LEAPING INTO THE UNKNOWN

Dozens of wind farms are due to be installed near Germany’s coastlines. Day-to-day life on these offshore facilities is so dangerous that the workers require rigorous survival training.

By Sebastian Kempkens

On the high seas: Technicians working on a ship out at sea to lay the cables for Riffgat wind farm (Foto: Sven Niemeyer, Miebach)

Jens Wiechmann never thought it would be this bad. Of course he’d heard his team’s stories, and of course he expected to swallow a good deal of water. One of his colleagues had even refused to come along because he was not a strong swimmer. Wiechmann, though, went anyway. He wanted to go offshore and be part of the adventure of capturing wind energy far out at sea. But he didn’t expect the apocalyptic scenario he’s looking at right now.

At this moment he is standing in his red safety suit three and half metres high. His breathing is restricted by his buoyancy aid and all around him the storm rages, pelting his face with rain. It is dark and he can hardly see. There is a siren blaring, a loud thunder clap, and every now and then he can hear the sound of helicopter blades beating through the darkness. But help is not yet in sight. Wiechmann has no other option; he has to go it alone. Lightning strikes again, and during the brief flash of light, he leaps into the murky depths.

Jens Wiechmann, a 41-year-old father of two and a construction manager with an installation company, lands in a swimming pool in Bremerhaven. This emergency situation is just an exercise, part of a survival skills course at a training centre for offshore workers. Anyone wanting to work on a wind farm out in the North or Baltic Sea has to complete a course like this. That is why Wiechmann is here with nine other men, being shouted at by safety trainer Andreas Carstens: “Quick — everyone get into a huddle,” yells Carstens, a broad-shouldered man with powerful hands, from the side of the pool. He shines his torch over the heads bobbing in the water, bathing them in light, and shouts: “The only way you’ll survive out there is by sticking together!” Wiechmann battles his way through the waves to the other side of the pool. The other men gather there too, linking their arms in a tight circle to form a huddle that stabilises them while they are being buffeted by the waves. A short time later, Carstens flicks a few switches. He turns the lights on and the waves, wind and rain off – and the nightmare is over. His next command is much more welcome: “Coffee break!” Ten sopping wet figures emerge from the pool, which is now revealed to be no larger than a tennis court.

Not too sure about that: Future offshore workers about to embark on their survival training

This is the Sea Survival training hall where Carstens teaches future offshore workers the basics of surviving at sea. Here they learn the best way to jump into the water if there’s a fire, how they can attract the attention of helicopter pilots, and how they should prepare to be pulled out of the water by a helicopter.

The men here are divers, technicians and engineers, and most of them work in the wind industry like Wiechmann. Business is booming in the offshore wind sector, and as he stares at the floor in a state of exhaustion, unable to drink any coffee or eat any cake, Wiechmann is still very much aware of that. His company, too, is benefiting from Germany’s switch to renewables. The company has moved beyond installing conventional substations and is now focusing on wind energy. Wiechmann and his team built the transition pieces for Riffgat wind farm, which is 15 km from Borkum. These 60-metre-high yellow tubes will support the towers and their rotor blades.

Wiechmann, who is now breathing more easily after unfastening his buoyancy aid and safety suit, was born in Bremerhaven. Germany’s switch to renewables has come at a good time for him. Now he can combine his job with what he calls the “maritime thing”. He has more responsibility than before and has more influence over decisions. He sees battling the waves in the pool and leaping into the void as a kind of test of courage to prepare him for what lies ahead. After all, the transition pieces in the wind farm near Borkum are only the beginning. Wiechmann hopes that his team will also be placed in charge of maintaining the station. Staff at the wind farm are already stretched to their limits and Wiechmann’s team know the components that come between the wind turbine and the seabed inside out.

The men struggle through the storm to a rescue pod during a training exercise.

And there could be many future contracts, too. The German government plans for 15 percent of the country’s energy mix to be produced on the North and Baltic seas by 2020, and energy companies are busy building a world of steel and electronics out at sea to meet this target. As well as Riffgat, another 30 or so wind farms are being built and each one has the surface area of a small town. In coming years, up to 10,000 jobs could be created in the sector, and 1,000 of these will involve working on the turbines themselves. In short, the expectations are huge, even of rather reserved gentlemen like Wiechmann.

But producing offshore wind power can also be a dangerous business. Most of the turbines are built at least 30 kilometres out to sea so that they do not impede maritime traffic or spoil the view for tourists and coastal dwellers. If a worker has an accident on a turbine or falls into the water, he or she may have to wait up to 90 minutes before help arrives. These men and women must therefore depend on their own resources for a significantly longer period of time than in comparable cases on land. Anyone you ask will confirm that even getting onto the platform is extremely risky. Wiechmann is a little in awe of this moment. If the sea is rough, the boat may rise and fall several metres with each wave. His team once travelled there in a storm so fierce that the captain tried four times to approach the landing platform. In the end they abandoned the attempt, but that is only possible in exceptional cases; the costs of such missions in the offshore sector are very high, and there are always waves to contend with. “It’s quite a challenge to overcome your fear,” admits Wiechmann. “You have to keep telling yourself: Do it! Do it now!”

Anyone wanting to find out just how dangerous these offshore jobs can be should visit Hamburg’s Unfallkrankenhaus hospital. Nils Weinrich, a 43-year-old physicist, works there in the biomechanics laboratory. He is an exuberant, friendly man who brews coffee for his guests and then subjects them to detailed PowerPoint presentations about his work. He is in charge of the Rettungskette Offshore Wind (ROW) research project, and there is good reason for his enthusiasm as he is working with biologists and doctors in a completely new field. In contrast to shipping, where there are tried-and-tested regulations for responding to emergencies, the offshore wind industry is uncharted territory. The main problem is that there is no central command centre for rescue services at present. “If you’re on land in Germany, you call 112 to reach the emergency services. But who do you call if you’re offshore?” he asks, raising his eyebrows. “There’s no one”.

In Bremerhaven it becomes clear what this means. It is dark again and a storm rages through the training hall. The men know the scenario by now, and Wiechmann has a more confident air about him this time. The men are swimming towards a rescue pod as instructed when they suddenly hear a sharp whistle from across the waves. A trainer pretending to be an injured worker desperately tries to draw attention to himself before being carried off by the waves. For seamen, dealing with these situations is all part of the job, but the offshore workers take longer to respond to the situation, and had this been a real situation, the injured man would have been lost.

When Wiechmann and his team head to the North and Baltic Sea, they will find themselves in situations that they have only ever seen in movies. Wiechmann admits that even flying out in the helicopter has something “rather James Bond” about it. What happens if the helicopter crashes? He admits he finds the thought terrifying. During a helicopter escape exercise, the men were thrown into the pool inside a helicopter mock-up. Even though all the participants each had a trainer next to them, oxygen tanks to hand, and a detailed briefing behind them, Wiechmann says he started to panic: “ I mean, really panic. You can’t help feeling that you are completely on your own.”

As he stands outside the hall after the training day, Wiechmann is flushed and the hair on his neck is still damp. At least now he feels prepared, though. He has his first meeting at the wind farm by Borkum next week. That’s when it all begins for real.

LEAPING INTO THE UNKNOWN (German Audio)

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