On a recent passage along Norway’s fjord-strewn coast, I visited a research, development, and manufacturing facility belonging to the well-known life raft manufacturer Viking.
Its full name, Viking Life-Saving Equipment, far more accurately reflects its broad offering of products, from the ubiquitous but small life rafts found aboard so many recreational and commercial vessels, to gargantuan models used aboard cruise and military vessels, along with an array of sophisticated evacuation systems.
The family-owned company, now in its 58th year, was originally established by fishermen in Esbjerg, Denmark, as Nordisk Gummibådsfabrik, or Nordic Rubber Boat Factory. The business made an early name for itself in lifesaving. Just three years after the company’s inception, the Danish fishing vessel Dagmar Larsen sank in the North Sea; the crew abandoned ship and took to a Nordisk rubber raft, where they remained for three and a half days before being safely rescued. For the era and region, this was an uncommon event, and the attention it garnered put Nordisk Gummibådsfabrik on the map.
Located in Straume, on Norway’s southwest coast, the Viking plant I visited—called the Viking Norway Offshore Production Plant by the company—manufactures the SES, or Safety Evacuation System. The SES is an ingenious design that can be deployed from either a ship or a drilling platform, from a height of up to 265‘ (81m), and in conditions of up to sea state 6. Once the cylinder-like fabric device is deployed, it automatically launches rafts at its base station, which remain in place until released by escaping personnel. Those using it do so by sliding in a zigzag pattern, enabling a controlled if somewhat uncomfortable descent speed. It’s fire- and blast-resistant before being deployed, and fire-resistant after deployment. It is capable of evacuating 200 persons in a little more than 12 minutes. Watching testing videos of the SES in use at the Straume facility, I was impressed by the speed with which people can move from an oil rig or ship to rafts.
As mentioned, the product range is broad, with the largest sectors in the offshore oil and gas industry, as well as commercial shipping and defense. These include life rafts, personal protective equipment such as chemical, dry, and exposure suits as well as flight suits for aircrew and passengers, aviation life jackets, smoke hoods, rescue boats, lifeboats and launching davits, firefighting suits and equipment for shipboard and land use, and offshore evacuation equipment including slides and chute systems.
I’ve often wondered why lifesaving equipment like rafts and immersion suits is so costly. While touring this facility it became apparent, at least in part: much of it is handmade, and it is then tested and retested to ensure that it works properly. In addition to the SES, one of which was being tested during my visit, the Straume facility manufactures, tests, and recertifies immersion suits. Each suit is pressurized within a specially made assembly and then checked for leaks. Repairs are also carried out on-site.
Viking has more than 2,000 employees worldwide, located at 260 service stations and 71 branch offices, with four manufacturing facilities in Denmark, Norway, Thailand, and Bulgaria. The 76,000-sq-ft (7,068m2) facility I visited employs 50 people in a mixture of engineering, sales, R&D, and manufacturing/service positions. Viking claims its equipment has saved more than 4,000 lives (its website contains a “Survivors’ Stories” section, which makes for interesting reading). Much of Viking’s efforts go toward support of the petroleum industry, which makes it a natural for Denmark and Norway, as both countries possess mature oil- and gas-extraction industries. With the petroleum industry’s varying needs, Viking has developed region-specific research and development for the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Africa, and other regions south of the equator, as well as the Arctic. Viking was the first to offer a life raft specifically designed for use in the Arctic, and its SES escape system is also designed for high-latitude applications, with a heated option to prevent freezing on oil rigs operating in the Russian and Alaskan Arctic in winter months.
Viking Life-Saving Equipment, Saedding Ringvej 13, 6710 Esberg V, Denmark, tel. +45 76 11 81 00, fax +45 76 11 81 01, website www.viking-life.com.