The greatest salvage operation in history was led by one man. Here’s his story.
At first the politicians were saying the refloat of the Costa Concordia would be a seven- or eight-month job at most. It didn’t take long for Nick Sloane, salvage master for Titan Salvage, to set them straight.
In the end, he was on the job at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 27 months. He had a few short weeks off during that time and a few eight-hour days when bad weather forced everyone on the team to accept some respite from the pressures of the job.
ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
At times, Sloane’s team reached 530 people from 26 different countries. It included salvors, scientists, engineers, logistics managers, divers, fabricators, coded welders, finance and commercial teams and many more, each with different skills and different priorities in the project. He needed to be strong and decisive, but he also needed to be mindful of those watching him, including experts from the client’s representative, London Offshore Consultants LOC , the Italian authorities (the vessel was still deemed a crime scene), the Coast Guard, the Osservatorio Committee, the people of Giglio, environmentalists and the media.
“It was really good to see how they all did come together,” notes Sloane. “At the end of the project, it was a really powerful team, the strongest team I’ve ever worked with. I’ve been fortunate to have always worked with good salvage teams in my career, but this was such a long project. When we had to overcome challenges, it was a case of ‘Let’s just get on with it together.’ Nobody was saying ‘That’s not my scope of work’ or ‘That’s your scope of work.’ It was something we have to do, and a case of anyone who can come up with an idea, stand forward.”
Sloane worked from 7:00 a.m. to around 9:00 p.m. each day. Operations continued around the clock, so this timetable meant he spanned both day and night shifts. Others worked to different schedules. The divers, for example, worked midnight to midday or midday to midnight. “This gave both teams about six hours of daylight, and this meant they performed better over the long term. Otherwise, after a while, people working on night-only shifts become the B team. They don’t get natural light, and it does impact their performance,” he adds.
“It was a very long time to remain focused and to keep people driving on a 24/7 basis. We needed people who would commit for the whole duration. Continuity was paramount to the success of the project. To do that, you have to have enough of a team that you can rotate them and give them a break so they don’t collapse. We had one or two in the early stages who just wore themselves out, and by mid-winter they’d had enough. So we had to make sure we looked after people. The divers were doing two months on, one month off. Some of the others were doing four weeks on and four weeks off. We just had to keep the management team going all the way through.”
Shoreside, there was also a lot of effort going into the operation. “We had over 150 subcontractors, and to manage all that from an island perspective took a powerful logistics and management team on the shore. We liaised back and forth with them every Saturday when we’d integrate what was happening on the mainland and around the shipyards with what we needed on Giglio. That worked pretty well. We identified the logistics demands quite early on as one of the challenges, and fortunately we put the right structure in place to support the operation. We didn’t waste much time, but it was a much bigger structure than we envisaged in May of 2012, when we signed the contract.”
With over 22,000 individual dives conducted, the project was the largest diving job in the history of the industry. A lot of supporting talent was brought in from the offshore industry. The duration of the project was similar to that experienced in the offshore industry as were the challenges of drilling and subsea construction.
“We used ROVs a lot, and we ended up with over 55,000 hours of ROV recordings. The ROVs made it a lot easier for us to monitor what was going on because we could watch everything from four or five different vantage points. I think monitoring and managing the project was a lot easier as a result. Normally, you don’t get that. I’d certainly use ROVs again and even put them in earlier so that right from day one we’re ready to go with them.”
A lot of effort was put into getting ready for the parbuckle. One of the main challenges was getting the platforms in place. Two-meter-diameter holes were required to meet very tight design parameters, to take the pile legs of the platforms that were being built at three different fabrication yards around Italy from the Adriatic to Tuscany, and tolerances were tight with less than a one percent margin for error.
“We faced a lot of challenges drilling into the granite. It’s the hardest rock you can get, and drilling at angles of 25 to 35 degrees into a seabed that was uneven was challenging. When you’re trying to drill vertically into the granite, the drill tries to bounce away from it, and we were drilling two-meter-diameter holes with a drill head that weighed around 70 tons. When the drill started turning it would just bounce away until we found a way to stabilize it in position.”
DISAPPOINTMENT AND TRIUMPH
The biggest worry was the winter weather of 2012. “We were battling with the drilling operations after three months of planning and engineering. By the time we started drilling it was late September, and we had bad weather come in. It was one of their worst winters in 45 years, and in one of the storms the ship actually collapsed two meters overnight. That was pretty demoralizing because we weren’t performing on the drilling side, and the weather was knocking us for six. When she dropped she could have buckled further, or even collapsed. We were really worried. We thought she’d never survive the winter.
“By March we were feeling much better, but between October and January morale was down. The client wasn’t happy; the local population wasn’t happy. There was a lot of pressure on everyone at that time and we just had to find the solutions. It was nerve-wracking. We didn’t sleep too much. The weather was bad; we tossed and turned, and we were really worried if the phone rang.”
Certainty is required in salvage, so the team prepared for the parbuckling assuming the vessel would be heavier than expected and assuming the damage on the starboard side was so bad that there would be no straight surfaces on the ship’s side-shell. This meant that divers connected the starboard sponsons by chains rather than welding them. The chains (there were 56 of them) ran under the vessel, which was lying at an angle of 65˚ to starboard, and the divers sometimes faced rough seas while they worked. Five-meter swells halted progress at times.
One of the biggest risks was that the bow could come off during the parbuckling operation. Specially designed blister tanks were made to support it. “That was something many people feared was impossible – to design, fabricate and deliver the tanks before the parbuckle date, but we knew the benefits. Without them, there was little chance of the parbuckling being successful.”
That success was a turning point in the project. “The best moment was certainly the parbuckling. All the earlier challenges came together in that 19-hour period, and the results were spectacular. It was much better than we were hoping for. We’d allowed ourselves to have quite a bit more damage from the operation, but it actually went like a textbook. When that happened and we knew the ship was still strong enough to allow us to put these forces on it, we knew the most difficult part of the project was over.”
After the parbuckle the team had a big barbie. They invited about 200 people and about 500 arrived. “The whole island wanted to celebrate with us.”
Tourism makes up most of Giglio’s revenue, and everyone on the island was concerned about environmental impacts. It was top on the agenda for Titan too, and Sloane went to extremes to build in safeguards and mitigate any risks. Water quality and noise were monitored on a daily basis.
“I don’t think it prolonged the operation much, but it meant that we put in a lot more effort and resources just to maintain the pristine quality of the water. At the end, when they did the final inspection, everyone was pleasantly surprised. There was a lot of debris that fell out of the ship from the winter weather period, but from the drilling operation there was very little impact. Just after parbuckling we saw the first dolphins we’d seen since the incident swim into the bay.”
Second to the triumph of the parbuckling for Sloane was the delivery to Genoa. There was no time for those involved in the towing operation to party as the wreck sailed away from Giglio, but it was an emotional time for the people of the island. “At some stages, they had almost given up hope of ever seeing it go in one piece, so the day we sailed away they had a big party on the island, another barbie. It was such a big event that they all took the next day off.
“Although we weren’t there, it was still special to sail away while all the tugs were blowing their horns, and the church bells ringing. Once we were finally alongside in Genoa and the last line was secured, that was the end of our function. Obviously we had to stay there for another week and hand over, but everyone was thinking about getting home and carrying on with their lives again.”
Sloane is currently enjoying home life and some rounds of golf. “It was really enjoyable to be part of such a project, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to start another one tomorrow. Hopefully it will be a while before the phone rings again.”
Wendy Laursen is the MarEx News Editor for Asia Pacific.