Offshore wind ushering in new era of opportunity for US mariners

My wife and I were at a late summer dinner party hosted by Martin, a retired civil engineer friend of ours. At our table enjoying the barbecued salmon, we were seated next to a well-dressed middle-aged guy and his wife. Seeing us, Martin came over and said, “This is my son Michael and his wife Helen. Michael’s an engineer too.” We exchanged introductions and then I asked, “Are you a civil engineer like your dad?” He replied, “No, I’m an ocean engineer. My specialty is offshore wind turbines.” When I asked where he’d been working recently, he replied, “I’ve been in the Netherlands, but might be working on a project over here soon.”                                                                                

Ocean-based wind energy farms are being built throughout the world, with many systems utilizing hundreds of turbines. Composed of tubular steel and anchored in the seabed, a typical ocean wind turbine stands 500 to 800 feet high and has three 120- to 250-foot rotating steel blades connected to an electrical generator. When the turbine blades move, electricity is produced. It is then sent ashore through large cables, where it’s ultimately distributed to homes and businesses.                                                                                              

Today, the biggest offshore wind power installation in the world is the United Kingdom’s Hornsea 1 project. Located 75 miles off the Yorkshire coast of northern England, it produces enough electricity for over 1 million homes. Here in the United States there are already two moderately sized operational ocean installations, one along the coast of Rhode Island and the other off Virginia. There are also another 14 projects along the East Coast in various stages of development.

Different types of vessels are used for the construction and operation of offshore wind energy systems. Feeder support vessels (FSVs) are designed to bring deck cargo such as turbine blades and towers to the site. Service operations vessels (SOVs) are used to house workers and store supplies during construction. Wind turbine installation vessels (WTIVs) transport the huge pieces of equipment used to construct the towers and install the turbines. Field development vessels (FDVs) are cable-laying ships utilized to deploy the electrical lines. Crew transfer vessels (CTVs) are used to shuttle personnel between shore and the wind farm. 

Considering all the vessels involved, and how many offshore wind energy projects are in development, what does this mean for merchant mariners? Jobs, jobs and more jobs. When it comes to the installations off our coasts, however, the big question has always been, “Will those jobs be filled by U.S. merchant mariners?” 

In July 2020, the Trump administration sent shock waves through the industry when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that the Jones Act did not apply to the proposed Vineyard Wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts. Fortunately, the decision was revoked a month later, but the question of whether or not foreign-flag vessels could be used in wind energy projects off the U.S. coast was left unanswered. The answer came on Jan. 1 when Congress overrode President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA clearly states that the Jones Act applies to all vessels involved in the construction or operation of offshore wind installations on our Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) — an area that extends to about 200 miles off the U.S. coast. 

A few weeks later, the CBP under President Biden reaffirmed that all vessels operating between a U.S. port and an offshore wind energy installation on our OCS must be Jones Act-compliant. The announcement was celebrated throughout the industry. American companies, bolstered by the new CBP ruling, could now proceed at full speed with building new U.S.-flag offshore wind support vessels.  

The first U.S.-flag offshore wind support vessels were CTVs built for Atlantic Wind Transfers. They are currently servicing wind farms off Rhode Island and Virginia. The keel also was laid recently for the U.S.-flag WTIV Charybdis, which is under construction for Dominion Energy in Brownsville, Texas. 

A number of other companies are in the planning stages to obtain new U.S.-flag offshore wind support vessels. Great Lakes Dredge and Dock has contracted for a new inclined fallpipe vessel, a dynamic positioning (DP) ship designed to load, carry and unload 24,000 tons of rock to secure turbines to the seafloor. Crowley Maritime’s New Energy division has announced plans to build three Jones Act-compliant SOVs, while Vard Marine in Houston will build two SOVs of its own. 

No question about it, when it comes to jobs for American merchant mariners, offshore wind energy is the “next big thing.” The U.S. Coast Guard currently doesn’t require any special certification for mariners to work on ocean wind support vessels, so no additional STCW classes or training are needed. The Global Wind Organization (GWO), a nonprofit industry group, does offer a number of non-STCW/USCG classes that are geared toward wind energy professionals, and there are many places around the country providing these courses. 

With offshore wind energy employment on the horizon, some U.S. merchant mariners are being proactive and are attending GWO classes on their own. K.J., a second engineer I know, has his sights set on working aboard one of the new U.S.-flag offshore wind energy vessels when they start operating. He’s already taken a GWO safety course at a school in Houma, La., and has plans for more. 

Of the four-year maritime academies, Massachusetts Maritime is the only one to offer wind energy-related classes. Students can take GWO courses at the academy’s training facility, which is also equipped with an instructional wind turbine mock-up. I think it’s time for all of the academies to step up and develop their curriculums as the offshore wind energy sector takes its place in the domestic maritime industry.  

It’s an exciting time to be a U.S. merchant mariner, as the coming months and years will offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to work aboard U.S.-flag offshore wind support vessels. Now that President Biden has eliminated any uncertainty about whether or not the Jones Act applies, we can prepare and get to work. Those willing to ride the winds of change and embrace this emerging sector of the industry could soon find themselves getting one of the tens of thousands of jobs that offshore wind energy will generate.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

Categories: A Mariner’s Notebook, Industry News, Jobs, Offshore Wind