During the eight-week lockdown in France, the fundamental role of networks in our lives and our relationship with the world became glaringly obvious. Orange employees worked around the clock in the background to keep these lifelines alive, even when internet traffic rose to double its usual level. No one worked harder than the 60-strong crew on the Pierre de Fermat ship (Orange Marine), who set sail for the North Sea to repair any damaged submarine cables. Here’s their account of life on board.
Thursday 2 April – Volunteers on the Pierre-de-Fermat get ready
The long white silhouette of the Pierre de Fermat stands proud in the port of Brest. Orange Marine’s cable ship will set sail tomorrow with 60 people on board. It should have left the day before, but Covid-19 decided otherwise. Indeed, sailors who had just docked had to be replaced by other crew members. No one can tell if they’d been in contact with the virus so everyone had to be tested before they could board. For the French, everything was decided on a voluntary basis: some who were due to come off duty chose to stay. Others, who weren’t originally going to sail joined the boat and anyone who wanted to withdraw was free to do so. Several Malagasy sailors were unable to return home: Madagascar had closed its borders. So there was no other option for them but to join the new mission.
There is always a nurse on board the Pierre de Fermat. Despite the context, a volunteer nurse joined; it was her first experience of this type. Whatever they were doing before 2 April, they are now united by the same desire, to ensure our internet super-highways can continue to connect people across seas and oceans during these troubled times.
Friday 3 April – Extra safety precautions
The cable ship left the port of Brest this morning, setting a course for the North Sea to repair the TAT-14 cable, which connects the United States to northern Europe. The latter is constructed as a loop. If one of the strands is damaged, the traffic is not disturbed. But if a second strand were to be damaged, the situation would be much more complicated for the European operators who use it, such as Orange, and for all the services and businesses that depend on this network.
The ship is expected to arrive in the Netherlands tomorrow evening. For the time being, the new crew members are settling into their quarters and starting work. The nurse discovers life on a cable ship. Like the other newcomers, she will have to take extra safety precautions for 14 days, the time needed to minimise her risk of infection. She is masked and gloved and has to stay in her own living space, for example the cabin which will become the medical room. She can move freely in the passageways and go to the canteen, but she can’t access to the officers' mess or go the gym. Despite these exceptional restrictions, there’s a relaxed atmosphere on board.
When the ship approaches the area with the damaged cable, the crew is guided by extremely precise nautical charts. Tests before the mission began have made it possible to refine the location of the damaged section.
Sunday 5 April – On the trail of the damaged cable
Hector 7 goes into action. It’s an ROV, an amphibious robot equipped with cameras, chains to help it move along the seabed and articulated arms that will allow it to recover the cable. It was launched at first light and since then a pilot has followed its progress on screen and guided it via remote control. After two hours of tracking, the pilot finally sees the cable in an area located about thirty meters deep. It has been buried by the sand, which is shifting due to the tides. There’s no time to admire the crab riding rodeo style on the cable, the damaged section has to be found immediately. On the surface, the sea is calm and the sunrise is spectacular.
Technicians on deck
The damaged cable is brought on deck. The damage is probably due to a fishing boat dredging the seabed. Fishermen are not allowed to drop nets around cables but some ignore the restrictions thinking fish will be more abundant in these protected areas. Once on board, the repair team inspect the cable. This is a precision operation that can take several days. The cable is stripped before being placed in a machine that allows the optical fibres to be welded one by one. TAT-14 contains 4 pairs of fibres but some cables contain up to 144. The welded cables will then be safeguarded using a protective coating. Finally, the cable will be re-laid at the bottom of the water, still using the ROV Hector 2, who will work alongside Emma, Pierre de Fermat’s new plough, to bury the cable under a metre of sediment.
Sunday 12 April – Easter on the high seas
It’s Easter Sunday. Back on dry land, children hunt for chocolate eggs despite the lockdown. But onboard the Pierre de Fermat, everyone continues to work, even if the commander has allowed a little flexibility when it comes to keeping watch. To mark the occasion, the chef has prepared a festive meal.
The stress of departure has been left behind and everyone is speculating on the end of the mission and the possibilities for the next one. In five days, the boat will be back in Brest and the restrictions for all who joined this mission will end. Between the black forest gateaux and the coffee, tongues loosen and anecdotes fuse, until the nurse shares masked Easter rabbits, made by a chocolate maker as a tribute to caregivers. What a faux pas! Sailors remind her that you should never bring a rabbit on board a boat because it brings bad luck. A legacy from the time when the holds and decks of boats were filled with hemp ropes. If a rabbit accidentally stowed away, it was a disaster. Despite these dark omens, the day ended without any further hitch. The crew even meets a friendly seal.
Friday 17 April – Heading for Brest
It is just after 5am.The navigating officer and helmsman (the crew member who is responsible for steering the ship) make the final course changes when approaching the coast of Brittany.
Two hours later, a motorboat docks on the aft deck, transporting the pilot who will guide the ship into the port of Brest.The pilot has already put on his mask and the nurse takes his temperature before he can board. As soon as the Pierre de Fermat is moored, the unloading of equipment and rubbish begins. Then the six fuel tanks can be filled and nine pallets of food can be received. A human chain is formed to store fresh and frozen products, canned goods, bottles, etc. Everything that’s needed while the ship is docked waiting for its next mission. Within a few hours, the ship has refuelled and is ready to go. It sounds simple, but these manoeuvres require careful planning. With Covid-19 still in full grip, deliveries arrive via appointment and the crew must put on masks and gloves to receive any items.
Saturday 18 April – The mission ends
The nurse is relieved: the mission went without a hitch. The two beds in the medical unit were only used for minor cuts and grazes. It’s with a light heart that she takes part in the rescue exercise planned by the commander. This training is essential to guarantee the safety of sailors in such a tight space. While she exercises her reflexes with the emergency bag and oxygen cylinders, other crew members carry out the ship's maintenance and repairs. Even when on quay, no one is idle! On the menu today: cleaning, laundry and painting. On the aft deck, workers began to replace the pine slats on the old floor.
By the evening, everyone gathers around a buffet to celebrate the end of this mission, not quite like the others. Music travels across the silent harbour.