on training.
But I learned more than just practical cable know-how—I got to know a side of the industry that’s rarely talked about these days. I grew up with stories of grand white linen dinners on cable ships, of tours by captains with gold piping on their shoulders. I was reminded of the “good ol’ days” during my time with the extraordinary crew of the CS Intrepid.
When I first walked on the ship, I was very forward about my experience with shipboard cable work—none—and my intentions to use this as a learning opportunity. It was my hope to sit quietly to the side with my camera and record the installation. Not only was I welcomed in to the fold, but I was told to ask as many questions as possible. Every single person—from the ship’s new Purser-in-training to the linear cable engine operator—was not only cooperative, but also eager to talk about their specific duties with me.
Regrettably, the editor has constrained me to a word count, within such I couldn’t possibly detail everything that happened during my time with Richard, Matt, Russ and the crew of International Telecom’s CS Intrepid. I will leave you with this: I have never had such an opportunity to work with a more talented, knowledgeable or welcoming group in my time in this awesome industry. It is my most earnest hope that our paths cross again on a future project, and that I have the opportunity to share their stories.
Text and images on this page copyright © 2015 Kristian Nielsen
Last revised: 5 August, 2015