The tools and techniques for salvaging ships improved dramatically in the 20th century with the advent of more powerful pumps, safer diving apparatus and a host of other advancements. While the technological changes have continued in the 21st century to retrieve sunken assets from the sea, the need to safeguard the environment has become as important as the recovery of the vessels themselves.
And that’s a good thing, given the proclivity vessels seem to have for capsizing and sinking. A prominent example at the moment is Golden Ray, a South Korea-built vehicle carrier that is being stabilized and disassembled after rolling onto its side in September near the Port of Brunswick, Ga., with an estimated 300,000 gallons of fuel on board.
The salvage team expects to continue its efforts for several months under the watchful eyes of regulators and environmental groups. In other words, these are not quite the swashbuckling days of yesteryear when life and limb were regularly hazarded simply to refloat a vessel or at least retrieve its more valuable components. Now, a unified command, composed of federal, state, local and environmental officials, along with the responsible party and sometimes others, often oversees salvage operations.
In the case of Golden Ray, the heavy-lift vessel VB-10,000 — a twin-gantry catamaran 277 feet long and 314 feet wide, the largest such vessel ever built in the United States — also has been engaged for the project. Salvors hope the technology will reduce the number of potentially dangerous dives required in St. Simons Sound while also shortening the timeline to completion.
To limit the erosion, excavators have placed more than 6,000 tons of rock on the sea floor next to the wreck.
St. Simons Sound Response photo
Asset value and the environment
When once the recovery of damaged or lost vessels and their cargoes was paramount, the focus has expanded to safeguarding the environment during the process, said John Witte Jr., executive vice president of Donjon Marine, a New Jersey-based marine salvage, dredging and material recycling company. Although the Golden Ray operation is now being handled by Texas-based T&T Salvage, the initial response contractor was Donjon-SMIT, a partnership of Donjon and another experienced salvage organization, SMIT, that specializes in incidents involving oil spills.
Historically, salvage has been based on the recovery of value — in other words, the value of the vessel, its cargo and bunkers. And that has been an important consideration when salvors consider the value of a job. Today, though, during the early stages of a casualty response, “the concern is mitigating or removing the threat of pollutants entering the waterway and not the more traditional salvage focus,” Witte said.
As a result of this change, if a wreck leaks oil or other pollutants, even if the vessel is not hindering traffic or fouling a swimming beach, the pollutant or source of the pollution will be removed. “In the past, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ was how some casualties were viewed,” Witte said.
The heavy-lift vessel VB-10,000 will be used to dismantle and remove Golden Ray. Each piece of the vehicle carrier will weigh between 2,700 and 4,100 tons.
Raymond Scott McCord, a retired U.S. Navy captain and senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said the focus on environmental concerns has led salvage companies to expand their capability to combat pollution. As a result, the industry has partnered with universities on research, and the U.S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage also has funded related studies.
Fortunately, according to Witte, the overarching regulatory environment hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. It has been more of a matter of industry adjusting to it. He said the regulations that the U.S. salvage community has faced have been largely consistent since enactment of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill.
“What we have seen of late, and as a result of the Unified Command System, is that more of what in the past have been minor players in the response hierarchy now have a platform to offer their views,” Witte said. In the more visible casualty responses, these minor players often have greater input to implement operational changes.
On the technical side, there aren’t many new tools or techniques used by salvors compared to a decade ago, Witte said. However, the quality and capabilities of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) make them much more valuable in dive operations than those available just a few years ago.
“While the experience and capability of an actual person (i.e., diver) will not be replaced by machines in the near future, sometimes safety or operating conditions create an environment where an ROV is preferable to a person,” Witte said. And as the technology continues to be refined, “we have seen a downward trend in the cost to purchase and operate (ROVs).”
The competitive landscape
Witte said that in his experience, the competitive environment has not changed significantly during the 45 years he has been involved in the salvage industry. There continue to be companies that operate worldwide, regional salvors that typically look closer to home for work, and also what he called “Yellow Page salvors” that have little or no experience or equipment, but do have a list of contractors to call to mount a response. In other words, on every job “you will still find competition,” he said. “This will never change.”
Witte added that there has been very little consolidation in the salvage market beyond the creation of Ardent in 2015. The joint operating company, based in Texas, was formed by the merger of Maersk-operated Svitzer and Crowley-operated Titan Salvage.
There are many marine contractors in the U.S. and globally that will only look at certain types of jobs to handle, and only in certain regions. On the other hand, some will look outside their realm for a job if it’s in their operational “sweet spot.” So, while there has not been any real consolidation in the market in past 10 years aside from the Titan-Svitzer merger, “some marine contractors will enter and exit the market when conditions, work and business philosophy dictate,” Witte said.
Golden Ray’s rudder is lifted from the wreck site after being removed in mid-December. Salvage crews plan to cut the hull of the ship into eight sections, then transfer the pieces to a shoreside recycling facility.
St. Simons Sound Response
When it comes to the latest wreck-removal technology, McCord said the major salvage companies are very well equipped to handle most operations. “Each operation is unique (and) that brings with it its own set of challenges and methods to address the situation,” he said.
In some instances, MIT professors have worked to assist salvors on issues including towline dynamics, mechanical devices, pollution abatement and wreck clearance. Some have even worked on specific emergency responses such as Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez, McCord said.
“The fact is that there are typically fewer salvage response needs every year. This is a good thing,” Witte said. However, he added, it may mean that salvors will need to diversify into other areas of the maritime industry so they can “keep the lights on” as they await the next call for a casualty response.