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20 May, 2010 04:34

Nord Stream seen from pipe-laying barge

Step by step across the Baltic seabed, a multi-national crew is working to secure the European energy grid with Russian resources. The Nord Stream pipeline will bring Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.

That means any of the transit disputes which have disrupted energy supply in the past will be avoided.

60 kilometers off the Swedish island of Gottland in the Baltic Sea, a massive ship is plying its route at just two-and-a-half kilometers per day. But its slow speed is right on schedule – the work of this giant floating factory changing Europe's energy infrastructure forever.

The 1,200-kilometer natural gas highway will go through the waters of four states linking Russia with Germany. It will be one of the longest underwater pipes in the world and does not come cheap, with a 7.5 billion euro price tag.

Siberian gas will reach Europe through a huge steel tunnel. The Nord Stream pipeline will be made up of 12-meter-long sections, each weighing 24 tonnes.

The drivers of the project, Moscow and Berlin, have spent years on political and environmental negotiations. Now with pipe-laying is in full swing, the Nord Stream project faces challenges of another kind.

Domenico Alferj is the captain of the Castoro 6 pipe-laying barge, which is responsible for laying two thirds, or 70 per cent, of the Nord Stream pipeline.

“The Baltic is quite busy; there is a lot of maritime traffic. It needs deeper control of all area around the barge. We need lots of area around to avoid other ships interfering,” he explains.

Special boats patrol the area 24 hours a day – while two remotely-operated vehicles, or ROVs, explore the Baltic's depths. Safety manager Nigel Bryant says the seabed is regularly surveyed to see if there is any unexploded ammunition left from past conflicts.

This ship is just like a floating hotel. Its 350 guests may look quite similar in their special orange safety suits, but they have come from different parts of the globe.

“The official language is English but sometimes we start speak a new one. It’s like a melting pot, with Filipinos, Italians, Germans,” says Domenico.

No matter which language they speak, the workers share a common goal, which is to make the pipeline a reality. Their multi-national effort could see Russian gas flowing to Europe through Nord Stream as early as next March.