Van Oord faces decade of dredging on the world’s largest reclamation

Van Oord’s Ham 316 is hard at work reclaiming what will be the final part of the Palm trilogy — Palm Deira. Sean Cronin meets the team behind the world’s biggest reclamation project, currently taking shape off the coast of Dubai.

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By  Sean Cronin Published  January 28, 2006

nakheel invites cw aboard the ham 316 suction dredger, the flagship of van oord’s island-building fleet|~|106proj200.gif|~|‘Rainbowing’ in progress on the Corniche of Nakheel’s Palm Deira project. Reclamation works on the project are expected to take almost a decade.|~|It is one of the biggest dredgers in the world and it is working on the biggest land reclamation project in the world. How big is big? Well the bridge of Van Oord’s Ham 316 hopper dredger is the size of a five-a-side football pitch and it has more gadgets and dials on display than the Starship Enterprise. But the mainly Dutch crew of this giant island-making machine are a bit more laid back than their Star Trek counterparts. You get the impression that the discovery of ‘Klingons’ on the starboard bow would not cause too much concern here — they’d probably be invited in to watch the football and have a drink in the vessel’s cosy on-board bar. Managing this and all of the other Van Oord offshore projects in Dubai is Jan Schaart — the Captain Kirk of the company’s Middle East operations and responsible for a workforce of around 800 people. He has been given the unenviable task of showing journalists around the vessel — days after newspaper reports about the Palm Deira project running late and investors being allowed to transfer their operations to other Nakheel projects. His task is made a little easier when some of the invited hacks decide the rope ladder climb up the side of the vessel looks a little too perilous and decide instead to take the boat back to shore. While Nakheel insists that the trip is not intended to be any form of damage-limitation exercise, it is clear that the developer has been stung by recent newspaper allegations about the progress of the project and is keen to set the record straight. Both Nakheel and Van Oord insist that the project is not running late, although both confirm that it has been subject to some fairly significant design changes. The orientation of the project has been changed for one, so that it no longer protrudes into Sharjah waters. The height of the island has also been raised to protect against long-term wave height projections. But none of this has interrupted the daily routine of the Ham 316 which travels back and forth with its cargo of sand, regular as clockwork. In the space of just four years and almost entirely off the back of Nakheel’s island building activities, Van Oord’s Middle East operations have grown to account for about one third of the Dutch contractor’s entire business. Schaart explains that the Ham 316 is the third biggest dredger to be found anywhere in the world. In just one trip, the vessel can suck around 23 000 m3 of sand from the seabed — or the equivalent of around 500 lorry loads. “The sand is mixed in the hull with water and pumped through a nozzle at the front of the dredger — we call it rainbowing. “The other method that we commonly use is bottom dumping. The vessel has doors underneath and if we are on a spot where we do not have to rainbow and there is enough depth, we open the hold and empty the sand directly on to the bottom of the seabed.” “Another method, that we are not using yet, is pumping ashore.” The Ham 316 is one of ten suction hopper dredgers and three specially equipped rock-dumping vessels that together will vacuum the seabed of Dubai’s territorial waters over the next eight years — boldly going where no dredger has gone before. In each trip this gigantic floating factory sucks up around 23 000 m3 of sand from the seabed to be deposited off Deira — where Nakheel’s third palm tree-shaped island is now taking shape. Van Oord was officially awarded the US $3 billion (AED11 billion) contract for the Palm Deira, in November. The island will be 18 km long, nine km wide and its surface will measure 4000 ha. The current design includes plans for 40 fronds, which will branch out from either side of the island’s trunk. Building the project will involve one billion m3 of sand and 40 million tonnes of rock. Since the dredging work on the original Palm Jumeirah projects started four years ago, Van Oord has been forced to go progressively further into the Gulf to extract sand needed to build the offshore islands currently under construction. So the round trip now takes eight hours in which time the Ham 316 travels between 20 and 30 nautical miles offshore to the ‘borrow’ area, before returning with a full load of sand to be deposited off Deira. Because Van Oord is also dredging for Nakheel’s other offshore projects, the work has to be carefully coordinated, according to Simon Zondervan, works manager on Deira Corniche and a veteran of dredging projects around the world. “We have a borrow area management team based onshore and they determine where the vessels are going and where they will take the sand from. “They also coordinate this with the other dredging projects so we are not taking sand from the same places. At the moment we are going out 34 nautical miles. That is the farthest we have been,” he says. Before Van Oord started work on the original Palm Island, it undertook an exhaustive survey of sand deposits in the territorial waters of Dubai — which extend around 40 miles offshore. Since that time a new offshore fibre-optic cable has been laid and once it is in position, the Ham 316 or any other dredger will not be allowed to come anywhere near it. As a result, the vessel has been removing as much sand as possible from the path of the cable over recent weeks — while it still can. The 40-strong crew of the Ham 316 work eight hours on and eight hours off, seven days a week and they are on board six weeks at a time — with only one day off every six weeks. The extremely corrosive power of the sand and salt water, means that the ship has to carry a massive inventory of spare parts. The sand is sucked from the seabed by dragheads on each side of the vessel — which are similar in design to the bucket of an excavator, but much larger. The dragheads are lined with fist-sized steel teeth — many of which break off during every trip and need to be replaced. For now, the Ham 316 is shifting more than 800 000 m3 of sand every week and could well remain busy on this project for the best part of a decade. It is likely to be the last of Dubai’s great offshore developments — that is until Dubai Waterfront starts. “And that is another story,” says Schaart, before returning to the bridge.||**||

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