A to Z: DPO

I’ve been posting in the A to Z Challenge the last few days. I missed out yesterday on the post for D. I was just too busy. I’m trying to catch up today. I actually wrote one earlier today (Dreamstime). I can’t believe I didn’t immediately think to post on this instead.

I’ve been working as a Dynamic Positioning Officer (DPO) since 2002. Or, I was, until I got laid off along with so many others who work(ed) in the oilfield. My last job was as DPO on a drillship like the one in the picture below. I haven’t heard of any work since last October. I heard over a half million oilfield workers laid off world-wide a couple of months ago and still seeing more lay-offs in the news daily. 🙁

Ocean Rig Apollo drillship

I’m guessing that unless you or someone you know works in the oilfield, you’re probably pretty happy with the low price of oil. I would be too, if my job and so many others weren’t so dependent on it.

I’ve been working at sea since 1977, when I went off to school. I sailed as a cadet on a couple of large traditional sailing ships. I was hooked and wanted to continue that lifestyle forever.

But the American Merchant Marine has been shrinking for decades. We have been globalized and most ships are no longer operated by Americans. Pretty much the only place to work has been related to the oil industry. Either tankers, ATBs, or some type of support vessel working directly in the oilfield.

DSV Global Orion

DSV Global Orion

I worked as an AB on tankers for about 10 years in the 90’s. I moved up to third officer and then my company sold out, scrapped all their ships and laid us all off. I was very lucky to find a job on a DP vessel at that point (before the requirements got so strict that they kept almost everyone from becoming certified).

I’ve been fairly happy sailing as DPO since then. I worked my way up from third officer to master. I sailed mostly as second officer/senior DPO. I really enjoyed the job most of the time.

A DPO’s job is to operate the DP system onboard a vessel. Sounds simple, right? Most companies would agree. Plenty of them seriously think any monkey could do it. Sorry, but it’s not.

No, it’s not ‘rocket science’, but it’s not all that simple either.

First of all, most clients ask for a licensed officer to run the desk (they would always be required on the bridge anyway). Requirements changing to reflect that now too. It is not easy at all to become a licensed ships officer. There are a few different ways to go about it. You can either take the easy way and go to school (if you can afford it), or you can work your way “up the hawsepipe” (the hole in the ships bow where the anchor chain comes aboard).

It takes at least 4 years at a maritime academy to earn your third officers license. There is also a requirement for sea time. Then there is the US Coast Guard exam. You have to pass the Rules of the Road section with a 90% score. No, it’s not at all like the one for driving on land! The other sections are a tiny little bit easier, but you still have to get over 80% on most.

Then there are all the new ‘assessments’ added since the STCW came into effect. They are required for both academy grads and hawsepipers.

To work your way up the hawsepipe, you will probably spend much more time to get that license. You will spend quite a bit of cash to get those assessments signed off. But at least you’re able to work and earn some money along the way. You can still study on your own to pass the US Coast Guard exams.

So, after you get your US Coast Guard license as Third Officer, then you can start the process of getting your DP certificate. First you have to take an ‘induction’ class. That only takes a week and a couple thousand dollars.

The hard part is: you have to get onboard a DP vessel to get your log book signed off before you’re allowed into the ‘simulator’ class. Since most companies have cut crew levels to the bone (even before the latest crisis), they do not want to take anyone onboard who’s not fully capable and qualified (licensed) to do the job. This makes it almost impossible for any prospective DPO to get certified.

Those that do get lucky (and that is what it takes- LUCK), go on to take their simulator course. After that, they’ll need at least a couple more months onboard as a ‘trainee’ DPO (so still facing major hurdles in getting that position onboard any vessel).

If they finally manage to make it through the training stage (before the allotted time runs out), then they were in high demand (up until last year).

They would be in charge of keeping the vessel safe and steady in position for it to do the work it was hired to do. They controlled the computers that controlled the vessel. Keeping a drillship positioned over the well, or a dive boat over the top of the divers, or a pipe layer on the right track while they laid down the pipe.

These jobs might sound easy to some, but they are actually working in some pretty exact tolerances. For instance, a drillship in shallow water (<500 ft) might only have a watch circle of 9 meters. That means that the DPOs must keep that 6-800 ft ship’s moon pool inside a circle with a diameter of less than 30 ft. In ALL conditions. All the while contending with helicopter traffic, supply boats wanting to come alongside, stability issues, permits, phone calls, pages, etc.

It’s very important for DPOs to know the weather, and how their vessel will react to differing conditions. Storm fronts can change the wind direction 180 degrees and increase from 5 knots to 50+ in less than 10 minutes. A DPO had better be on his toes and know exactly what to do and when to do it!

And the weather is only a small part of the things they need to know. There is so much more, but too much to get into for this post.

If you’re interested and want to know more, let me know. Comment and ask questions if you want.

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