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Opportunity at the gates

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Kishorn Port is a key location in the early history of the UK oil and gas industry. Thanks to a major investment programme and a raft of new capabilities, its owners hope it will play an equally important role in the North Sea’s future. Wireline finds out more…

When the dry dock at Kishorn Port was opened to receive a cargo ship in May this year, it represented more than just another routine maritime project. The MV Kaami, which had run aground on rocks between the isles of Skye and Lewis, was taken to Kishorn on Scotland’s north west coast for dismantling after being deemed by experts to be beyond repair.

The event, however, had a much wider significance: it was the first time in more than 25 years that the dry dock facility had been fully opened to the sea to accept a vessel. And it marked a significant step forward for the port as it pursues a three-pronged strategy to capitalise on modern-day opportunities – and thereby revive the fortunes of a sleeping giant.

“We recognised that we could work together to realise the dock’s potential, capitalising on our respective capabilities and resources to make it an asset once again.”

Yard lessons

The port, near Lochcarron in Wester Ross, is indelibly linked with the story of the early years of the UK energy industry – most famously, of course, as the site where the massive Ninian Central platform was constructed in the mid to late 1970s.

The Kishorn yard was originally developed as a manufacturing and fabrication facility for platforms and at its peak employed more than 3,000 people.

The port has continued to provide conventional marine services to sectors such as aquaculture, forestry and construction through the intervening years, although the dry dock was last operational in the early 1990s when the caissons that support the Skye Bridge were made there. In recent years however, a major programme of investment has fully restored the dock – one of the biggest facilities of its kind in Europe – to operational use, and in the process re-energised its ambitions for growth.

At the centre of the initiative is a 50/50 joint venture set up in 2008 by businesses with distinctive but complementary areas of focus at the site: Aberdeen-based Leiths (Scotland) Ltd, which operates the quarrying, concrete and construction materials business at Kishorn, and Fort William-based Ferguson Transport, which runs the wider port facilities.

“The two businesses came together at the time and looked at the latent opportunity presented by the disused dock, not least in terms of the fabrication of concrete structures,” says Colin Ortlepp, a director with Kishorn Port Ltd (KPL). “We recognised that we could work together to realise the dock’s potential, capitalising on our respective capabilities and resources to make it an asset once again.”

Since then, the site has witnessed significant investment by the joint venture partners as well as by a host of other organisations keen to capitalise on the economic development opportunities. With that momentum, the site has undergone real transformation over the past ten years.

The MV Kaami sits in dry dock at Kishorn Port
The MV Kaami sits in dry dock at Kishorn Port.

Gate keeping

Work has included a major refurbishment of the two huge dry dock gates (each weigh 13,000 tonnes in situ and span a length of 160m in total). This overhaul included the replacement of gate sealing systems and the introduction of new large-scale pumps for removing water once the gates are closed.

A new length of road has been created to facilitate better land access into the dock, while mooring systems have been installed out in Loch Kishorn to host the gates safely and securely when they are removed. The geography is advantageous; the loch offers draft at up to 80 metres depth in its main channel, while the port has an existing quayside berth at 120 metres length, another at 95 metres length and a third at 80 metres length. At the loch’s mouth, the Sound of Raasay also offers up to 150 metres of water depth and a clear path to the Atlantic Ocean.

In addition, onshore facilities including office accommodation and sleeper cabins have been established for use by visiting contractors or rig crews if required.

Together, these measures have positioned Kishorn Port to develop a long-term strategy focused on attracting new business and bolstering the local economy. This strategy has three key planks, namely: oil and gas infrastructure decommissioning, oil and gas servicing and renewables.

“We see decommissioning opportunities on the horizon and we’re ready to play a significant role in that market,” says Colin. “We can take those projects on whenever operators of mature assets decide the time is right to go to the decommissioning phase… One of our prime advantages is that the nature of the dry dock means decommissioning work can be safely performed in a contained environment, effectively isolated from the sea.”

The MV Kaami project, which emerged at relatively short notice as a place of safety was sought for the vessel, has served to demonstrate the credentials of Kishorn when it comes to decommissioning. “The work came out of the blue,” adds Colin. “The gates had been floated for testing purposes in recent years, but this was the first time we’d done it for operational reasons.”

The impact of COVID-19 made thing even trickier. He continues: “It involved a great deal of planning over a short period of time, all against the backdrop of the lockdown restrictions. We also needed to bring a number of resources and skills sets on site, ranging from tugs, diving and winching services to specialist engineers and naval architects.

The operation required the teams to remove one of the gates, which he says was completed smoothly and without any issues. This then allowed the ship to be taken in before water in the dock was pumped out to enable dry dismantling work to start. “It was a challenge in the circumstances, but we pulled it off,” reflects Colin. “It showcased that we can not only operate the dock effectively but also that work can be done safely and in an environmentally sound way.”

Beyond these individual successes, he is confident of the port’s potential to become a world-class site. “We believe the dry dock is a significant asset – not just for us but for Scotland as a whole,” he explains.

“We believe the dry dock is a significant asset – not just for us but for Scotland as a whole.”

Sustainability strategy

The port last year secured a waste management licence from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to formally underpin its decommissioning offering.

Kishorn’s oil and gas servicing capabilities were exemplified early in 2019 when it took on its first major contract of recent years. The world’s largest semi-submersible offshore drilling rig, the Ocean GreatWhite, anchored at the port for servicing work en route from Singapore to the west of Shetland to undertake drilling campaigns at Siccar Point Energy’s Blackrock and Lyon prospects.

With a draft of over 23 metres, the 60,800-tonne rig required deep water for anchoring and Loch Kishorn provided an ideal site, helped as well by its sheltered conditions.

Meanwhile, outside of the decommissioning arena, KPL is optimistic that a new round of seabed leasing by Crown Estate Scotland for offshore wind developments may yield major opportunities. The leasing process is still in its early stages but involves multiple areas around the Scottish coastline.

In particular, the port is positioning itself as a location for the fabrication of foundations for fixed or floating offshore wind turbines. Colin says Kishorn is cited in the early documentation as a prospective delivery location for support of these developments. “We believe we’re really well placed to service new developments, particularly off the west and north coasts.

“It’s also good news for us that the process indicates that developers should look to use as much local content as they can.”

The strategic investment programme at Kishorn has received grant support from both Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and the Scottish government’s Decommissioning Challenge Fund. It has also had welcome support from Highland Council, particularly in respect to planning issues, Crown Estate Scotland and local landowner the Applecross Trust.

“It’s a fragile area economically and Kishorn does represent economic development and jobs, which are important locally,” says Colin. That has also necessitated a close and co-operative relationship with local residents. “The community has by and large been very supportive of Kishorn over the years,” he says. “We use a lot of local services – ranging from accommodation to construction support – and many of those will benefit as and when we’re successful in bringing more work to the port.

“Our goals now are to build an established track record across all three of our strategic areas. We want to create a breadth of experience and have the facility constantly busy.”

Colin believes Kishorn still enjoys a special status in the local community. “There are still many people living here who clearly remember the days of Ninian Central being built. When you’re around the area, you meet people who enjoy telling you that they worked at Kishorn and about their experiences there. It’s almost ingrained into the local psyche in some respects.”

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