Salvage of mega-vessels, the ISU responds

By John Witte, President, The International Salvage Union

Everyone in the shipping and salvage industry is aware of the increase in size of several classes of vessel. VLCCs have been in service since the 1970s but we have all watched in awe as containerships have gone from 12,000 teu to 16,000 teu and now to some 20,000 teu. It seems extraordinary that just twenty years ago the common size for a large containership was an ability to carry 5,000 boxes. But the significant increase in size is not limited to container vessels. LNG carriers have also grown in size, up to 266,000 cu. m; the new class of Very Large Ore Carriers have a deadweight of some 400,000 tonnes and cruise ships can now carry in excess of 6,000 passengers in vessels of more than 200,000 gross registered tonnes with 16 decks.

We know that, despite increased safety and improvements in operational practice, casualties do happen and will continue to do so. And, as the Costa Concordia demonstrated, size does not eliminate the possibility of an accident. But there have also been incidents involving mega ships in recent years in which disaster was averted and there was, therefore, not much public attention.

Statistics show that there are hundreds of shipping casualties worldwide each year. Successful intervention means that many of these casualties are salvage cases and are towed to safety; refloated; repaired and returned to service. Members of the International Salvage Union, the global trade association for marine salvors, provide in excess of 200 salvage services each year. These services offer a major contribution to loss prevention saving insurers and owners, and, in the long run, the general public, hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

There is no doubt that the issue of salvaging mega vessels is a matter of concern not just to salvors but also to insurers. With increasing size, naturally the scale of financial risk increases as does the technical challenge of making a successful intervention.

But ISU members are innovative problem solvers and have a track record of achieving dramatic results in difficult circumstances. Although it was a wreck removal rather than a salvage case, the successful operation to right and remove the Costa Concordia from the island of Giglio is another example in a long line of successes which demonstrates the salvage industry’s ability in engineering as well as the ingenuity of which salvors are capable to turn a non-traditional problem into a successful result.

Salvors stand ready to intervene in all circumstances but with the largest vessels the challenges come into two main categories. First, the sheer size of the vessels means that handling them as casualties will require salvage craft of a suitable size and power.

With the exception, perhaps, of some ETVs commissioned by governments like France and Spain, no salvage-specific vessels have been built for some time and there are few salvage-specific vessels at sea. Most are variants of OSVs and AHTSs, with some adaptions. A typical feature of such vessels is considerable horsepower. So, the powerful craft exist, and more of them might be needed in any particular case and it is availability that might be the issue. In the current shipping industry economic climate availability should not be a problem but that might not always be the case. But I believe that the market will usually respond – anything is available at a price.

The second main challenge is handling cargo from today’s larger class of vessels. In the case of a very large containership this might be a real difficulty. The well-known cases of the MSC Napoli and the Rena – containership casualties off the south coat of the UK and New Zealand respectively – show the difficulty of extracting and handling containers from casualties. These were relatively small vessels by modern standards and were carrying less than 2500 containers each when they went aground. Nevertheless, discharging the containers, getting them ashore and processing them proved to be complex, time consuming and therefore expensive. In these types of operation, considerable dock space is also needed to store the containers which creates another issue for the salvor.

Some ISU members are working to develop proprietary container discharge systems and, while we welcome that work, history has shown that traditional methods will, if necessary, be used and be successful. Beyond containers, a ship-to-ship transfer of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of iron ore is a project to give pause for thought but, again, I have no doubt that, if it becomes necessary, it can and will be done.

In short, I accept that the challenges are great but so is the ability of the members of the ISU to respond to any problem they might be presented with. Depending on the specifics of the case, the complexity of the tasks and the likely duration will surely increase. And with that, there is no avoiding the fact that costs are likely to rise. But ISU members are ready to intervene, as they always have been, to save life, prevent pollution and to save property. The history of the ISU and its membership shows that this statement is, simply put, a fact.