When a shipowner, or a ship designer contemplates some huge new ship, does he ever consider what might happen if it goes wrong? It is a question that you don’t exactly like to ask in all the heady thoughts of ground-breaking technology and a commercial great leap forward.

The spectre at the feast tends to be the professional salvor, who looks at the huge new ship with eyes not of other men, as he considers how his existing capabilities can be employed should the worst thing happen and this jewel in the shipowner’s crown become impaled on a rock, or explode, or catch fire. Salvors have been quietly asking this difficult question for some time now, as the scale economics have kicked into container shipping, and cruise operations.

Container ships occasionally do come to grief, not least because of the pressures the lines are under to deliver, necessitating rather less prudence in navigation than might once have been expected from smart cargo lines. And as we have seen with even ships of modest size, they are the very devil to salve, should there be any water ingress into their sleek holds. Look at the trouble the Rena is giving salvors as she lies wrecked off New Zealand. Remember the MSC Napoli which lay on the English coasts for months before she was dragged off in bits.

Salvors worry about what might happen if a 16000 teu containership is wrecked and they have to pick up the pieces. Containers piled seven high on deck, 24 across and water gradually spreading through the underdeck spaces, which are still largely uncompartmented. Think of the sort of plant that will have to assembled, from somewhere, to empty such a monster.

But is this not just being alarmist? Andreas Tsavliris, who knows a thing about salvage and is the president of the International Salvage Union suggests that it is a statistical certainty that one of these monsters will come to grief. He worries about a salvage sector that is not exactly prospering, with the difficulty of re-investment in the sort of plant that is needed to dewater giant ships, and all the other extraordinary things salvors are tasked to do. He is concerned about where the money is coming from for new salvage tugs, and from where a new generation of clever salvors is to be recruited.

And it is not helped, he suggests, by the salvors having to fight tooth and nail in the courts to get awards, which are then appealed by the insurers, postponing the days of payment for hard and expensive jobs for years. For salvors, it is all money up front.  And while there might be suggestions that such complaints are a sort of ritual for ISU presidents, it is worth while standing back and just looking at the realities, because Mr Tsavliris insists they are real and deserve consideration at the highest level. Calamities do happen, and when they do, we need a fall back position and adequate salvage capabilities.

Source: Michael Grey,  www.claymaitland.com