Interview with Solange van der Werff

I hope that TU Delft students can continue to be entrepreneurial

Solange van der Werff

Solange van der Werff is a Mooring & Subsea Engineer at the Bluewater offshore company in Hoofddorp. In 2012, she graduated cum laude at the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime & Materials Engineering (3mE). “I was in a luxury position as a student: there weren’t so many cutbacks back then. There’s much more pressure now on students to graduate quickly, meaning they have to make choices. Being entrepreneurial has always been a characteristic feature of graduates from Delft. I hope that continues to be the case.”

Solange’s passion for maritime engineering did not really kick in until her third year of study. “The first two years were quite heavy-going, with lots of maths and physics,” she explains. In that third year, she became a committee member for the Scheepsbouwkundig Gezelschap William Froude, the study association for students of Maritime Engineering. “I was the treasurer and responsible for attracting sponsorship to fund our events. It involved meeting a lot of people from the industry, which really motivated me to persevere.” The study association is not only involved in the educational side of things, but also organises lectures, study trips and company visits. It was this contact with the practical side of the programme that appealed to Solange: “It enables you to see the value of your degree programme with your own eyes. In that year, the study trip was to Italy, with a stopover in Monaco, where we were amazed by the mega-yachts moored there,” she recalls.

Pioneering Spirit

“A few years later, I was on the committee that organised an intercontinental study trip to China, Korea and Japan. In those places, you can take a look at the really big shipyards. We were able to access them thanks to our contacts with Dutch companies, because there are also Dutch activities in those shipyards.” At the time, it had only recently been decided that the Pioneering Spirit, the world’s largest ship, was to be built at DSME in South Korea. “They’d just started cutting the steel, so there wasn’t a lot to see yet, but the idea was exciting. It also gave you some impression of the enormity of everything.”

Small-scale degree programme

Things could have gone very differently. When leaving school, Solange was actually considering taking a medical degree, until one day she visited a study fair with her father rather than her mother. “He dragged me along to different stands, including the one run by TU Delft. I spoke to an enthusiastic female student there. Ship design, mechanical engineering, shipping management – it sounded so varied. That really appealed to me. In medicine, you study a single specialism and if you want to do something else, you have to take a whole new programme.” An open day in Delft settled the matter: “It’s a small-scale degree programme and as soon as I entered the maritime engineering corridor, I immediately felt at home.”

Exchange

Solange even switched specialisms during the Master, although she admits it was a slightly opportunistic move. “If you took a Master's in design, production or shipping management you got to go on an exchange. I spent six months studying in Trondheim in Norway.” To that, she added a two-week stay on Spitsbergen. “At the University Centre Svalbard I took the course in Arctic Offshore Engineering. I learned a lot about doing calculations on the ice. It was a unique experience. When you left the village, you had to take a rifle with you in case you encountered a polar bear.”

Ice tank

The course really sparked her interest in ice. Solange switched to hydromechanics and graduated at HSVA in Hamburg, the acclaimed shipbuilding research centre that not only has normal towing tanks, but also a large ice tank. She conducted research there on dynamic positioning in ice. “When working offshore, you can use an anchor-line system, but for short-term projects or in very deep water, you can remain in position using the propellers. A control system monitors how the ship behaves under the influence of the waves, current and wind and sends signals to the thruster to correct the position”, she explains. “The system has been around for a long time, but ice is a totally new dimension, with stronger forces that you need to navigate against.”

Lifeboats

Solange spent her first years after graduating working as a researcher at Marin, HSVA's Dutch counterpart. Not in the test tanks, but now on board ships that were ready for delivery. “We investigated whether they met all the specifications, or we tested the lifeboats on platforms, for example. That was interesting, because you’re so close to the world of practice.” Since 2015, she has been working in the Mooring & Subsea department at Bluewater in Hoofddorp. Bluewater designs and manages large production ships. “These kinds of FPSOs sometimes remain in position for decades. They need to be able to withstand the worst storms, with waves reaching 20 m. The anchor system must remain intact and the ship is not permitted to drift too far from its position.”

Production ships

So this job meant a return to ship positioning. “My department designs the anchor system; colleagues really rely on the structure of the ship and the integrity of the ship’s anchor system, known as the mooring turret. We do a lot of simulations, examining the influence that factors such as ship design, water depths and waves have on the way that the ship and the anchor lines behave. Based on that we may adapt the design.” In her work, she still encounters former colleagues. “This spring, another Bluewater FPSO will be going to the North Sea. We designed the anchor lines for it. This also involved carrying out model tests. In the process, I suddenly came across my old employer MARIN as a customer.”

Network

She also has regular encounters with TU Delft, often within the KIVI context; Solange is a member of the offshore technology department committee in KIVI, the professional association of engineers: “We organise monthly lectures by offshore companies. You meet a lot of people there. Since 2012, the department has also awarded a prize to the best TU Delft graduate in the field of offshore and dredging. Professors nominate their candidates and the judging panel decides based on the graduation reports. That kind of prize is like the cherry on the cake for graduates”, says Solange, who was herself nominated when she graduated.

Open mind

Looking back, Solange particularly enjoyed her foreign travel and the exchange trip to Norway. “It’s important to take a look around another university, as it makes you appreciate how good you actually have it in Delft. What you learn in Delft is that you are personally responsible for the results you achieve – no one is there to hold your hand. A degree programme at TU Delft involves an awful lot of work and you have to organise it all by yourself. In Norway, things were much more school-like. That was also noticeable with the Norwegian students who came here, who needed some time to get used to our way of doing things,” says Solange. “For the Dutch students in Delft, it's also a good idea to study with an open mind, to be critical of things people say or write. Spending some time abroad gives you that open mind. It’s something that the university should encourage.”

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