The Art of Salvage

Successful salvage companies no longer just react to the unexpected. They develop proactive solutions across all facets of marine operations, using new technology along with existing resources.

The Art of Salvage

Published Nov 10, 2022 1:28 PM by Chad Fuhrmann

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2022 edition.)

Marine salvage involves saving lives, mitigating environmental and commercial disasters, recovering modern aircraft and historic shipwrecks or any combination of myriad activities. As a result, the sector has always been a perfect storm of commercial pressures, technical complexity and uncertainty. 

Now, with increasing scrutiny of the marine industry’s impact on the environment and other critical concerns, even more elements factor into the success or failure of organizations in an already risk-endemic sector.

Changing Times
Long considered the marine industry’s “undertakers,” salvage companies have had to evolve in step with the industry. To be successful in today’s salvage sector, they can no longer simply respond to unexpected catastrophes as they occur. Along with traditional responsibilities, they’re now confronted with a much broader range of concerns. And contrary to their reactive reputation, salvors must develop proactive and preventive solutions across every conceivable operation.

In short, they’ve had to evolve technically, environmentally and even socially – or risk failure.

“The story of marine salvage is littered with companies that refused to change with the industry,” says John Witte, Jr., President & CEO of Donjon Marine, “They fail to provide viable solutions to the ever-changing needs of the marine community and will not stand the test of time.”

Improved technology provides more visibility to the marine industry’s activities and has simultaneously ushered in an era of increased focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. These are elements of business that successful salvage companies have long embraced. 

“In some ways ESG is already part of our DNA,” states Alex Leonard, Managing Director of brand Marine Consultants (bMC). The company’s groundbreaking SalvageApp promotes transparency and supports stakeholder engagement throughout the project lifecycle via operational updates, constant feedback and progress tracking.

Salvage has historically been based on the recovery and return of value – human lives, assets and cargo. Protection of the environment is now enmeshed among those priorities. While industry leaders mark environmental concerns high on the list of major factors driving change in the sector, organizations like Donjon have always conducted business with an eye to environmental protection. According to Witte, “This has not and will never change.”

The Long Shadow of OPA 90
Few casualties have had as immense an impact as the Exxon Valdez had on safety, pollution response and legislation. The resultant Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) has touched virtually every aspect of the maritime industry – from vessel design and construction to environmental response operations.

It’s also benefited companies like Resolve Marine, which was formed in 1984 as a single-tug operation but greatly expanded its services in the wake of OPA 90. According to Daan Koornneef, COO & Managing Director, Resolve was founded on and has always maintained its focus on the environmental aspects of the maritime industry. 

The company now concentrates on prevention while preserving all the necessary resources to respond to oil spills and much more. Resolve has created initiatives that focus on cleaning up the oceans from floating plastics to simultaneously preventing tons of material from entering the water in the first place.

OPA 90 resulted in collaborations that continue today but with an expansive remit beyond oil spills. The OPA 90-specific joint venture between Donjon and Smit Americas (Donjon-Smit, LLC) still stands as an active partnership. Their combined efforts allow the company to “learn how to improve with each and every opportunity,” according to Witte, by successfully testing approaches to response operations that have not been tried previously. 

“These experiences give us the opportunity to confirm the viability of new methods applied with existing resources and leave us, and the industry, with even more options in the future,” he says.

Decreasing Incidents, Increasing Risks
Witte and his peers believe that today’s vessel owners/operators, regulators and the salvage community are much better at communicating, proactively engaging with stakeholders as a means of preventing incidents. This is not only one of the guiding principles behind OPA 90 and similar international regulations but also one of its ultimate objectives. 

Improved communication and transparency ensure better training and planning, all in an effort to be more adequately prepared to both prevent and respond to casualty situations.

The results are evident. A high-level review of International Salvage Union (ISU) statistics indicates that the number of services provided by its membership has trended downward significantly over the last five years in contrast to increasing revenue. In areas such as pollution response and mitigation, where the number of cases has in fact increased, the size equivalency of the incidents is likewise smaller in 2021 compared to past years.

There can be a number of explanations for this, but technology undoubtedly plays a key role, according to Resolve’s Koornneef: “Shipping has become much safer because of technological improvements on vessels themselves but likewise in traffic control, positioning and communications, which assist in the identification and localization of potential issues.”

While salvors agree that the technological advances in the marine industry that improve seafarer and environmental safety are certainly a positive step forward, the transition to new technologies will come with some additional uncertainties. All of the technological improvements result in larger, more advanced marine assets capable of much greater cargo capacity. This reality, however, comes with its own associated risk. As bMC’s Leonard notes, “It’s generally accepted that as ships get larger and cargoes grow in value, the casualty complexity for larger-impact, lower-frequency incidents increases.”

Remarkable Feats
Simply put, the total number of opportunities in salvage has decreased significantly while complexity has increased. Salvors are always planning for high consequence events and, while the frequency of response activities may be down, the activities themselves – and salvors’ responses – are no less remarkable.

In March of 2021, Phoenix International Holdings was tasked by the U.S. Navy to recover a downed MH-60S Seahawk helicopter in the Pacific. This required collaboration between Phoenix and the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage & Diving (SUPSALV) and employed a combination of some of the most technologically advanced tools in the military and commercial marine industry. Utilizing the Navy’s deepwater AUV “Trondheim,” its deep ocean salvage ROV CURV 21 and its Fly Away Deep Ocean Salvage System (FADOSS), the units were deployed from the multipurpose construction vessel Grand Canyon II. The result was a record-breaking aircraft recovery from a depth of 19,075 feet.

Svitzer’s salvage arm has its own record of achievement with its Canada team successfully evacuating and extinguishing a burning passenger ferry before towing it to safety. Meanwhile, Svitzer Australia provided emergency assistance to the stricken vessel MV Portland Bay and facilitated its safe return to Port Botany. On the other side of the planet, Svitzer tugs successfully extinguished a fire on board the Almirante Storni in Sweden.

Not to be outdone, Donjon-Smit deployed a team of professionals to assess and assist in the refloat of the 1,100-foot Ever Forward after it ran hard aground while outbound of the Chesapeake Bay in March.

The Art of Salvage
The salvage industry is in a constant state of flux and paradigm shifts, and obligations multiply. Meanwhile, the higher speed and breadth of global communications coverage allows more transparency and critical oversight of the sector. Resulting ESG concerns have concurrently expanded the responsibility of salvors – from after-the-fact response operations to key roles in prevention and preparedness.

With all this change, however, companies agree that fundamental salvage considerations cannot be an afterthought. With a new appreciation for a changing industry, it’s critical that all stakeholders understand the ramifications of failing to take effective risk-based decisions in a timely manner.

Leonard of bMC reflects on the sector’s unique position: “The art of salvage is to understand and address the critical uncertainties and to use what is already available, assess the critical risks, define the uncertainty and find the optimum approach between stakeholders. As we’ve proven time and again, keeping things simple and staying objectively focused leads to success.”

Casualties are by their very nature unexpected events, and each adds to the technical knowledge and understanding of salvors and the wider industry. For that reason, companies embrace the opportunity to be involved in virtually any area of the marine industry and all types of cases. “Every experience and lesson learned helps up prepare for the future, positive or negative,” states Witte, echoing a common faith in the growing strength of the industry’s collective, evolving pool of knowledge.

At the same time, salvors are addressing issues associated with ESG and other concerns. Resolve’s Koornneef notes that while a healthy respect for the fundamentals remains constant, safety and environmental preservation need to be paramount: “Teams, procedures, equipment, safety protocols – everything needs to be ready. Hesitation or failure to respond can have disastrous consequences. From our founding the intention has been – and continues to be – leaving the world in a better place.”

Industry consultant Chad Fuhrmann is a frequent contributor to The Maritime Executive. His company, RE|X, recently entered into a joint venture with Core Group Consulting in Houston. 

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