UK — Specialist MOD team recovers damaged ships from round the world

The MOD’S Sal­vage and Marine Oper­a­tions (SALMO) Project Team pro­vides sal­vage and recov­ery assis­tance to Roy­al Navy and Roy­al Fleet Aux­il­iary ves­sels around the world. The spe­cial­ist team of Defence Equip­ment & Sup­port civ­il ser­vants is almost a real life ver­sion of Ger­ry Anderson’s Thun­der­birds. Report by Ian Carr.

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.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK

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