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Specialist MOD team recovers damaged ships from round the world

Early one evening in 2008, with just eight shopping days left to Christmas, phones rang in the homes of members of the MOD Salvage and Marine…

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Early one evening in 2008, with just eight shopping days left to Christmas, phones rang in the homes of members of the MOD Salvage and Marine Operations (SALMO) Project Team.

The demand was urgent:

“The Duty Fleet Controller advises that HMS Endurance has a major flooding problem and is drifting without power off South America. Please could you come into the office?”

Within 24 hours, a team of 13 salvage experts were Falklands bound to save the stricken ice patrol ship.

Remarkable things like that happen to SALMO.

If a warship has been holed and needs towing to safety, or if a decommissioned nuclear powered Russian submarine needs transporting, that’s when SALMO are go.

If a military, or occasionally, a civilian helicopter ditches, the unit is called in. Nigel Hills, who joined the team in 2004 as a naval architect said:

This can include the recovery of human remains. This is the sad part of the job.

But when there are no fatalities, dealing with aircraft is an interesting challenge he added:

We are told what we need to recover. It may be a black box, but it could be a part of the aircraft which is armed.

Operations such as these require personnel with very special skills:

We tend to recruit welders, mechanics or electricians from industry, and then train them to dive,” said Nigel.

The 56-strong team is divided into units based in Greenock and Devonport, with an HQ in Foxhill, Bath. They form an eclectic mix of divers, mechanics, electricians, engineers, master mariners, naval architects, logisticians, supported by dedicated business, commercial and finance officers:

The initial call for assistance goes through to one of the senior officers in the team. They assess the situation, decide how to deal with it, then shape the team. If kit is needed, it is mobilised or we look at the possibility of hiring it locally,” said Nigel.

The team’s expertise may also be called on to prevent disaster. SALMO marine warranty surveyors are on hand when sections of new ships are moved to the assembly yard.

And they were involved in the transport of decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines (under the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation) to their disposal ports.

Nigel was aboard the MV Transshelf in 2006 moving a November Class submarine. His colleague Emmanuel Ofosu-Apeasah trumped that with the move of two Victor Class subs in the Russian Far East.

Some of the more major incidents the team have been involved in include the 2002 grounding of HMS Nottingham near Lord Howe Island, 200 miles (322km) off the coast of Australia. The ship was severely damaged, with several compartments (including magazines) open to the sea. Divers assessed the damage.

The salvage and recovery effort required the installation of internal reinforcement, rigging the vessel for an open ocean tow, de-watering of flooded compartments, removal and safe disposal of Sea Dart missiles, and, ultimately, repatriation to the UK, which involved giving Nottingham a piggy back ride on a huge semi-submersible heavy lift ship. Nigel Hills project managed the repatriation phase.

And in 1995, SALMO was tasked to remove 2,000 tonnes of fuel oil from the wreck of HMS Royal Oak. The ship had been sunk in 1939 in Scapa Flow by a German U-boat.

The complex operation is ongoing, but has, so far, been a great engineering and environmental success. The team is involved in management of the wreck, and liaises very closely with other government departments such as the Department of Transport.

Team member Andy Liddell is now working on an operation to survey the wreck of the Darkdale, an RFA vessel that was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1944 off the island of St Helena, as its fuel oil is now threatening the environment.

In 2002, SALMO led the recovery of a Lynx helicopter from HMS Richmond, that crashed in the North Atlantic.

At a depth of 4,000m, it was the deepest ever recovery of a crashed aircraft and allowing the accident invesitgators to identify a potentially serious defect and fix the problem immediately throughout the rest of the Lynx helicopter fleet.

SALMO experts also retrieved the bodies of the aircrew from HMS Portland’s Lynx helicopter, which crashed in darkness, in 2004, while responding to a possible man overboard alert from HMS Montrose.

And, in 2009 they conducted a seabed search off Aberdeen for victims of the North Sea helicopter crash, and recovered them.

When HMS Endurance flooded and began to drift without power in the South Atlantic, the operation to recover her was another good example of a major SALMO mobilisation.

A team of 13, along with a naval team and engineers from the ship project team at Abbey Wood, flew to the Falkland Islands, from where a RAF Hercules immediately took them to Punta Arenas in southern Chile.

Back in the UK, colleagues liaised with the Navy and chartered tugs to tow Endurance from the middle of the Magellan Straits to a berth in Punta Arenas.

After inspecting the damage, a salvage plan was put into action and the ship was towed on to the Falklands.

There, she was prepared for recovery to the UK, aboard the MV Target.

This article is taken from the November 2010 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.

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Published 28 October 2010