INSIDE STORY What an icebreaker!
Moored at this moment in a shipyard in Holland for final fit-out and testing is the world's largest scientific ice-breaker ship, 'Nuyina', a behemoth that is longer than Croke Park, taller than the Cusack Stand, and capable of travelling without restocking or refuelling for 90 days. EILIS RYAN caught up with the project manager on the build, RONAN MAGUIRE, who has Cavan roots...
The reason the dimensions of this Australian government-owned craft are referenced against Croke Park is because the man with all the stats and maths for the ship is Ronan Maguire, who happens to come from a town not much spoken of in shipbuilding circles – Mullingar. His parents are Conor and Maura Maguire; Conor, the former Chief Agricultural Officer for Westmeath, is originally from Templeport, Co Cavan. The family are well known in GAA circles.
An accountant by profession, Ronan is the overall project manager – which means he is overseeing the overall build, equipping, testing and eventually management of the ship, which has been commissioned by the Australian government’s Australian Antarctic Division (ADD).
The RSV Nuyina is a research and supply vessel (RSV) constructed to support Australian bases in Antarctica. It represents a once in a generation investment and is the centrepiece of the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan launched in April 2016. The $1.9 billion (€1.2B) package will cover the design, build and 30 year operational and maintenance lifespan of the icebreaker.
When it goes into service, RSV Nuyina will provide a world-class scientific platform for Antarctic researchers, carrying cutting-edge equipment to study the depths of the Southern Ocean, sea ice and the upper atmosphere. With capacity to carry 117 expeditioners, 1,200 tonnes of cargo and 1.9 million litres of fuel, the icebreaker will be the main lifeline to Australia’s Antarctic and sub-Antarctic research stations for decades to come. The RSV Nuyina will ferry supplies, samples, equipment and personnel between Australia and its five Antarctic base stations. It is also expected to be key to the AAD’s efforts to obtain samples of million-year old ice as part of the drive to peer into past climate periods.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes but I have grown into the job over the years it's not something I ever thought I would end up doing,” says Ronan, explaining that a ship of this scale is built just once every 30 years. “So, the timing was just critical and I am very lucky to have just caught it at the right time too.”
Ronan is a former Mullingar CBS student and studied accountancy at Athlone RTC (now the AIT) before taking up a job with Mullingar accountancy firm Gibson and Fletcher and obtaining his ACCA qualification.
However, competing for Ronan’s attention was music, and he became a member of a band called 'Judas Diary', which actually won the Coca Cola Beat Box challenge in 1994 and played at the Trip to Tipp. Not just that, but they even had The Cranberries supporting them.
“We toured Europe a few times around the mid 90s but then we split up and that sort of set in motion my travels, so I went off and I was sort of in India, for about six months. I was in various different spots I suppose until I finally arrived in Sydney in 2000, to meet my sister Aoife, and just in time for the Olympic Games."
It was a heady time to be there: “It was an incredible place to be: it was just like a party city and there were so many Irish in Sydney at that time.”
Over 20 years on, Ronan is still in touch with a lot of the Irish community in Sydney: “We have meetings every couple of months with the Irish community; groups such as The Ireland Fund and the Lansdowne Club are set up to sort of help and promote Irish companies in Australia and to encourage trade and we get involved in fundraising activity now and again so I am still connected with the Irish community in that respect.”
Not long after his arrival, Ronan began working for the international firm Serco, which specialises in contracting services for governments, and with them he has been involved in the construction of 17 ships over the years, largely for the Australian navy.
“This is my 18th ship and this is by far and away the biggest endeavour,” says Ronan.
“With the other ships I wasn't in the same role, but I am the project manager for this project and there is a lot more responsibility - a whole lot - and this ship is an enormous jump, but it took me all those ‘incremental ships’ along the way to get here. I wouldn't have just jumped straight into this one without having gone through building all those other ships through the years, and made lots of mistakes, as everyone does during the start out. I am not an engineer but have literally spent my working life for the last 20 years doing engineering, and working with designs and drawings.”
From conception to where it is now, work on the Nuyina has taken almost eight years: it took two years alone to win the bid: “We had to design it and we had to present our designs. It is for the Australian Antarctic Division, and because it is a scientific ship we had to prove what the ship can do, how it can break ice, and how it can sustain their environmental requirements and that sort of thing.”
Marine eco-system research
One of the areas of focus of the Australian Antarctic Program on the ship will be on why numbers of krill – one of the building blocks of the marine ecosystem - are declining so rapidly.
Ronan thrives on the work and on this project in particular, which may necessitate on-board trips all the way to Antarctica.
“I find it very interesting it's something that fascinates me,” he says.
“I think it will be the experience of a lifetime. I've never been down there I've worked on the ship for eight years and now it is getting close to completion and I am really very excited about it.”
The downside is that for the rest of this year, he won’t see much of his wife Janice and their 10-year old daughter Ciara: “That is the real sacrifice: it is very painful,” he says.
“I am here a week now and I won't be back in Australia until October and then if I go to the Antarctic, you are talking about another 50 days on top of that, so another six weeks.
“There are certain people who love it and there are certain people who will not go near that kind of lifestyle because there is a work life balance you need to strike.
“I can run this from Sydney and I will be happy with that but I could be on the ship for a couple of the voyages to see what is going on. But it is not my job to be on the ship the whole time and I certainly would not want to sacrifice the work life balance for that.”
Once fully commissioned, the RSV Nuyina will be the biggest scientific icebreaker in the world.
It is designed in such a way that the nose will rise up out of the ice and as it comes downward, it will crush through depths of up to 1.6m by its weight.
While most ships have a pointed hull for slicing through waves, the rounded front of an icebreaker is designed to break through ice and ride over it.
To give a sense of the scale of the Nuyina, Ronan relates it to Croke Park: “So,” he explains, “it is 160m long; Croke Park is 145m long, so it's about 15m longer than Croke Park.
“It is 25m wide. Croke Park is about 80m wide so it would go about one-third of the way out in the field.
“Then the Cusack stand is the highest stand in Croke Park and it is about 35m high, and the ship is about 50m high.”
The ship has 11 decks and even includes a hospital area.
Because of the distance it will travel, the numbers who will be on board and the work in which the scientists will be involved and the challenge of accessing the Antarctic, Ronan sees the ship in four guises: an icebreaker, a hotel, a science ship and a cargo vessel.
“First of all, it’s a ‘hotel’, because it has 117 passengers and 32 crew,” he explains.
The passengers will be largely scientists, plus a doctor; the crew consisting of the engineers, deck officers, deck hands – and of course, cooks, chefs, cleaners: “Essentially you are running a hotel and everything that involves from cleaning the toilets to fine dining.
“It has got a gym, it’s got a sauna; it's got a movie theatre – everything you would have in a hotel.
“The second part of it is a science ship, so it has state-of-the-art technology. It does everything from tracking the numbers of whales in the world to marine life and krill."
The Nuyina is the only ship in the world to have a watertight room or ‘wet well’ to process seawater for krill and other fragile marine organisms, at up to 1,800 litres per minute. Other state-of-the-art scientific equipment includes acoustic instruments to map and visualise the sea floor and organisms in the water column, and instruments to measure atmospheric gases, cloud properties, wave heights and ice conditions.
“There are a lot of laboratories on the ship, and it has a very interesting thing called a ‘moonpool’, which is like something out of a James Bond movie.”
The moonpool is essentially a cavity in the bottom of the ship through which autonomous vehicles or submersible craft can be launched.
“The third thing is it's an icebreaker: it needs to be resilient to go into the most remote zones in the world. There won't be a ship in sight for weeks around it,” says Ronan.
“The Antarctic has 90% of the world’s ice and nobody can go near it unless they have an actual icebreaker, so this ship has to be polar-code compliant, and we have to be able to reverse through ice. It is designed to be operated and resistant in low temperatures.
“Australia has five research stations on the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic region run by the Australian Antarctic Program. There is a team of scientists that lives on the Antarctic all year round and they only get one visit a year, and that is us.
“We will turn up and we will take their rubbish and we will give them all their supplies and equipment and fresh food and everything that they want to last them for a full year.
“We have up to four helicopters on the back deck and there can be many reasons why we can't get the ship all the way in to the station, so if we can't, we use our helicopters to send in the cargo and provisions because otherwise there are people's lives at stake...
“The fourth thing is that it's a cargo ship. It carries 94 containers and almost two million litres of fuel.
“Because it's such a mixture of purposes, being a passenger ship and a cargo ship and an icebreaker all rolled into one, it's been really difficult to classify the ship to comply with the shipping standard requirements, so it’s certified as a “Special Purpose Ship,” Ronan explains.
The ship is now in the Netherlands, where it is being fitted out with all the equipment it needs, including the high-tech science equipment for its several science labs. The construction of the ship was, initially, undertaken in Romania.
The arrival of Covid both complicated and delayed the process: “In the Romanian shipyard the restrictions hit us hard. If you turned up in Romania, you would have to self-isolate for 14 days. So you would go in there do a day’s work and then go back to, say Germany and you would have to quarantine for 14 days there. You couldn’t do it.”
Eventually work did resume: then came the mammoth task of getting the vessel to Holland: “We essentially towed the ship out of Romania - which was 6800km - and it took a whole month to tow it all the way out to the Black Sea, all the way around to Istanbul; through the Bosphorus and round the Mediterranean down around Sicily to the Bay of Biscay and then up towards the Netherlands.”
Because of Covid, some of the ship’s testing had to be done remotely, but there is still more to be done: “We have done most of the ship’s tests but there are a few tests left to go to ensure that it does what it says it should do.”
Ronan expects the ship to depart Europe for its 56-day voyage to Australia in August.
“In November we will sail down to the Antarctic for the maiden voyage down to the ice, so it is just going to be a very busy remaining six months of the year.”
Before departing the Netherlands, the ship intends to establish itself as a Covid-free “citadel”, and to maintain the ship’s occupants’ Covid-free status, the Nuyina cannot stop at any port before Australia.
Bon voyage Ronan and crew.