That Offshore Feeling, Part Two
Offshore in December?
Jingle Bells, Batman smells, my company Christmas party is today. . . but I’m not going. I had the trip booked in the travel system, along with a hotel reservation, but I went ahead and cancelled (within the cancellation period, at no cost!) when I got the call from Essen that there was space on a CTV (crew transfer vessel). I could be heading offshore to the construction area of our newest offshore wind park in the Arkona Basin in the Baltic Sea!
Not everyone was convinced that this was going to be a successful trip. „The Baltic Sea in December? Good luck with that“, was one snide comment. Others were more sincerely concerned. „Hey Amanda, remember that trip last year on the sailboat in the harbor where you didn’t feel so good?“. Oh yes, I remembered perfectly. I had to lie down with one meter high waves. Despite my rather nautical sounding name, I’m a 100% certified landlubber.
A Four-Hour Tour
Also, my fears weren’t lessened by the fact that the same trip had taken place in November, where the boat never made it out to the construction site, because of the bad weather and high seas. But I wasn’t sure what would be worse - feeling sick the entire time on our four-hour tour, or not making it out to the site, where we would be able to see first-hand what was going on offshore. I packed the Dramamine weeks ahead of time.
I consulted with my colleagues at the company headquarters in Essen before I made further travel plans. We would be meeting again on the island of Rügen, in the far north of Germany. It’s more or less a hop, skip & a jump from Berlin, where I live & work, but more like a journey to the ends of the earth from Essen. Others are luckier, and work for the offshore team in Hamburg. They are used to traveling back & forth to the site, which now has a brand new operations building in the Mukran Port in Sassnitz.
In any case, I asked if I needed to drive up there from Berlin, because it seemed like there would be enough people to shuttle me around once I was up there. I was advised to save the CO2 and take the train. This would add to my adventure, as getting around the island is not as easy as it might seem.
The train trip itself was also a bit of fun. Only the regional train went up north to the Ostseebad Binz on the day I travelled, so we stopped at many small towns along the way, many of which had names that sounded very unusual for German towns. (Here are a few: Cammin, Gnevkow, Grimmen & Rakow)
Many of these villages don’t even have a paved train platform. You just hop out into the dirt and go on your merry way. I was pleased that a mother & son sat next to me from Berlin until Cammin, where they were greeted by their friendly Grandpa. The boy joyously ran into his arms. It seemed like a good omen of things to come.
You can't get there from here
Upon arrival in Ostseebad Binz, after a transfer at the coastal city of Stralsund, I got Google Maps going to get to the hotel. It said ten minutes. I could live with that. What was even better, was that I could walk on the promenade along the beach. It was cloudy, but otherwise not too cold and it was so amazing to finally see the ocean, the waves crashing into the sand. I enjoyed the short walk to the hotel, which turned out to be the wrong hotel. There is very little going on in Binz in December, and the desk clerks at the front desk of the hotel seemed extremely disappointed that I actually had a room elsewhere. But they politely pointed me in the right direction.
As I walked along, breathing in the salty air, I looked forward to meeting the rest of the crew joining us on the adventure at our new operational facility in the harbor and learn more about the new offshore wind park being built. And we were planning on having dinner afterward. The food on the coast is nothing short of exceptional (if you like fish). I checked into the right hotel and got ready to meet the crew.
Getting lost, again
I’ve been to the port of Sassnitz about four times before (this trip would be my fifth), but have never visited the new operational building. We have diagrams about how to get there in an e-mail. But it’s 4:30 in northern Germany in December, so it’s pitch black and raining. The road is not yet on any GPS system.
My taxi driver knows only the first point on the map, which is a local bakery called, Bäckerei Peters, now thriving due to everything going on around wind construction in the harbor. We had the opening ceremony for the wind park here over a year ago, with attendance from many local politicians, including the much loved then-minister president of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Erwin Sellering. He has since resigned from his office after a severe illness.
So, I should know the area, but it was hard convincing my taxi driver where to turn, and further, it was pitch black and I just wasn’t all that sure. Both roads around the harbor should circle back on one another. We pull over and ask a couple of workers if they know the way to the E.ON building. „Follow us“, they say in English. But they bring us to the wrong building, despite the company logo out front, which I find out only once the taxi driver is long gone.
Just let me move the dog food. . . .
I walk into the Iberdrola building. It’s late and there aren’t many folks milling about. But there’s enough to let me know that I’m in the wrong place. Two men in full safety gear stop to talk to me. What’s that? On Rügen without a car? We hate to tell you this lady, but this ain’t no city.
There’s no one else around. I insist that I can walk, but one of them, a tall, handsome man with long salt & pepper hair and bright blue eyes, has pity on me and loads me into his car. „Just let me move the big sack of dog food from the front“. This takes just a minute and we’re on our way around the harbor. „Hi, I’m Hagen“, says my new best friend from Iberdrola. He’s an electrical engineer. „I’ve worked for E.ON in the past on the Amrumbank West wind park“, he tells me. He’s proud that he’s been promoted over the years & now has to go offshore less than he used to.
As we drive to the gate, the guard stops us to let us in. Hagen chats animatedly with the guard. „Nice weather, huh“, „Not much going on this time of year here, but better than way, eh?“ and, „Been offshore lately? No, not much for it“. Their accents are so different from the city dwellers I’m used to talking to. It’s refreshing.
We drive on towards the real E.ON building and I’m relieved when I see Silke, a colleague of mine, through the window, making hot water for tea. „Is this really where you want to be? I don’t want to leave you stranded here.“, asks Hagen. I tell him not to worry, because I see my people. „Well, I’m just sorry that I couldn’t have brought you here in my Mercedes. But it’s stowed away for the winter.“ It might seem like a line, but people actually do this in Germany. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for his kindness. And indeed, it won’t be the first or last time that I’ve felt a kinship with people from our Spanish competitor, Iberdrola, who even have their German headquarters located here.
Meet the Press
Inside the building, I find out that I’m not the only one who had trouble getting there, but that everyone else had a car and eventually found their way to the right place. There’s coffee, tea and sandwiches waiting, which is a life saver for my hungry belly.
The Arkona project manager, Holger Matthiesen is there, as well as some of his team, partly now sitting here & partly from the Hamburg office. My colleague Markus from Essen, one of our press officers, also just made it in from Rostock, where he landed a few hours ago. Journalists from far and wide are also there to learn more about what we’re doing up here in the harbor & beyond.
And finally, Frank Kracht, the mayor of Sassnitz, the town where our working harbor is located, joins us. He’ll also be coming offshore with us tomorrow, which he says is his first trip out to see both the installed wind turbines from Iberdrola and our monopiles & transitions pieces (TP), which are just being installed. With some luck, we’ll see a TP being installed tomorrow, by the jumbo installation vessel, the Fairplayer.
Once Holger has given us the lay of the land & the building safety instructions, he goes through all the facts and figures of the yet in construction wind park. It sounds amazing & impressive.
After introducing ourselves and asking a number of questions to Holger & his team, we set off towards the passenger terminal in the harbor, next to which some of our TPs are still waiting to be transferred out to sea. It’s still dark, but it’s stopped raining and our construction site is well lit up. We are allowed to walk around a little bit on the huge dock, where the Fairplayer is docked and loading up TPs, even at this time of night. Because tomorrow, she will start anew with fresh installations. We all take loads of pictures of the incredible structures.
How fresh is the fish?
Dinner at the Fisch Market with our crew is truly delicious and highly entertaining, mostly because of the many stories that Frank Kracht tells us about life on the island of Rügen and his own personal history. If ever anyone has done everything in life, it’s him. He seems to be a man with 9-lives, who has tried his hand at a lot of different professions and lived through just a couple political regimes. It’s easy to forget that we are in the former DDR.
But the main thing on Frank’s mind tonight is the fish. Is it fresh? And he means, is it really fresh? There’s a bit of discussion with the waiter, a very friendly young man in his twenties, who feels that maybe the mayor is taking it a step too far. Can fresh fish have been packed in ice? The waiter feels that this keeps the fish fresh, but Frank will not hear of it. Only the sole would qualify. But then he changed his mind for the Dorade, a flat fish that makes a nice filet. Conversation ensues. Bellies are filled. The restaurant isn’t busy, so we can talk our hearts out.
Suited for Sea
We meet again at 7:15 the next morning in the hotel lobby to head back out to the harbor. The plan is to suit up and get on the boat. It’s lightly raining as we head out of Binz & I’m getting more nervous about what the day will bring.
But as we approach the harbor, the sky suddenly clears. The rain stops & the faintest hint of an orange glow peaks out low on the horizon. It’s going to be a good day.
We take our time picking out safety shoes, life jackets (the really heavy kind, with a high-tech beacon), safety helmets with the E.ON logo and safety glasses. Once suited up, we really look like a team. Everyone is full of nervous energy at the prospect of heading offshore.
I load up my camera equipment and hand it to the men already on board the boat. It’s a big step over a large drop to get on board. I take hold of a large, secure hand and it’s jump time!
By the cliffs of the sea
The sun is getting a bit higher on the horizon & a bit brighter and now it’s turning the whole ocean orange with a beautiful glow. Frank is quick to pick out the landmarks off to our port side. „That’s the beautiful town of Sassnitz“, says the town mayor. I mention that we are extremely lucky with the weather & I mean it, because it’s just gorgeous. „The mayor of Sassnitz is responsible for the good weather“, he says with a smile & a wink in his eye.
Once we past the buildings with their typical resort architecture (called Bäder architecture in German) we see the chalk cliffs of the Königsstuhl glowing yellow & orange from the rising sun. I zoom in with my camera and hope that I one day get a chance to see them more up close. But not too close - because these beautiful cliffs can also be dangerous. There are points where the chalk can crash down on those below.
And once we’re past the cliffs, it’s only water, water everywhere. The crew transfer vehicle is super comfortable & most importantly, warm. We have been tremendously lucky with the weather, but it’s still December out there. I’ve been taking pictures like crazy and my fingertips can’t go anymore until they’ve been warmed up a little.
The captain has also invited us to check out the deck upstairs. The crew is amazingly friendly and I listen to them take a call. I’m surprised to hear them speaking English. „Oh yes“, says the captain, „Unless we are in communication with another local German vessel, then we speak English. The waters here are full of people from Denmark & Sweden.“ And indeed, we see a lot of other vessels off in the distance.
Piles or Jackets?
The first thing that we see as we start to approach the area where our wind park will be are wind turbines. What? I thought we were still in the building phase? Well, as it turns out, Iberdrola’s Wikinger wind park is our next door neighbor. They are so close, that you can’t miss their turbines, sticking out of the water on their yellow jackets.
Our wind turbines won’t need jackets (although we won’t send them out without a coat. . . of paint!) because they will be „standing“ on monopiles. First, the monopiles are vibrated into the sea floor, using a special C-shaped vessel, called the Svanen, and then the bright yellow TPs are installed on top using another special vessel, the Fairplayer.
We were just an hour too late out to the Fairplayer to see a TP being installed, but we could at least see the results of her work. A free standing TP! To the starboard side, we could see a bare monopile, waiting for its missing piece, but with a light installed to warn boats not to collide with this rusty tube. But at the rate that the Fairplayer is installing TPs, it might not take long before the light is disassembled and the TP shines brightly on top.
Feeding the Fish
The next and last stop was to be up close with a TP. But before we get out there, I have to admit that my stomach doesn’t feel so good. Really? The waves out here are basically not happening at 0.30 meters. It’s been smooth sailing, so to speak. I think of all those trips I made as a kid off the coast. Granted, there’s not that many waves where I come from, thanks to a gigantic barrier island, but still, I’m clearly not well right now. The cushy chairs of the CTV come with little bags like on an airplane. I grab one quick and head for the bathroom, which is occupied! I rush outside onto the deck, just in time.
Silke sees me holding the little bag and looks at me with pitying eyes. I think the whole ordeal is already over and she actually takes the bag away from me. „You do know that there’s something in there?“, I ask? She nods her head, crinkles the top of the bag together and throws it in the big plastic bin that’s roped down towards the stern. I’m majorly embarrassed, but also relieved that only a couple people, including Silke & some of the crew, have seen what just happened.
With that out of the way, it’s time to rest my eyes for a minute. But when I open them again, we’re directly at the TP. I mean, really right in front of it. I grab my camera and head out into the fresh sea air. As I start walking towards the bow, I get signaled by the crew. "Get back here! We’re not ready yet!“ Ready? Ready for what?
Then I understand. We are actually going to dock onto the TP. There’s a huge yellow ladder on one side, which is meant for operations workers to climb up the TP and onto (or into) the wind turbine. We’re not planning on doing that, especially in light of the fact that there’s no single wind turbine installed in our budding wind park. But what we do get is a mega close up of this big beauty in the water. I can’t imagine climbing up there. Or what this will look like with a huge white turbine on top. The diagrams that we saw last night showed us that one blade will be almost as big as an A380 airplane. Oh my!
Although it seems that we’ve only been out for an hour or so, we’ve used up almost all four hours of our time offshore. It’s time to turn it around and head back to the harbor. The captain says that we have registered with the police that we’ll be back by 12:30 at the latest. This is important to keep account of everyone who’s gone offshore.
We’re heading back to Sassnitz & the Mukran Port. Back to our operational building, where we can shed our heavy safety equipment & where hot soup is waiting for us. I look forward to warming up one more time. The next time I come back here, if I ever come back, will probably be when the sixty giant white turbines are standing tall. Blades as big as an airplane and over a hundred meters tall!