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Grand ambition: Inside the revolutionary expedition vessel Project REV

Grand ambition: Inside the revolutionary expedition vessel Project REV

Set to launch in 2020, a revolutionary expedition vessel is kicking off a Norwegian billionaire’s three-point bid to save the world’s oceans. Caroline White reports on a project of staggering proportions

For some superyacht owners, the delivery of their boat is the end rather than the beginning of the story. The creation of their vision – sketching out the lines with their designer, flicking through fabric swatches, even bartering with shipyards, and then watching steel bones bulk out into the embodiment of their dream – is the joy of the endeavour. The adventure was the project. So when they’ve taken their toy for a spin around the Med, they sell and start again. But what if you could build a thrilling, rewarding and ongoing project into the boat? The booming popularity of explorer yachts shows that owners are starting to do just that.

Norwegian Kjell Inge Røkke is going further than anyone has before with his in-build Project REV. When completed in 2020 it will be the largest vessel of its kind in the world – but that is incidental to this extraordinary story.

Through his shipping and fisheries businesses, as well as his yachting, Røkke has watched the world’s oceans sicken from human pollution and plunder. Røkke is also signed up to the Giving Pledge, originated by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, which is “an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will”.

The bountiful reserves and revolutionary minds behind the pledge have led to ambitious projects – including the Gateses’ aim to eradicate malaria worldwide. Røkke’s focus is the health of the oceans and his mission is threefold: to build an environmental hub, the World Ocean Headquarters, at Fornebu in Norway; to create an open source ocean data platform; and, top of the list, to build the world’s largest research and expedition vessel.

Nothing like this boat, unassumingly named REV (research expedition vessel), has ever been built. It was conceived in early 2016 at around 140 metres but has grown to 182.9 metres to pack in a mind-boggling array of facilities and research equipment that its designer Espen Øino describes as “a showcase of European sub-sea and shipbuilding technology”. In essence, as REV Ocean CEO Nina Jensen says, it is a “floating think tank” that will bring together scientists, tech experts, innovators and even mathematicians, not just to discuss the problems facing our seas, but to solve them – sometimes on the spot. But it will also have a significant superyacht element, with high quality interior design and accommodation, so that charterers can join expeditions and help support the running of the vessel. The diesel electric boat will therefore be a hybrid in more than one sense.

“Røkke was particularly inspired by Graeme Hart’s Ulysses programme, and seeing that there was another way of building a vessel like this, without taking the normal [yacht-building] path,” says George Gill, the owner’s representative and REV project director, referring to the New Zealand billionaire’s 107 metre and 116 metre explorer yachts, which were built at Norwegian commercial yard Kleven rather than at a superyacht yard.

Experience in building ultra-tough seagoing vessels, as well as a smaller price tag, make commercial yards an increasingly popular choice for explorer yachts (Lürssen, incidentally, saw which way the wind was blowing and bought an equity stake in Kleven). Røkke, however, settled on Norwegian yard Vard, attracted by its in-house hydro-dynamics, naval architecture and engineering expertise.

He then assembled his principal players: Jensen, who was CEO of WWF Norway, will guide the mission; Gill, a chief engineer who has worked on Alfa Nero, will oversee the build; Øino was tapped for design, drawing on his expedition yacht experience, which includes 72 metre Cloudbreak; and designer Johnny Horsfield and his H2 Yacht Design studio, which also worked on Hart’s first 107 metre Ulysses (now Andromeda), for the interiors.

The design developed over about a year, during which time scientists advised on the kind of boat that would be most useful to them, and the team tailored the project accordingly. For one thing, REV will get to pretty much anywhere they want to go. It has a mind-boggling 21,120 nautical mile range at 11 knots, massive waste capacity and stores for 90 people for 114 days – and that can be extended by 20 days using deck containers. It can carry 28 guests and 54 crew; 60 scientists and 30 crew; or 28 passengers, 24 scientists and 30 crew depending on the type of voyage.

“My feeling is it started off more as a yacht and it has been moved more and more towards research,” says Øino, noting, for example, that space reserved for a large spa became an R& D lab. “The one thing that is quite evident is that [researchers] all have different needs, so the key word is flexibility,” says Øino. “They often come with their own equipment, so we have a massive deck where we can store up to 12 20ft containers with a massive crane that can take up to 15 tonnes, with a reach of 25 metres.”

This modular approach is supported by plenty of space for those specialists to use their kit, with wet and dry labs, editing rooms, suites of offices, 3D printing and an R&D hangar adjacent to a welding workshop, where research can be put to the test in real time – an essential part of the project. “It’s all well and good getting data to sit in a data archive and people can pick at it and write reports – but no one was actually building stuff,” says Gill. “The boss has an engineering mind so we said, ‘We are a research vessel but let’s make it more than that’: let’s have engineers, computer programmers, robotic specialists and give them somewhere where they take the data then build stuff – they can actually generate R&D and tangible products.”

As Jensen puts it: “Yes we need more knowledge, but the most important thing is to move from knowledge to solutions.” She reels off a list of problems that REV will seek to solve, including ocean acidification and over-fishing, but she says: “The first priority for us will be to focus on plastics, and in particular microplastics – plastics that are dissolved into increasingly smaller pieces. The plastic that you see on the surface is basically one per cent of the problem. Imagine if we, for example, were able to come up with some kind of a mechanism that would enable ships from all over the world to collect microplastics as they are in operation. Whether it would be a specific filter or a pump or some sort of an advanced vacuum that was able to only suck up plastics, but not marine life. That would be just phenomenal.”

REV itself will collect surface plastic as it operates, then burn up to five tonnes of it a day in a special incinerator, the ultra-high temperatures of which would destroy noxious gases and create thermal power that can be used on board. This is a vital part of REV’s story because the project is not only packed with stellar research equipment, it will also be an intrinsically green boat. “It’s diesel-electric, but a fairly modest power,” says Øino. “We did look into alternative fuels, but with the sort of mission profile we’re talking about here – worldwide service – there is no LNG or hydrogen available [in remote destinations] so we’ve gone for diesel, but we have a relatively modest 17 knot cruising speed, reducing the carbon footprint considerably.”

The engines are modern Tier III kit complemented by a large three megawatt lithium battery pack, which means the generators don’t need to work so hard, leading to a 20 to 30 per cent saving in fuel. They will use diesel particulate filters to clean up exhaust and Vard’s proprietary SeaQ Green Pilot system, which Gill says “measures all the SOx and NOx – sulphur and nitrogen – outputs from the exhausts and can help the crew to find optimum cruising speeds” for low emissions. Heat recovery from the engines will heat water and meet other hotel needs on board.

But it’s not just what’s inside that counts. The team is also working with paint companies to find paint and anti-fouling for the hull that do not release any harmful substances and, more significantly, the hull has been built under a DNV-GL SILENT-R notation to prevent underwater acoustic pollution. “This means that all turbulence along the hull is potential risk and turbulence hitting the propeller blades cannot be allowed,” says Severin Åkervik Ulstein, manager of the architecture department at Vard Design.

“Solving this challenge has meant pushing boundaries for us, given that the hull carries two large thrusters, a 30 square metre wing mounted one metre below the keel plate, two pairs of 14 square metre retractable active stabiliser fins, two three metre retractable drop keels and a 40 square metre moon pool [hole in the bottom]. In addition to this we had to accommodate the research equipment mounted all along the hull – all bubbles in the way of this very sensitive equipment is a disturbance of the data flow. And at the same time we had to have world-class performance on fuel economy, and the hull is designed to comply with DNV-GL Ice PC6 class notation. If you had asked any hull designer about this task prior to the project, the answer would probably be ‘impossible’. But as we all know, it is amazing what the outcome can be when there is no other option than to succeed.”

The solution was in part a carefully designed bulbous bow that minimises disturbances by reducing the air it sucks underwater during pitching. This is enhanced, Øino says, by “distributing the loading on the propeller blades in the most uniform way, so as to avoid peak loads, which often are translated into pressure variations and noise. Serious yacht builders will always go through this exercise, but here it’s gone even further. It’s close to submarine technology”.

So which lucky researchers will take REV for a spin? “We are working with the Norwegian Research Council and a number of leading scientists in Norway to establish an independent scientific committee,” says Jensen. “We will get applications from institutions and individuals all over the world and, based on a few criteria established at the outset, this committee will select missions that the ship will embark on. It’s really important for us that all the science that is done on board is of the highest possible standard and independent.”

Røkke will cover all operational costs of REV – scientists won’t pay a penny – but to make this a long-term initiative, a method of generating income has also been built into the boat in the form of high-quality accommodation. Charterers can join scientific missions to, for example, explore the deepest coral reefs of the world and contribute to their protection and recovery.

The yacht accommodation they will enjoy is situated forward in the superstructure, and comprises cabins, saloons, a gym, dining room and more, while in freezing conditions one of the aft decks can be enclosed to create a giant winter garden for added protection. The wealth of these unusual spaces on board meant longitudinal strength needed to be studied. “The midship area of the ship features a research hangar measuring 24 x 22 x 7 metres, including six-metre-high side doors, running the full length of the hangar on each side,” says Åkervik Ulstein. “Directly forward of this area the ship carries an 80 square metre atrium stretching over seven decks next to the main vertical technical zone. Tens of thousands of hours have been spent on structural analysis in order to make this work.”

The vessel’s design also had to meet SOLAS Passenger Vessel safety standards, which affected the materials that Jonny Horsfield could choose for the interior fit-out. Rather than, as he puts it, “testing the regulations”, he embraced them and the opportunity to use new materials. While the design uses less wood – which SOLAS considers a fire hazard – than most yachts, “we’re using a lot of hot-rolled metal, black metal, for things like door frames. We also have concrete in panels on some of the walls”. The effect is chic and highly contemporary in taupes and greys – what Horsfield describes as “Scandinavian, industrial, funky, pared back”.

The jewel of the yacht’s interior will be the spectacular atrium. “There are six flights of stairs, you can see all the way up and it’s quite a minimal design,” says Horsfield. “The concept behind it was that it is an art gallery in itself, but not in the traditional sense. In other words the staircase is the art.” But it will have plenty of competition for attention. Norwegian artist Magne Furuholmen, (and member of 80s pop group A-ha) is acting as a consultant on the project, gathering a large collection of Norwegian art to inspire those on board. It represents this project as a whole: an ambitious hybrid designed to inspire and encourage welcome investment in science.

Sonars

State-of-the-art echo sounders and sonars will identify fish, map the seabed and currents, and even explore sediments below the seabed without taking samples. Some sonars are even built into REV’s autonomous underwater vehicles. On REV itself, the drop keels will be fitted with four highly sensitive hydrophones to listen to marine mammals. “They come out from within the hull, outside what we call the boundary layer – a layer travelling with the boat. Any sonar within the boundary layer will operate in slightly disturbed water, so these drop keel sonars will operate in undisturbed water – much more precise,” says Espen Øino.

Trawling system

This highly advanced system will catch live species at up to 3,000m and give scientists a live visual feed as fish are caught. “Traditionally, if you’re sampling for biomass or fish stock,” says George Gill, “you’ll drag a net and you’re basically fishing. We’ve taken technology that’s been developed by companies in Norway and at the end of the net there’s a pipe and the fish are sucked back through a giant vacuum system. They arrive on the vessel alive and can be counted and put straight back over the side, apart from a journey down a tube, relatively unharmed.”

Moon pool

REV’s main hangar will feature a moon pool, a 7.7m x 5m opening in the hull allowing direct access to the water below. LARS (Launch and Recovery System) will allow underwater vehicles to be lowered and raised through the opening. The REV team is also in talks with several submarine producers to create subs to suit their needs. “They may be able to go deeper and do more, both in terms of science, but also live streaming and communications,” says Nina Jensen.

First published in the September 2018 edition of Boat International.

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