Skillfully choreographed salvage prevents a Hawaiian disaster


A diver from American Marine Corp. puts in place an aluminum cofferdam over the cracks in Tong Cheng's hull. (Courtesy American Marine Corp.)

When the Coast Guard first got the call on Jan. 13, 2007, Tong Cheng, a 485-foot Chinese freighter, was taking on water through a hull fracture in the No. 2 hold. The vessel was 600 nautical miles northwest of Oahu and its agent was seeking permission to make repairs in Honolulu.

The request for help had the makings not just of a disaster at sea but of an international incident. Tong Cheng had left South Korea for the Panama Canal, but its ultimate destination was Cuba. And its cargo appeared to include munitions.

But this sea story has a happy ending. In a remarkable display of teamwork between government and the private sector, Tong Cheng was patched up, pumped out, offloaded and repaired without injury to ship, personnel, coastline or national pride — U.S. or Chinese.

As a first step, a unified command was established under Coast Guard leadership. Salvage engineers determined on a temporary patch. The concern was pollution. A C-130 flight on Jan. 17 had spotted an oil sheen two to three miles long astern of the vessel.

The ship's agent asked American Marine Corp. to tackle the job. For American Marine, a Hawaii-based contractor with operations that stretch from New York to Wake Island, it was a routine request. "We were asked to repair a crack," said Rusty Nall, the company's Honolulu-based vice president. "That's what we do for a living."

But the company had reservations. Until Jan. 21, when it got a signed contract, American Marine was concerned about not getting paid.

Meanwhile, however, the U.S. Navy stepped up. "The military does not routinely intercede in civilian vessel casualties," said Terri Kojima, a Navy spokesperson in Honolulu. But in the absence of help from the private sector, "the military can be made available to assist."

Eighty miles off Oahu, a team from the Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 dove 30 feet below the waterline on the port side. What had been a 29-inch-long crack, about an eighth of an inch wide, was now a 56-inch crack — and there were two smaller cracks, 6 inches long, L-shaped, and spreading.

The Navy divers applied patches with two-part epoxy, then waited for it to cure. It held. Tong Cheng steamed slowly into Anchorage B, just off a runway at Honolulu International Airport, entering the lee of the island just as a large north swell arrived.

At the anchorage, help arrived from the private sector. American Marine's 100-foot utility boat, American Islander, had met the vessel 60 miles offshore, and Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC), a nonprofit network sponsored by the petroleum industry, sent a 40,000-barrel lightering barge from Honolulu. The plan was to dewater the vessel and reinforce the hull so Tong Cheng could enter the harbor.

But there was a snag. Because of a stopgap measure the ship had taken after its pumps failed, the water level slowly went down, but only to the 'tween decks. "All night we're watching the pump, and it goes just to this level and that's where it stops. They couldn't get it any lower," said Nall. There was no way to get pumps inside the No. 2 hold to finish the job.

The solution was hot taps. Used in recovering oil from wrecks, hot taps involve cutting holes in the hull and installing ball valves connected to hoses and pumps. Once again, the Navy came through: Working from the MSRC barge, divers installed hot taps 14, 21 and 28 feet below the waterline. It was finally possible to pump more water out of the hold. Not only that, but the vessel's draft was reduced to 35 feet.

Draft was crucial. The closest harbor was Honolulu, but with security interests at stake and continued concerns about pollution, the unified command was looking at a more secluded location 12 miles to the west: Kalaeloa Harbor, formerly Barbers Point. Kalaeloa's controlling draft was 35 feet.

Divers from American Marine worked all night to fabricate an 8-by-2-foot aluminum cofferdam to cover the epoxied cracks. On Jan. 26, Tong Cheng and its crew of 26 moved into Kalaeloa, arriving early that evening.

Below, Tong Cheng, heavily down by the bow, limps toward Oahu after asking permission to enter Honolulu Harbor for repairs. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The timing was fortunate. That night, a Kona storm blew up out of the south — one so severe it might have forced Tong Cheng out of the anchorage. "There was always the understanding that the ship was in peril," said Nall of American Marine. "But I don't believe that it was clearly understood early on how critical the situation was. … Our position was that if that No. 1 bulkhead failed, we would have a serious casualty and might not be able to save the ship."

As Tong Cheng arrived in Kalaeloa, so did Todd Schauer, a vice president with Resolve Marine Group of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Resolve had been called in by American Marine. Schauer recalled later what was waiting for him when he got there: "a hold full of toxic sludge."

Resolve's job was to develop a lightering plan. Someone had to work out the proper sequence for removing the cargo, taking into account the condition of the vessel, heavy lift requirements and hazardous material handling. Resolve would leave a salvage master at Kalaeloa throughout the vessel's stay.

Offloading, said Nall, was "arduous and tedious." The plastic resin had turned to quicksand. Steel pipe had been slung in small loads by the ship's cranes, and plywood had broken free. Because of contamination, all the liquid and cargo had to go.

To get access to the hold, workers needed to remove the hatches. That meant unloading some of the deck cargo, which included containers and heavy generator sets, so two cranes were needed. Inside the hold, almost a foot of diesel was floating on the surface of the water. American Marine tackled the mess with pumps from its sister company, PENCO, which handled spill response and waste management throughout.

Meanwhile, nature interfered again. The same storm that had threatened Tong Cheng at the anchorage now swept into Kalaeloa, a harbor that suffers badly from swells. As the surge increased, some of the mooring lines parted.

From the state's point of view, using Kalaeloa posed other problems. It was a small but busy harbor, with just two piers, and the unscheduled entry of a ship burdened with cumbersome security threatened to disrupt port businesses. "There were a couple of harbor users that were complaining," said Scott Ishikawa, a spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Transportation.


Tugs from Hawaiian Tug & Barge push Tong Cheng into its berth at Kalaeloa Harbor, which was selected as a place of refuge after Honolulu was rejected because of security concerns. (Courtesy Hawaii Department of Transportation)

Tong Cheng had to be moved from pier to pier, and Scott Cunningham, the state's Honolulu harbor master, acted as referee. But American Marine's Nall said other port users were very accommodating. "I think you could use the word aloha," he said.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard backed off from its initial report that the cargo might contain ammunition — a revelation that had made headlines.

"In some of the Tong Cheng's containers early in the operation, it was perceived by Coast Guard and Customs inspectors that there may have been weapons, munitions, ammunition or armaments," Coast Guard Lt. John K. Titchen wrote in answer to a query.

"In the end, the Coast Guard determined that the cargo aboard the Tong Cheng did not contain weapons, munitions, ammunition or armaments."

Back in Kalaeola, debris removal continued. Pipe was wiggled out of nooks and crannies; loaders were sent in to excavate plastic resin. As the load on the hull shifted, Glosten Associates, a firm of consulting engineers in Seattle that had been advising the Coast Guard's salvage and response team from the beginning, checked on progress.

"Every day when they offloaded cargo, we would do the calculations to make sure that the global stresses on the cracks weren't increasing," said Brad Lamkin, a Glosten naval architect.

Finally, the salvage team could inspect the inside of the hull. The frames behind the cracks in the No. 2 hold had wasted away.

"Usually when you get a crack in a hull out in a seaway, it's due to global bending," said Lamkin, referring to the flexing of the hull or stress caused by cargo and waves. "After they got the cargo out of the hold, we realized that all of the structure that supported the side shell had been rotting away at the double bottom."

That explained a surprising feature of the cracks: They were propagating horizontally instead of vertically, the expected direction of a hull fracture.

To make the vessel safe to sail, the cracks were back-gouged and welded and a doubler plate was fitted over the entire repair. A larger cofferdam was installed. Finally, Tong Cheng was seaworthy again.

The repair had required the cooperation of many segments of the maritime industry. Doug Larsen of Hudson Marine Management Services, which handled claims support, won praise from American Marine for his concern for safety — and also for making sure the bills got paid on time. "It really was a very well orchestrated industry team effort," said Schauer, of Resolve.

As a result, Oahu survived a potential disaster. And on March 17, Tong Cheng steamed out of Kalaeloa Harbor for China. The No. 2 hold was crammed once more, this time with its own salvage debris.
Incident shows the importance of places of refuge
by Peter Meredith
Tong Cheng was a textbook test of how to handle a high-stakes case of a foreign vessel in distress — a situation the U.S. Coast Guard has just addressed by issuing the first nationwide planning tool for place-of-refuge decisions.
The policy, developed at the behest of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), was precipitated by three wrecks in Europe. In the most dramatic, the 81,000-dwt tanker Prestige broke apart off Spain in 2002 after six days of trying in vain to secure a place of refuge from three different countries. In hindsight, it seemed clear that the extent of the resulting disaster was exacerbated by the delay.
The new planning tool is a risk matrix that calculates the probabilities of various events and the consequences of various actions and assigns numerical scores to each so as to identify the option with the lowest risk. Ports are being asked to stage planning exercises for place-of-refuge requests with input from the states and the private sector, including mariners, pilots and salvage experts.
The key is preparedness. "What I'm promoting on the West Coast and what Alaska has done very well is preplanning for potential places of refuge," said Jean Cameron of the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force. Cameron helped the Coast Guard develop some of the guidelines.
Within the industry, there is concern about who will assign the numerical scores and how much involvement the Coast Guard will allow the private sector. But Cmdr. Drew Tucci, chief of the Coast Guard's Office of Incident Management and Preparedness, said mariners should be encouraged by the decision that a vessel should only be denied entry to a place of refuge if there is a practical and lower-risk alternative available.
Although the policy was still in draft form at the time of Tong Cheng, the command center that dealt with the incident used the checklist from the matrix. An unusual complication was the U.S. ban on shipping goods to Cuba, the vessel's destination.
Tong Cheng, said Tucci, "was a complete success story. First of all no one got hurt. The vessel was able to offload cargo, make repairs and move on. We even managed to maintain U.S. foreign policy with respect to Cuba."
By Professional Mariner Staff