Another security system applied to Gulf of Finland

Tallinna lahe naftareostuses kannatada saanud luiged 2006. aastal.

PHOTO: Toomas Huik

ENSI-system will keep keen eye on oil tankers. If these get off course, it’ll ring bell.

On large monitors at a Finnish border guard centre, in Helsinki, ships are seen sailing Gulf of Finland as along highways – at the bottom, they travel towards Russia; higher up, others are leaving Russian harbours.

All sorts of names and dots abound – on the Baltic Sea, 2,000 cargo and passenger ships sail daily, a quarter of these oil tankers. Monitors as described above are also found in Estonia, and Russia. At Estonian Maritime Administration, ship traffic chief Are Piel says the toughest spot to monitor is where Helsinki-Tallinn traffic crosses with cargo trade towards Russia.

With its 377,000 square kilometres, the Baltic Sea is ever so small as compared to the oceans. Even so, it hosts a whopping 15 percent of global ship traffic. According to Finnish sea monitoring official Ismo Siikaluoma, 40,000 trips a year happen between Tallinn and Helsinki. «At the same time, oil transport across Gulf of Finland has, over a decade, almost doubled,» said he.

Like passenger planes, the larger ships are equipped with transponders, providing monitors with real-time info of their location.

In addition to the transponders-system, Estonia since 2003 also employs radars – watching the bays of Tallinn, Kopli and Muuga. «So much denser traffic, here,» says Mr Piel. «In addition to all else, we must see that ship anchors do not destroy underwater cables.»

Even that is not enough, as some captains do get the «I Am God» feeling. About a year ago, a oil tanker of 15 metres draught, with 100,000 tonnes of cargo aboard, was headed towards 13,6 shallows in Russian territorial waters. «Our operator contacted Russian colleagues. Then, the Russians in turn contacted the captain of the ship and asked him where did he think he was going,» said Finnish maritime service chief Thomas Erlund. «Finally, then, he changed course. Otherwise, the tanker would have run aground in five-six minutes.» In case of a leak, in a ship that big, some 30,000 tonnes of oil would spill into our native sea.

Now, eight Neste tankers are testing the new ENSI-system – one not content merely to monitor, but trying to avoid deviations altogether. While the ship is still planning its route through the Gulf of Finland, it sends an electronic route to the ship traffic management centre. A computer program automatically checks it, also making sure the ship fits the depths of the waters. Of all is OK, the program sends confirmation, or – if need be – corrects the course. And once the vessel is crossing the gulf, the program follows its endeavours and if a deviation occurs, it lets the vessel know. Are Piel says the Finns will let Estonians try it out as well.

According to ENSI «engine» John Nurminen Foundation project manager Mikko Klang, the system was spurred by an incident in 2007 with a Greek tanker running aground near Gogland. «The captain was asked why he went that way. He said he’d done it twice before at the very spot,» said Mr Klang. «The guy was just twice lucky.»

Thank Goodness, a catastrophe then did not happen (the vessel was «loaded»), but Mr Klang says all realise: should a tanker like that seriously leak, the decades of work to clean up Baltic Sea will fly out the window. At least 70 percent of tankers running aground are due to human error. ENSI is expected to cut tanker risk by further 20 percent.

Mr Klang, having worked on tankers himself, says alcohol used to be quite the norm on board. «During my decade as sailor, it started to be less the norm,» he recalls. «For the older generation, drinking on board is still normal, but not for the younger men.»

According to Finnish environmental minister Ville Niinistö, sea traffic is now quite well organised. Now, he says, good cooperation is needed in case a serious oil spill still happens. According to him, Finland has invested decently into spill response. «We have invested in repairs of two existing spill response vessels, and we just bought a new one,» said Mr Niinistö. «Thus, we are nearing our goal of being able to clean 30,000 tonnes of oil from the sea a day, if needed.»

«With major tanker accidents, that should be capacity enough we think. On open sea, that is. But we must improve when it comes to archipelagos,» added the minister.

As assessed by Mr Niinistö, Finland is best in the world when it comes to oil-spill-readiness. With Estonia, however, these same capabilities are poor, to say the least. Good to know, then, that when in deep trouble the rich neighbour would come and help...

But should an oil tanker bump into some other vessel in the middle of Finnish Gulf, and the oil leak out, in worst case scenario the spill would spread across the entire gulf, says Mr Piel – in a single day. And that would make collection of it a whale of a task indeed.

As invited by foreign ministry of Finland, the author took part in seminars and meetings dedicated to the Gulf of Finland Year.