By Mark Hoddinott, General Manager, the International Salvage Union, the trade association representing the world’s marine salvage contractors

Shipping has undoubtedly become safer in the past two decades: the number of casualties and losses has declined as standards have improved. But, in a typical year, there are still more than 100 losses and hundreds of casualties that require intervention by expert contractors to tow, lighten, re-float or repair the vessel so that it may re-enter service. Without that intervention – often by members of the International Salvage Union – the number of losses and the cost to the insurance industry and owners would be much greater.

High profile cases like the MSC Napoli, off the south coast of the UK in 2007, the Rena, grounded off New Zealand in 2011 and the Costa Concordia, off Italy in 2012, have put marine casualty firmly into the public mind. Removing the wreck of the Costa Concordia is the most expensive operation of its kind – the total cost of the heavily-engineered job will be significantly in excess of US$1 billion, including the loss of the hull. It has involved substantial subsea work to build platforms and anchor points; the fabrication of major structures and fitting of huge caissons to the vessel’s sides in advance of parbuckling and refloating.

Marine salvors pride themselves on their problem solving and innovation. Their work requires a blend of the skills of seamanship, naval architecture, surveying, underwater operations, pollution control and engineering. And, while the international Group of P&I Clubs has complimented the salvage industry for its competence, the industry recognises that the new generation of mega ships – particularly in the classes of containerships, liners and ore carriers – present significant challenges.

Discharge of a casualty’s cargo is often required in a salvage operation: sometimes to lighten the vessel, sometimes to prevent pollution. It requires the use of barges and floating cranes and experience has shown that boxships are particularly difficult to handle. Extracting the containers from below-deck cells when the vessel is listing is very hard. Sea conditions need to be benign: bad weather hampers operations, lengthens the job and allows the condition of the casualty to deteriorate.

Both the Rena and Napoli were relatively small vessels – carrying 1300 and 2300 teu respectively – by comparison the largest containerships now in service have a capacity of more than 16,000 teu. Developing systems and equipment to handle such large casualties is a matter of concern to the industry. The financial model of the salvage industry with its great annual variability of income does not lend itself to heavy investment in research and development. However there are interesting initiatives: some major contractors are researching specialised container handling systems. And other specialist companies have, for example, developed new pumps for extracting oils from inaccessible parts of a vessel and have developing stabilised crane barges that can operate safely in rougher seas than traditional rigs.

Nevertheless is it a matter of concern to salvage contractors and to insurers and shipowners as to whether the industry is ready to handle the largest vessels as casualties or wrecks. Salvors are undoubtedly prepared to intervene using their best endeavours but it may be that greater cooperation and joint working would prepare the industry to handle such cases more effectively if it ever becomes necessary.

Finding the right balance between using existing equipment and techniques; fabricating tailored equipment for an individual job and developing entirely new and innovative kit and solutions seems to be the key to meeting future challenges.