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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

Repurposing ships – old into new

Offshore vessels can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to build. They are constructed to serve a specific purpose: offshore supply vessels transport materials, drill ships drill in deep waters, production rigs retrieve oil and gas, and warships fight. But what happens when these ships are no longer needed or simply out of date with old technology? There are a few options: they can be broken down to sell or recycle, they can be upgraded to compete with newer vessels, or they can be transformed into a form that’s more useful. Let’s take a look at what happens to old ships.

Recycling and ship breaking

Crane removing a large piece of steel from a ship.

“Removing steel plates from a ship using cranes at Alang Ship Breaking Yard (India)”. By Nayeem Noor - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Image from Wikipedia.

The first option is recycling, also known as ship breaking. Dismantling ships is dangerous and labor intensive work that is mostly done in Asia, although can be done anywhere. The process involves running ships aground and taking them apart with torches, wrecking balls, cranes, and any methods available. Conditions vary widely depending on the location and ship yard, with some operating with no safety or environmental guidelines, while others have stepped up waste processing and worker care. More recently, “[m]any recycling yards have improved conditions to meet IMO’s guidelines with impervious floors, drainage systems, cranes, and worker training for each specific vessel.” (What is ship recycling?) Recycling rates at these yards can be as high as 98%, with the alternative to recycling being sinking a vessel to create an artificial reef or storage in a ship graveyard. Sinking and even burning vessels used to be a much more common practice with wooden ships, but the steel in modern vessels can be reused or melted down to make new steel.

Ship upgrades

Vessels usually have a lifespan of about 25-30 years, but if a ship outlives its usefulness before that time, they can be upgraded. Fuel efficiency can be increased with a reshaped ECO Retrofit Bow that decreases fuel consumption up to 10%, according to DNV. Engines can be upgraded to run on dual fuel and many offshore vessels are receiving hybrid systems that offer peak load shaving, storing energy in batteries for high load situations. Many of these hybrid ships can even operate on battery power only without engines for short periods of time, like during a supply delivery or while docking in port. Cruise ships can also be upgraded with more amenities or a new look, especially if they change owners. Better efficiency for greener operation and more capacity are common upgrades.

Ship conversions

Normand Clipper being converted at a shipyard in dry dock

“Two major conversions at Ulstein Verft were the 'Normand Cutter' and 'Normand Clipper'. Photo: Tony Hall.” Image from Ulstein.

If upgrading a ship won’t cut it, there’s always the option of converting it into another type of vessel that is in higher demand. Companies like Ulstein can convert ships like a platform supply vessel (PSV) into a subsea construction or offshore wind service vessel. They converted two of Esvagt’s vessels, Esvagt Leah and Esvagt Heidi, into Emergency Response and Rescue Vessels (ERRVs). The project involved installing a hybrid power system, methanol tanks, rescue zones, and fast rescue boats. Ulstein also converted the Normand Cutter and Normand Clipper from cable laying vessels to pipelaying and construction vessels with additional cabins, ROV hangar and control room, dynamic positioning upgrades, crane relocation and upgrade, deck reinforcement, and widening the vessel by 3.6 meters, according to Ulstein. Converting a ship can be a faster and more economical process than building a brand new vessel from scratch. It’s also more environmentally friendly due to the reuse of the current structure and a lot of parts instead of producing all new steel and components.

Esvagt Heidi after conversion at dock

“'Esvagt Heidi' after her launch from the dock hall at Ulstein Verft.” Image from Ulstein.

With the explosion in offshore wind farms, there are at least ten wind installation vessels (WIVs) under construction, according to Esgian. Most of these vessels are very large and new designs are being built to future proof them with the capability to install increasingly large turbines. With new WIVs costing between $250-$500 million, some companies are opting to convert oil rigs for wind turbine installations. Boskalis purchased the idled GSF Jack Ryan ultra-deepwater drillship from Transocean in 2017 for only $8 million to convert it to a WIV. It is now called Bokalift 2 and is equipped with a 4,000 ton crane capable of lifts to heights over 100 meters, according to Boskalis.

Subsea mining is also gaining popularity following an increased demand for battery materials for cars and other electronics. Allseas Group is partnering with The Metals Company (TMC) to convert the ultra-deepwater drillship Vitoria 10000 to be a “polymetallic nodule collection vessel”, according to Marine Log. The 228 meter vessel is now called Hidden Gem, and is expected to be the first subsea mining vessel classed by ABS. It has a moonpool and a 4.3 kilometer riser than will connect to a 12 meter collector vehicle, deployable over the side of the vessel. Mining tests are expected in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in mid-2022 with commercial mining as early as 2024. TMC estimates there are enough resources owned by TMC and its subsidiaries on the seafloor for 280 million electric vehicles, enough for all passenger vehicles in the United States.

Underwater mining vehicle in a warehouse

“Collector vehicle will be deployed over the side of the Hidden Gem”. Image from Marine Log.

As we covered in a recent Good News Monday, SpaceX is moving launches offshore. To do this, the company has purchased two offshore oil rigs to be converted into launch and landing platforms for their rockets, including the new Starship super heavy rocket. The aerospace company purchased the rigs from Houston drilling company Valaris for $4M each. Renamed Phobos and Deimos, the platforms will be set to launch and retrieve rockets that go into space as well as rockets travelling from point to point on Earth.

Museums and destinations

There’s one last option for old ships: preserve them as an artifact, museum, restaurant, hotel, or other purpose. Some old vessels, especially those that are very well known, are preserved and sent to museums or even themselves turned into museums. Cutty Shark was built in Scotland in 1869, and according to 3BL Media, was an extreme clipper built to transport tea from China, holding 1.3 million pounds on its first voyage. As the only extreme clipper left, it was turned into a museum with exhibits and activities about the ship’s history. The Queen Mary is another famous vessel that was preserved as a hotel, landmark and entertainment venue in Long Beach, California. It was one of the largest ocean liners when it set sail in 1934, then became World War II troop ship – it even has a reputation for paranormal activity. Some warships are sunk in combat exercises, but many are preserved for education and entertainment. The Vasa sunk in Sweden only 1,300 meters into its maiden voyage in 1628 and laid for over 300 years until it was salvaged in 1961, and eventually taken to the Vasa Museum. The USS Lexington served from 1943 to 1991, including World War II, and was reported sunk by the Japanese at least four times, earning it the nickname “The Blue Ghost.” It now sits in Corpus Christi Bay, Texas and features exhibits, a theatre, escape room, and flight simulator.

USS Lexington in Corpus Christi Bay

USS Lexington at Corpus Christi Bay, Texas. By Jim Evans - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Image from Wikipedia.

Although there are many ship graveyards around the world, there are plenty of options for old ships. Vessels can be upgraded, converted and reclassed, and even turned into brand new types of vessels for mining and ocean-based rocket launches! Ships with a story to tell can be preserved in museums, as museums, or even as a restaurant or hotel. Don’t let a good ship go to waste – it can live on as another vessel or a historical destination. Check one out!

Happy Friday!


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