Those of you that see the updates on our Facebook page may have noticed that we have been busy providing crew transfer services on the Mersey Gateway project, a £600m six-lane motorway bridge over the Mersey linking Widnes & Runcorn in Cheshire.
This has been a very significant job for us, as it’s the first time that a small hovercraft has been used commercially under the terms of the 2014 Hovercraft Code of Practice. The 2014 Coastal-Pro MACV is designed and built to comply with the code, and all correct certification for skippers and the hovercraft are correct. As you can imagine, our risk assessments, method statements and plans had to be right up to scratch with all relevant permissions gained from the MCA, port authourity etc
The work has certainly been tough! Our job is to transfer the engineers and welders to and from the various barges and work sites, and with the river at Widnes being so tidal, the craft must be able to operate over both water and sand/mudflats. The tidal bore can be quite something, with the tide rising in a little over two hours. Having said that, the mud bank doesn’t always cover at all, so that after a week drying due to neap tides, the mud becomes extremely sticky. On the flooding or ebbing tide, coming alongside the barges can be challenging, especially in the recent winds. Our hardcore skippers start at 6:30am, with first transfers in the dark at 7:00am. During our first week, the cold temperatures have meant that the MACV has literally torn itself free of the ice coating the steel slipway in the morning with an unnerving ripping noise. Early though it is, any sleepiness is gone in the first ten yards – it’s bitterly cold and dark, and the mudflats change literally tide by tide with gullies coming and going overnight. The skipper needs to be alert and aware of the changes in the terrain and a set of the superb ‘Cree’ LED lights seem almost powerless on the giant landscape.
It’s certainly been an interesting period with a very steep learning curve. The MACV has performed absolutely faultlessly, proving to be exactly the right size – large enough for two or three crew, but small enough to be ‘handy’ amongst the barges and cranes – able to get into and out of some pretty tight spaces and through the gullies and able to deal with that ‘sticky’ mud. We’ve been told that at leats one much heavier commercial/rescue hovercraft has become thoroughly stuck when attempting to operate in this area of the Mersey. Our lighter craft and segmented skirt allows us a workaround and the separate lift system is absolutely essential for this work.
The mud rescue on site is being provided by a ‘Sealegs’ which if you’ve not seen one before is a 6m RIB with a hydraulically driven, three wheel system. This allows it to travel across the land as well as water. It’s been interesting to compare the two vehicles – the Sealegs certainly offers an advantage in fast flowing tides (reverse is handy, a pointy bow and no skirt to drag in the water when not moving is a luxury) but it’s is desperately slow on land and can only run for around half an hour before needing to cool down. On a bumpy day, give me the RIB every time, but crossing the mudflats from one side of the river to the other takes some twenty minutes – by contrast the MACV takes less than four! It’s outboard has also proved vulnerable to silt in the shallow water conditions and it can get stuck if the mud is too soft – the wheels do have limits and cause a lot of damage to the littoral substrate that hovercraft don’t. Having said that, it’s been on the job for some months and is doing a demanding job in an environment I can’t believe it was actually designed for.
Our skippers (myself included) have learned a lot about skippering and driving the MACV in this role. We’ve managed to bend a few bits that we didn’t think could be bent, we’ve found components that have frozen up on cold mornings, we’ve learned to deal with ‘that’ mud and certainly discovered the limits of the craft. We’re pretty sure that every welder on site weighs a minimum of 100kgs, and every part of the MACV has been jumped or stepped on – so far with no damage which is rather gratifying!
So, as we end the year, we’ll be bringing the MACV back from Liverpool for some love and attention and will be back in the new year to continue operations until Spring 2015, when we move to another, similar job in the North East of England. Exciting times!
Our thanks must go to the team at the MCA who have allowed small hovercraft to operate in this role, with the adoption of the Ultralight category of the Hovercraft Code of Practice 2014, Peel Ports for quickly assessing the viability and safety of our operations, and our duty skippers Nelson & Dave for their hard work in tough conditions.
Evening on the River mersey
Early morning, Sealegs and the MACV together.
One of our other jobs – providing a solid, stable base for survey equipment on dangerous mudflats.