Akademik Cherskiy, the Russian ship that will complete the construction of Nord Stream 2 has been docked in Germany at the Mukran port since 8 May. We managed to ascertain what is happening to it, and when it will be able to resume construction of the gas pipeline – Mariusz Marszałkowski, journalist at BiznesAlert.pl, writes.
According to our sources, Akademik Cherskiy has been undergoing a detailed overhaul since the beginning of July. The re-fitting involves the almost complete replacement of the control and navigation electronics, components and elements of all three cranes on the deck, and anchors and winches. Moreover, the ship is being equipped with extra power generator units, and additional insulation. Its engine room will undergo soundproofing and new welding and testing (NDT) appliances will be installed. The crew cabins are also being modernized, and electronic appliances together with new woodwork are being installed. At this point two bow anchors have been replaced by new ones and of a different type. Another four such anchors are waiting at the dock, ready for installation. Agata Skrzypczyk reported on this earlier.
COVID impacts the schedule
At the beginning of July a little over a hundred employees were engaged in renovating the vessel. According to the original plans, the re-fitting was to be completed at the end of August, so that the vessel could go out to the sea to test the new equipment. However, the works were extended because of the pandemic, which did not spare even the Akademik Cherskiy. Our informants claim that the ship underwent a two-week quarantine at least two times, because some of the employees came down with COVID. The last quarantine was introduced a few weeks ago, when a few employees were diagnosed with the coronavirus. The renovation was discontinued during that time.
The investor made sure strict public health orders were followed. At the beginning of every week all employees are tested for the coronavirus.
At this point a few hundred people are engaged in the renovation on the Akademik Cherskiy. The works take place 24 hours a day and the employees are split into three shifts. The workers live in nearby hotels and on two barges Sans Vitesse and Rossini, docked at the port in Sassnitz, and are bussed to the ship.
About 30 permanent crew members from Russia live on the Akademik Cherskiy and are responsible for guarding the ship. Any information that would make it possible to identify the ship (including the name, IMO numbers and the home port) were either taken down or painted over for the duration of the renovation.
Hiding away from sanctions
The scope of the renovation of the ship is so wide, that under normal circumstances it should take place at a specialized shipyard. Despite that, the whole thing is done by one of the berths at the port in Mukran, which means a lot of expensive equipment and employees need to be delivered there.
BiznesAlert.pl’s sources confirm that everything is done with maximum discretion. The workers on the ship are not allowed to use cellphones. Additionally, there is a total ban on taking pictures of the ship.
The goal of this secrecy to is hide the names of companies that provide services, and to mask the progress of the works. It is not only the companies that provide services for Nord Stream 2, that are afraid of U.S. sanctions. The employees are also concerned, especially people from Western Europe. They are afraid that if their participation in any of the works that support the construction of Nord Stream 2 is documented, they will no longer be allowed to work on contracts in, e.g. U.S. shipyards if the extended sanctions enter into force. It is worth remembering that specialists are usually employed on the basis of short-term contracts, after which they need to look for another job. This is why the majority of employees themselves are not bragging about what they are doing in Mukran.
Will they make it before sanctions hit?
The current schedule says that the renovation of the Akademik Cherskiy will take place at least until the beginning of October. Once the works are completed, the ship will set out to the sea for a few days. There, it will test its steering and navigation systems, anchors, as well as the stinger mounted on the stern and used to lower the welded pipes onto the seabed. If the tests go well, the ship will be ready to laythe missing 160 km of twin pipes of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Will the existing delay have a negative impact on the possibility of completing the entire project before another package of U.S. sanctions enters into force? Donald Trump (or a new president after the November elections), may decide to sign the military spending bill, which includes the extended sanctions, in the last days of December, like it happened last year. This means, time will not be in Gazprom’s favor. Another important piece of the puzzle may be the fall weather in the Baltic, which may complicate the construction because of intense storms. This pertains especially to anchored vessels. Whatever happens next, the coronavirus impacted again the energy projects implemented by Russian energy companies.