Judy Murray, Contributor

It is not a surprise to those following the construction market that the offshore support vessel (OSV) fleet is in dire straits. In March 2017 VesselsValue, a group of analysts that follow yard activity, reported that the already oversupplied OSV market was facing a record number of deliveries in 2017, with 465 vessels expected to join the global fleet. Data published in October indicated nearly 80% had not yet been delivered.

While current market forecasts for this year indicate better times are on the way, the likelihood is slim that a balmier business climate will rescue the OSV sector from its current distress. As with other market sectors innovation will be the determining factor for success.

In taking on the new “normal” of lower oil and gas prices and limited demand for their services, OSV owners are taking a critical look at their fleets and reassessing their value in a very different market to chart the best—and most profitable—way forward.

Some owners, like Harvey Gulf International Marine, were ahead of the game in recognizing that changes needed to be made to give its fleet a competitive edge. In 2015 it became the first U.S. vessel operator to supply a vessel capable of operating exclusively on natural gas. The newbuild M/V Harvey Energy was the first LNG-powered OSV in service in North America.

Meanwhile, owners with idle vessels in their fleet are looking for ways to convert existing units to deliver more marketable services. In some cases that means enhancing capabilities. This is the route Ulstein took mid-2017, identifying a need for inspection, repair and maintenance vessels that could support subsea installation in addition to offshore wind operations. The company announced it would deliver “new-life solutions” through “a well thought-through conversion” that would allow medium-sized PX121 platform supply vessels to compete for short- and medium-term contracts.

Venturing even farther off the beaten path, Silverstar Marine has proposed the idea of converting an OSV into what it described as “a high-quality, practical, heavy seas explorer/adventure yacht.” Among its selling points is price. A finished refit of an OSV would yield a larger superyacht at a lower cost than could be achieved with a newbuild.

While some companies are finding ways to keep existing units busy, others are designing newbuilds with specialized markets in mind.

In December 2017 Jumbo signed a letter of intent with China Merchants Industry Holdings for detailed engineering and construction of a new DP2 heavy-lift crane vessel (HLCV) that will be delivered in first-quarter 2020. The X-BOW HLCV, designed with Ulstein Design and Solutions B.V., will be powered by dual fuel engines and can run on LNG.

Also in December, Wärtsilä Corp. announced a new hybrid tug design, a version of the Wärtsilä HYTug, with a fully integrated hybrid power module that combines engines, an energy storage system using batteries and power electronics optimized to work together through a newly developed energy management system, reducing emissions and noise and improving performance. The design, which was developed for use in China, has received Approval-in-Principle recognition by the China Classification Society.

The range of concepts and capabilities shows clearly there is no one-size-fits-all solution for this oversupplied market, but grit, determination and imagination could go a long way toward turning things around.

Judy Murray’s Offshore Advances column originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of E&P.