Salvage Master Extraordinaire

By Wendy Laursen 2014-11-25 13:54:00

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2014 edition.)

Captain Nicholas Sloane was born in Zambia and moved to South Africa as a schoolboy. His career at sea began in 1980 at the age of 19, working for Safmarine. He quickly transferred to the salvage team and has remained in the salvage industry ever since. His latest role was salvage master for Titan Salvage on the Costa Concordia wreck-removal project.

Sloane lectures on salvage and casualty management at the University of Stellenbosch and the South African Maritime Training Academy (SAMTRA). He is a member of the Society of Master Mariners of South Africa, the Maritime Law Association of South Africa, the Nautical Institute, the General Botha Old Boys Association, the Royal Natal Yacht Club and Erinvale Golf Club.

When did you begin your marine career, and what did you first do in the industry?

I first went to sea as a deck cadet with Safmarine in 1980 on general cargo ships. After three years as a cadet I qualified as a second officer with a foreign-going certificate of competency.

How did you get into the salvage aspect of the industry?

In 1983 there was a large super-tanker fire off the South African Cape Coast – the Castillo de Bellver, a Spanish tanker that caught fire and eventually broke in two with a loss of some 252,000 tons of oil. I was amazed to learn that Safmarine, my shipping company, had two super-salvage tugs (the John Ross and the Wolraad Woltemade), of which the John Ross was involved, along with a smaller tug and anti-pollution vessels. I requested a transfer to the tug division and have never looked back.

Tell us about some of the interesting jobs you did before the Costa Concordia.

I have been involved as salvage master in many high-profile and interesting salvage operations around the world (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, the U.S., Australia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Mexico, Africa and Hong Kong). I’ve dealt with many cases where political, environmental and public pressure were intense, such as the AD-19 jack-up rig, the  Tasman Spirit, the Jolly Rubino, the Ikan Tanda, the Treasure, the Sealand Express, the CP Valour, the Kota Kado, the Jupiter-1 oil rig, the Brillante Virtuoso and the Rena.

How did you come to be hired by the joint venture of Titan and Micoperi?

Rich Habib, the boss of Titan Salvage at the time, texted me while I was on the Rena operation off New Zealand asking if I was interested in being involved. Of course I said yes, as the Rena salvage operation was transforming into a wreck-reduction contract, and I was completing my scope of works. I went straight from New Zealand to Italy.

It was reported that the Costa Concordia site was sacred ground because of the people who died. Would the wreck have been handled differently if it had been a huge tanker or mega-container vessel?

Certainly a passenger ship involved in such a high-profile accident with loss of life meant that the “crime scene” had to be protected. The public interest and environmental impact were also high priorities. 

A large tanker gives you a lot of options for refloating, and relatively quickly, as you have large quantities of oil (or ballast) that can be pumped out, or you can seal the cargo tanks and pressurize them to regain the lost buoyancy. On a passenger ship, there are no tanks or internal volumes that can be sealed and pressurized to regain the lost buoyancy. 

A mega-container ship also poses huge problems as she only has a cargo of containers and relatively little ballast and fuel to remove, but still a lot more than a passenger ship. The handling of massive numbers of containers is also a challenge that the salvage industry is still working its head around – to prepare for the eventuality.

The salvage is considered an incredible engineering feat. What were some of the processes that took place to come up with the final parbuckling plan and eventual overturn?

The best way to refloat such a large ship is to turn her upright and then regain buoyancy. The location and size of the Costa Concordia made this extremely challenging. To some experts, it was impossible.

The forces exerted on the hull during the parbuckling operation could have caused it to collapse. To model these forces we commissioned the world’s largest and most powerful FEM (finite element method) models, reflecting over one million points of structural reference on the hull. We then rotated this model to correspond to the Concordia’s angle and carried out a parbuckling simulation. This gave us an idea of the weaker sections of the ship and what was likely to happen to its structure. This was extremely important for us to engineer the parbuckle with minimal risk.

We had to add three smaller platforms to support the stern. We also had to load 20,000 tons of grout into grout bags to support the belly between the two reefs and the stern. On the bow, we could not add any further platforms due to the drop-off into deeper water, so we had to come up with the concept and design of the two blister tanks, which were placed under the flare. 

The blister tanks were some 6,500 cubic meters in size (bigger than my first ship’s cargo capacity) and weighed 1,500 tons each. They had to be installed with 20 millimeter tolerances to ensure that the forces would be spread evenly over the Concordia’s hull. This was one of the most challenging parts of the preparations, and most experts believed it impossible to achieve. But we accomplished it.

We could have welded on the port-side sponsons (very large flotation tanks, some seven and eleven-story-high buildings) as the port-side hull was exposed. But on the starboard side we knew we would not have that luxury, so we joined the port-side foundation pieces of the sponsons to the starboard side by using 56 lengths of chain. Each single link weighed 370 kg (800 lbs). Once we had all this in place, we were pretty confident that we had added sufficient strength to the hull to carry out the parbuckle.

With so many workers and equipment involved as well as around-the-clock operations, how did you physically and emotionally deal with the project?

Quite early on we restructured the project so that we had seven semi-independent teams working in parallel. This allowed me to appoint a salvage master or manager to look after logistics/finance/commercial contracting and then the four operational teams on location. It was vital to monitor the individual phases of the project to support the critical path as much as possible and to then increase resources as required. 

One of the most difficult parts was getting multinational teams to work together without having an “us and them” situation developing. To overcome this I broke each team into a multinational group so that no team was based on nationalistic pride and prejudices. And we tried to get everyone to understand the background and cultural differences of each nationality to make sure we did not end up fighting each other when the pressure increased. In the end, we had 26 nationalities working pretty well together.

Emotionally, when we suffered the death of a team member (we lost two to natural causes and one to a tragic accident) it was very tough, and I was lucky to have the support of my wife Sandra and my family to fall back on.

We had to make sure that the rotation of the team members was looked after and that we could rely on continuity of the team for the duration of the project. That was vital to any chance of success. We had to remain focused and not change the plan as other people joined the team who did not yet understand the history and direction of the project. 

Obviously, you realized the world was watching. Were you concerned about failing and the vessel doing more environmental damage?

I guess that became more of an issue the closer we came to the parbuckle date, but we had a really strong team and we were working long hours so there was not too much time to worry about the media. We had a lot of oversight with not only the state prosecutor involved, represented by the Coast Guard and the Carabinieri, but also an environmental oversight committee appointed to support the Italian government in ensuring the project achieved its objectives. Then there were the owner’s liability underwriters and representatives, so all in all we had a lot on our plate apart from the media.

What lessons did you learn from the operation?

The structure and continuity of the team members were paramount to achieving the project objectives. You cannot afford to be Mr. Nice Guy and allow the project to be distracted from its critical path. But at the same time you need to allow people to debate and present differing positions before deciding on the course of action to follow.

You have to get the trust of not only your own board members and salvage team members but also the owner’s representatives and the local population and authorities as quickly as possible. That means you have to be absolutely open and keep communicating as soon as a difficulty or change is to occur.

We also allowed the younger team members to grow and gave them a lot of responsibility without too much oversight. It was great to watch as they developed over the course of the project, and I believe that all involved left Giglio as different people – for many reasons, not just the success of the project itself.

The people of Italy consider you a rock star and you are now the most famous salvage master in the business. What is next for you? 

I would rather the team be considered a rock star team as by the time we delivered the Concordia to her owners in Genoa we had one of the strongest salvage teams on the planet. Nothing was too much effort or too difficult to at least consider and put our ideas together. The teamwork was exceptional.

For me now, I am enjoying being home and getting back into the family routine again, work on my golf game, read a book and walk in the nature reserve above our house. I guess when the phone rings again I shall have to take a deep breath and see what challenges are on the other end, but for now I am quite happy resting for a while. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.