As dawn breaks over the green hills surrounding Geoje harbour in South Korea, Captain Alan Stockwell is giving instructions to his team on the radio of his tugboat.
The 40-year veteran of the marine services industry is leading a team of tugs, pulling the world’s biggest floating liquefied natural gas facility, Prelude, from its shipyard in South Korea to gas fields off the coast of Western Australia. It is a journey of some 5,800 kilometres (3,600 miles).
“This is the world’s biggest tow and far and away the highlight of my career,” says Stockwell.
Prelude is 74 metres wide and 488m long. It is being towed by three tugs, each more than 75m long. A fourth tug acts as an escort.
Prelude will cool natural gas and convert it into liquids at sea. Once it reaches its destination, it will tap into natural gas resources in the Browse Basin, an area 475km (295 miles) off the coast of Broome in Western Australia.
The liquefied natural gas that Prelude produces will be sold to customers around the world.
The bridge on Stockwell’s lead tug is like a busy newsroom. Radios crackle and phones ring. Weather reports appear on screens. “We're in constant contact with typhoon monitoring centres in the USA and Japan,” says Stockwell.
Prelude now faces a journey of at least a month to its new home off the coast of Australia. The most difficult part was at the beginning, when nine additional tugs carefully coaxed Prelude from the harbour through a narrow U-shaped channel into open waters.
“The channel has strong currents and Prelude is very large, so you can imagine it’s like a fast car turning a tight corner. The manoeuvres had to be very precise,” says Captain Gerald Seow, Chief Executive of PACC Offshore Services Holdings, the Singapore-based marine services company in charge of the ocean tow.
Willem Keij, a Shell engineer responsible for the tow, experienced mixed feelings as Prelude departed. “I’m excited, of course. But I also feel a tremendous sense of responsibility,” he says. “All the years of planning have finally led to this moment: we are the team taking Prelude safely to Australia.”
Keij is one of 160 people staying on board Prelude during the journey. He describes his role as “the spider in the web,” gathering information from each of the tugs and from Stockwell, helping decide which route to take depending on the weather, and communicating with the Shell project team in Perth, Australia.