The Most Valuable Man On The Seas
With roughly 100,000 large merchant ships in the water at any time, scores sink, burn, break apart, run aground, or explode each year—often with toxic consequences. It is Captain Nick Sloane’s job to board troubled vessels and salvage what he can. Against heavy odds, he recently refloated the doomed cruise ship Costa Concordia. William Langewiesche explains why Sloane may be the most valuable man on the seas
Every ocean voyage involves risk. This has always been, and will always be. Currently about 100,000 large merchant ships sail the seas. If past patterns hold, during the next 10 years some 25,000 of them will be categorized as insurance casualties. Another 1,600 will be lost—roughly one ship every two and a half days. Some fraud is involved, but most of the losses are real. Though safety is said to be improving, it is evident that the oceans remain wild and will not soon be tamed.
In that light one of the greatest seafarers at work today is neither a naval commander nor an old-salt merchant mariner but a certain marine salvage master with a taste for chaos and a genius for improvisation. He is a burly South African, aged 53, by the name of Captain Nick Sloane. His job is to intervene where other captains have failed, and to make the best of ships that are sinking, burning, breaking apart, or severely aground. Usually those same ships are threatening to leak bunker fuel—the sludge that powers them—along with crude oil or other toxins in quantities that could poison the environment for years to come. Sloane boards the ships with small teams—by helicopter from overhead, or by Zodiac from oceangoing tugs—and once he arrives he stays aboard and fights, sometimes for weeks at a stretch.
He is tenacious in part because of the financial stakes involved. By well-wrought tradition, rescuers are not recompensed for saving lives at sea, but those who save a ship have a claim to a large part of its value, including its cargo. The final payout involves calculations not only of the ship’s total value but also of the difficulty and danger involved in making the save. Today the payout is usually determined through Lloyd’s of London, after the work is done, and on average amounts to perhaps 12 percent of the assessed value, except in disputed cases referred to arbitration, where the payout may climb higher. Such cuts amount to millions of dollars. On the other hand, expenses have to be paid out of pocket, and if the salvors fail to save the ship, they may win nothing at all—not even a thank-you for trying. For bounty hunters this is known as the principle of “No Cure, No Pay,” a formulation printed in bold at the top of the Lloyd’s Open Form, the predominant salvage contract. In recent years, insurers have softened the edges by recognizing the value of attempting to avoid environmental damage even if a ship is ultimately lost, but to a large degree the business remains an all-or-nothing gamble.
Sloane is not a stakeholder but a man trusted by salvage companies to roll the dice. Since 2011 he has been self-employed as a gun for hire. He lives in a beautiful valley near Cape Town with his wife, three children, and two dogs. He sees himself as every bit an African, and because he is white, this confuses people abroad. Beyond English he speaks some Zulu and Afrikaans. He believes in the future of a multi-ethnic South Africa. For practical reasons he tries to impart the humanistic principles of ubuntu—in essence, that all people share a common bond—to the tough multi-national crews under his command. Whatever they may privately think, when he explains the word to them they show no skepticism. Sloane may be a humanist, but he is not a man to be defied.
His life has played out in a series of challenges, many of which would have defeated others. There have been all the storms at sea, all the ships and oil rigs saved, all the wrecks attended to. There have been two helicopter crashes. There was the crash landing of a cargo plane in which he was badly injured. There were deployments to more than 34 countries. Somewhere in there he married his wife and managed to make it to the wedding, but he missed the birth of each of his children. In those ways especially, his path has been tough. Nonetheless he has never backed off.
Most recently he directed the removal of the Costa Concordia, the Italian cruise ship that ran aground and capsized in 2012 off the Tuscan island of Giglio, with the loss of 32 lives. For more than two years he stayed on the island, managing a team of as many as 530 people to roll the enormous ship upright and attach external flotation tanks in order to refloat it and tow it away to be scrapped. It was the most expensive such effort in history, with a budget of more than $1 billion, and it paid Sloane well. Nonetheless, in the end it was just a wreck removal, performed on the basis of a tedious cost-plus contract and requiring soul-deadening feats of bureaucratic wrangling. Last I checked, Sloane had 84,000 e-mails in his Concordia in-box, of which only 2,500 remained unread. The routine was hard on him. Speculative salvage is what he prefers. He is an adventurer at heart.
As a boy Sloane repeatedly read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He was born to a middle-class family in landlocked Northern Rhodesia, in 1961. Three years later, the country became Zambia. After another six years the family lost everything when they were expelled on 24-hour notice because of the historical transgressions they represented. They resettled near Durban, on South Africa’s eastern coast. Soon afterward, when Sloane was 10, he and his father began to sail centerboard dinghies on a local reservoir. They graduated to an open keelboat, which they raced on Durban Bay. So, Sloane grew up sailing. He was a natural. And he was not afraid of weather. He came to see winds above 25 knots as an advantage because tactics mattered less and endurance counted for more.
At a regatta during his last year of high school he met a visiting Dutchman, who mentioned that he was a master mariner. Sloane asked what this meant. The Dutchman said, “You’re the captain of a ship for six months, and the other six months you sail.” That sounded so good to Sloane that he put aside thoughts of college and signed on to a cadet-training program with a South African company, Safmarine, that ran cargo ships around the world. For the next few years he remained at sea almost entirely, rising to the rank of third officer and shuttling among continents. By the end he knew that he did not want to become one of the officers he saw around him—unhealthy men who rarely had time to go ashore, and lived a lonely, peripatetic existence.
On an August day in 1983—winter in the Southern Hemisphere, when the weather is worst—Sloane was in Safmarine’s Cape Town office waiting to fly home on leave when word came of trouble about 25 miles offshore. There had been an explosion and fire aboard the Castillo de Bellver, a Spanish supertanker that had been rounding the Cape, bound for Europe carrying 250,000 tons of Arabian oil. The chief engineer and two others had been killed, and the surviving crew members had abandoned ship. Scuttlebutt had it that the explosion occurred after crew members entered the tanker’s pump room—a dangerous space because of volatile vapors—and attempted to tap illicitly into the crude-oil cargo and feed it to the main engine in order to save on fuel. So great was the quantity of crude on tankers the size of the Castillo that it was possible at the time to sail an entire voyage from the Persian Gulf to Europe on stolen oil without the loss being noticed. Whatever the truth in this case, a spark had ignited vapors in the pump room, and the resulting conflagration spread to the cargo tanks. Now a thick column of smoke was drifting inland and raining oil particles onto pristine sheep country. At sea, theCastillo had broken in two, and a major spill was under way.
Safmarine had a salvage division that called for volunteers. Sloane joined on as a deckhand and set off on a tug toward the wreck. By the time they arrived, the Castillo’s stern section had rolled over and sunk, dragging the engine room, superstructure, and as much as 100,000 tons of crude oil to the bottom. The bow section remained afloat and was continuing to spew so much flaming oil that the ocean itself seemed to be burning.
To Sloane the scene was awe-inspiring. The teams paused to improvise a plan, then attacked using powerful saltwater pumps and hoses to push the floating flames toward the wreck, and finally to smother them on the bow itself. This took two days to succeed. By then the bow was standing straight up out of the water, with the forward section of the hull, containing perhaps 60,000 tons of oil, extending deep below the surface. The tanks had stopped leaking, but the technology did not yet exist to tap into them and remove the oil. So now what? Eventually, the South African government approved the best of the bad solutions—a plan to tow the hulk farther out to sea and sink it in deep water. Safmarine got the job, and Sloane volunteered to go onto the wreck and secure the tow wires to the ship’s anchors. With three other men he was reeled down from a helicopter. They attached themselves with ropes to fixtures at the tip of the bow and cautiously climbed down to the anchors. The work took about a week to accomplish, but then the wires were secured, and a tug got the wreck under tow. When it reached a position 200 miles offshore, Sloane returned to the wreck with explosive charges. He was back on the tug when the charges were detonated, and the last of the Castillo settled and disappeared.
Sloane had tasted his first blood. When he returned to Cape Town, he immediately requested a transfer to Safmarine’s salvage division. Eventually he was assigned to one of the company’s deep-sea salvage tugs, the 310-foot, twin-engine, 26,000-horsepower Wolraad Woltemade. That ship and its Safmarine twin, the John Ross, were the most powerful tugs in the world—purpose-built bounty hunters capable of dashing to the rescue at more than 20 knots and punching through even the heaviest storms. They claimed their richest prizes during the Southern Hemisphere winters, particularly among supertankers and bulk carriers rounding the Cape in mountainous seas. During the summers, when the Cape seas are relatively calm, the tugs went out globally at flat rates for some of the biggest towing jobs to be found. Sloane was in his element. By late 1987, he had passed the necessary exams and at the age of 26 was serving as first mate—second-in-command—on both of the super-tugs. One of his captains was a tough, chain-smoking, six-foot-six Englishman who was known as a drinker, a brawler, and an excellent ship handler. He was hard on his crews. Any man who showed hesitation on the aft deck when it was being swept by waves was fired at the next port of call—told to fuck off and find a berth on a container ship if he preferred. Speaking of fucking off, Sloane once witnessed a junior officer mutter those same words to the captain, who answered by punching him in the face and breaking his nose, then putting him ashore. Tug captains were gods in those days. Sloane thought this one was a tyrant, but he learned from him about seamanship and towage.
Over the next few years, Sloane saw a lot of action. There were storms with 100-m.p.h. winds and waves of 90 feet, and two supertankers with their bows torn entirely off. There were ships that burned, ships that foundered, and ships that went on rocks. There were ships that simply broke down. Sloane grew adept at boarding them, fighting fires, and attaching the tow wires securely. More important, he was unusually adroit mentally. As a result, the company (which through a merger had become Pentow Marine) appointed him as a full-fledged salvage master and in the winter of 1992 sent him out on the Wolraad Woltemade to try his luck at hunting.
With an augmented crew of 26 men, the tug sailed into the South Atlantic and anchored in the shelter of the remote British island of Saint Helena, to wait for trouble to occur. Life there was famously pleasant. Once the ship had been rigged for action, the men went ashore a few at a time to wander the island’s small town, or took to the boats to explore the immediate coast. Back on the ship they enjoyed clean accommodations, decent food, plenty of movies, and a stock of good wine. In the officers’ salon, meals were served by stewards in white jackets. But everyone was keyed up for the job, and the radios were monitored at all times.
After nearly two weeks the radio watch paid off. At two in the morning, a distress call came in from the Rio Assu, a 590-foot Brazilian freighter bound for Southeast Asia. A fire had broken out in its cargo of paper rolls and cellulose, and was burning uncontrollably. Aboard the Wolraad Woltemade the radio officer made contact and established the ship’s position—345 miles to the south of Saint Helena. Within 30 minutes, the tug had raised anchor and was throttling up to full speed. A storm had passed to the south the day before, but conditions had settled to Force 5 with 20-foot swells. Sloane contacted the home office, woke someone up, and said, “Listen, we’ve got this. It’s the Rio Assu. She’s on fire, but we’re on our way. Get ahold of the owners.” On the tug, Sloane printed out the standard “No Cure, No Pay” contract, the Lloyd’s Open Form, and prepared it for Rio Assu’s captain to sign.
They came upon the casualty at four in the afternoon. It was an unremarkable ship creeping downwind with barely discernible smoke rising from a midship cargo hold. Sloane and his team shuttled to it by Zodiac, climbed onto the deck, and through an open cargo hatch peered at the fire below. The hold was a cavern 55 feet deep; the burning paper and cellulose lay within it in unstable piles of densely packed bales. It would later be determined that the fire had started with a cigarette, presumably tossed aside by a stevedore in Brazil. The flames were climbing the sides, leaving the tops of the piles unburned.
Sloan met the captain on the bridge and had him sign the Lloyd’s Open Form. The captain was exhausted after days of struggling with the fire; he said they thought they had extinguished it, but when they opened the hatch to check, it flared up again, and with heat so intense that it buckled the deck and jammed the hatch cover open. With the ship’s structure now at risk, Sloane needed to move fast and get water onto the fire. He discovered, however, that the ship’s fire hoses were useless because of leaks, and indeed that much of the fire-suppression system had rotted.
The first order of business was to assemble a replacement system across the deck using hoses and equipment brought over from the tug. This took hours to accomplish, but by midnight the job was done, and the salvage team had secured an aluminum ladder into the center of the burning hold, where it reached the fire-free peak of the cargo. Sloane and another man suited up in full protective gear, put on breathing masks and tanks, and descended the ladder to survey the fire and install four fixed hoses. It was extremely hot work, with limited visibility, carried out on a steep, unstable pile inside a ship that was rolling in moderate seas. Around four in the morning the pile suddenly shifted and collapsed, leaving the two men hanging from the ladder as a fireball exploded past them. They returned to the deck, installed a longer ladder that could reach the re-formed pile, went back down, and finished positioning the hoses.
The nozzles were set to spray rather than gush. This was more than a firefighting measure. Sloane intended to use as little water as possible. He was concerned about the sloshing that could occur, and the effect that a flooded hold might have on the ship’s stability, but mostly he was determined to preserve as much of the cargo’s value as possible. As a corollary he had to reduce the oxygen content in the hold. The second day was spent cutting steel, winching the giant hatch cover closed, and sealing it the best they could with rope, oakum, and tape. The fire was still active, but as the internal atmosphere filled with steam, the cargo began to smolder rather than flame.
By the end of the third day, the immediate crisis had been handled. The next step was to get to Cape Town, 1,700 miles to the southeast, where fire-suppressing carbon dioxide could be pumped into the hold and cranes could be used to remove the cargo. The Rio Assu could not make the trip on its own power. Its engine could be run at low speeds only by burning diesel fuel, of which it did not have enough; if the engine was run on the standard bunker oil, of which there was plenty, it could not be throttled back, and the resulting winds across the deck would find their way into the hold, bringing the flames back to life and out of control. The problem was advantageous to Sloane, who having captured a prize was not inclined to let it go. He attached a wire from the Wolraad Woltemade, and the long slow tow began.
It took 12 days to reach Cape Town. Sloane remained aboard the Rio Assu for the duration, as he did at the pier for the six weeks following, during which the fire continued to flare up as the cargo was unloaded. Once the hold was empty, Sloane oversaw temporary repairs to the main deck, reloaded undamaged cargo, and returned the ship to its owners in a condition that allowed for the onward voyage to Asia. According to Sloane, after arbitration at Lloyd’s, the payout to Pentow Marine was $3 million. Sloane’s team received a bonus. He was 31 years old. His capture of the Rio Assu was seen as a small affair, but perfectly executed and a promise of larger prizes to come.
The business of maritime salvage is not hard to understand. Lloyd’s of London stands at the heart of it, as it does of shipping generally. Lloyd’s is not Lloyds Bank, which is a bank. It is not Lloyd’s Register, which is a risk-management organization. It is not Lloyd’s List, which is a publication. And it is not even an insurance company, though it is often mistaken for one. Instead it is a forum in the City of London where brokers representing shippers wanting to hedge their risk meet with syndicates willing to underwrite that risk for a price. Lloyd’s vets the players, supervises the encounters, provides rules and information, and stands by with a central fund should an underwriter fail to meet its obligations. The system dates back to 1688, when it began in a London coffeehouse, called Lloyd’s, where maritime traders gathered to swap information and bargain over vessels and their cargoes. The conversations were global from the start. The business was naturally wild. Beyond the standard problem of market swings, it had to contend with the special dangers inherent to seafaring. Financing those risks was so important to world trade that at the coffeehouse it eventually became the only business being done.
Today, Lloyd’s occupies a glass-and-steel building considered to be a masterpiece of modern design. It contains a dramatic glass-roofed atrium overlooked by open-office galleries and populated by hundreds of buttoned-down brokers and underwriters who sit in clusters under their group names, peering at flat-screens and murmuring into phones with a British calm that belies the intensity of the decisions they must make. Marine coverage now constitutes only about 7 percent of the activity, but it continues to define the Lloyd’s culture.
Here’s how it works. A smallish containership at half-life may be worth $25 million and carry a cargo of equal value. The owner goes to a Lloyd’s broker, who negotiates basic coverage for the ship with the syndicates there. That coverage typically excludes liability for loss of cargo, pollution, and wreck removal. To handle those risks the owner joins one of several “protection and indemnity” (P&I) clubs, almost all of which cluster near the Lloyd’s building. The P&I clubs are shipowner mutual societies that spread the risk among their members and may also take it to re-insurers, most likely back at Lloyd’s. In the end, therefore, the ship is insured by a consortium, and Lloyd’s is at the helm. To control some risks, the consortium requires that the ship meet the standards of a classification society. Classification societies are non-governmental organizations, invented at Lloyd’s in the 18th century, which oversee the technicalities of ship construction and operation. There are at least 40 such organizations in the world, some with integrity. To keep insurance costs down and maintain good standards on his ship, the owner might choose DNV GL, a Northern European group. So, all is well, and the ship cruises the world making money, until one day in a storm the engine breaks down, and the ship—all $50 million of it, vessel plus cargo—starts drifting toward a dangerous shore. At that point Nick Sloane shows up with the Lloyd’s Open Form and offers a tow in return for partial possession. For the insurers and P&I clubs, the choice is obvious. They know Sloane and his reputation. They will have to pay out perhaps $5 million but may avoid the full loss. The decision is purely financial, with no emotion involved. This is how the business is supposed to work, and often does.
But there is also a murkiness to the arrangement that sometimes comes into view. There are shipowners, agents, and salvors who believe it is only normal to game the system hard. The simplest technique is to pay a crew to take an old ship out to sea and scuttle it. This may explain why ship sinkings increase when scrap-metal prices fall. The problem, however, is that the owners are reimbursed only for the value of the hull. Far better are the possibilities afforded by salvage, in which the value of the cargo is taken into account, and the ship returns to service after the deed is done. It is widely assumed that a system of kickbacks exists by which certain unscrupulous tug companies, awarded a salvage contract, are expected to return a percentage of their gains to the shipowners who gave them the job. This leads to a recurring scam in which shipowners arrange to have a vessel break down in a convenient location, get it salvaged by friends, then repossess it and carry on to the original destination. The underwriters in London are usually wise to these cases, but for lack of proof have to pay up.
And then there was the Brillante Virtuoso—a Greek-owned tanker ostensibly carrying $120 million of high-grade fuel oil from Ukraine to China—which was boarded by pirates off Yemen in 2011. During the attack, its engine and pump rooms were nonsensically set on fire. After the pirates rifled the ship’s safe, they and the crew escaped in separate directions, leaving the ship to drift. A Greek company got the salvage job and dispatched a team from Aden, who extinguished the fire and took the ship under tow. Sloane was sent in to assist but is tight-lipped about the case, which remains in dispute. The record is nonetheless abundant. The pirates had arrived in a patrol boat and were dressed in Yemeni uniforms. Initially this was reported as a clever ruse by nefarious Somalis, but given that they had not done what pirates do—take the ship, take the cargo, take the crew—suspicions soon grew that the reverse was true, and that they were in fact Yemeni authorities pretending to be pirates. A few days later a British insurance investigator named David Mockett inspected the ship and made the mistake of sending an e-mail expressing his opinion that the attack was a fraud. He wrote that he had scheduled a meeting for the following day that would prove it. He copied Sloane on the e-mail, along with his wife and a few others. It is widely presumed that the e-mail was intercepted or leaked. The next day a powerful bomb detonated beneath Mockett’s car and killed him. The Yemeni government blamed al-Qaeda. A year later, after an investigation by Scotland Yard, a detective testifying at a British inquest said he believed that Mockett had been killed for getting too close to the truth. By implication, Yemeni authorities were involved. An average salvage payout on such a ship might have amounted to $40 million—plenty to spread around. Suspicions were further raised during the transfer of the cargo to another tanker when it was discovered that the Brillante Virtuoso may have been carrying junk oil worth barely more than half the declared value. This time, it seems, the scheming had gone too far, and London has not yet paid out for the claim. The Greek salvage company, however, describes the Brillante Virtuoso operation as a success and reports that the ship was delivered back to its owners.
Raising the Dead
In the late 1990s, because of growing sensitivity to the health of the oceans, and the liability that results, particularly from oil spills, the marine-insurance industry decided to create an incentive for intervention even in cases where it is unlikely that ships can be saved. This was achieved through the addition to the Lloyd’s Open Form of an optional “special compensation” clause known as SCOPIC, which, if invoked by salvors, guarantees them payment at fixed daily rates for their teams and equipment, with up to a 25 percent bonus on top. The arrangement is complicated and does not preclude a much larger claim if the ship is saved. But it gives salvors the choice of opting out of the traditional “No Cure, No Pay” gamble, and therefore expands the choice of shipwrecks that may be taken on.
The SCOPIC clause came into effect in 1999. A few months later, Sloane’s company, now called Smit Pentow, invoked it for the first time. It was winter in Cape Town. A ship reporting cracks in its hull dropped anchor about six miles offshore, near penguin breeding grounds. The ship was a large bulk carrier named the Treasure, bound for Brazil with a load of iron ore. Its tanks contained 1,344 tons of bunker oil, 56 tons of marine diesel, and 64 tons of lubricating oil. When surveyors went aboard they discovered that 90 feet of plating was missing from the side of the hull and that a cargo hold was flooding, threatening to sink the ship at any moment. Authorities ordered the Treasure to raise anchor immediately and head farther out to sea, but the crew refused and took to the lifeboats instead.
The John Ross was in port and rushed out to hook up a tow, but the ship went down as the connection was being made. It sank fast, bow first, hit the ocean floor, 160 feet below, and snapped in two, rupturing the fuel tanks. More than 1,100 tons of bunker oil rose to the surface and contaminated the penguin habitats. The recovery took more than two months to accomplish. It involved removing the remaining oil from the submerged wreck, cleaning the waters and shores, and rescuing the penguins. To his surprise, Sloane, the hard-driving salvage master, found himself on the penguin side of things, working with environmentalists and about 12,000 volunteers to capture and save 40,000 exposed birds, half of whom had been soaked in oil. As the cleanup of the shores continued, the penguins were washed and dried, then trucked hundreds of miles up the coast, where they were released into the ocean to find their way home. This they did with impressive determination, as indicated by the progress of electronic beacons attached to some of them. On the way, however, groups were distracted by an area rich with squid, and went into a feeding frenzy. The local fishermen went out with shotguns to protect the stock, and Sloane reacted by trying to call them off. “Please stop shooting the penguins,” he said. “They cost hundreds of dollars each to wash.” This was the new world of salvage contracts, and Sloane found that he liked it.
His next encounter with environmentalists came about a year later. On September 5, 2001, a large oceanic storm hit the Cape of Good Hope with violent winds and 50-foot waves. Sloane had just returned from a job laying a pipeline in the Caspian Sea and was heading out to lunch with friends when he got a call from his company about a ship in distress about 30 miles down the coast. He was told to assemble his team and get to a helicopter fast. The ship was a Singaporean dry-cargo carrier named the Ikan Tanda, 475 feet long, and loaded with 15,500 tons of fertilizer and pesticides, some in bulk form, some in bags. It had lost power at five in the morning, 17 miles offshore, and was drifting into a cauldron of breaking waves in an exposed and rocky bay. As an added complication, the bay adjoined the Cape Point Nature Reserve, a national park, and was overlooked by a privileged little community called Scarborough, known for its pristine beach and an ethos of rigid environmentalism. Furthermore, all the television crews of Cape Town were a short distance away. If you made a list of the best places not to wreck your ship, Scarborough’s bay would be one. Sloane knew this full well. He told me that as he boarded the helicopter with his team he was thinking, Fuck, I should have had lunch. But he was also thinking about how to land the ship on the shore, and, if it did not then break apart, how best to refloat it later.
He was going in with SCOPIC invoked from the start. The chance of failure was high. The helicopter flight was rough. Sloane had a six-man team. They found the Ikan Tanda lying broadside to the weather about two miles offshore. It was rolling heavily and was being swept by seas so large that the entire deck was going under, and waves were bursting over the top of the superstructure. The waves were running 14 seconds apart, an interval just large enough to allow each member of the team, in helmet and life vest, to be winched down onto the deck and take cover. They landed on one of the massive cargo hatches, unhooked from the harness, rolled to the edge, and dropped down to the side deck to crouch behind a coaming—the raised steel perimeter around a cargo hatch—just as the next wave swept across.
On deck the roar of the storm precluded verbal communication. Sheltering behind the coamings, moving in short dashes between the deluges from waves, the salvors worked their way aft to the ship’s superstructure. Once inside they climbed through the accommodation decks to the bridge, where they found the captain and all 23 of his crew wearing life jackets and seeming upset. Sloane handed the captain his card and said, “I’m Nick Sloane, the salvage master.” Two air-force helicopters arrived and began rescuing the crew members, plucking them directly from the sheltered wing of the bridge. Soon, only four remained, including the captain.
The ship was still floating, shuddering and rolling but not yet touching the bottom. Through the turmoil outside, Sloane caught a glimpse of the Scarborough beach. To the captain he said, “You need to ballast down right away. Open your valves.” To ballast down is to flood special tanks with the weight of water. Normally this is done for stability or hydrodynamic efficiency when a ship is light and otherwise would be riding too high. The Ikan Tanda by contrast was fully loaded. The captain said, “You’re going to sink my ship!” But a grounding was inevitable, and Sloane wanted it to occur in the deepest possible water. He said, “Flood everything you can.”
It was a necessary move. But by flooding the tanks, and lowering the ship below its designed draft, he exposed the topsides all the more to the sweeping waves. About an hour after Sloane’s arrival, with the bridge now regularly inundated, the ship touched bottom and began to bounce. Inspections of the engine room and bilge showed that the hull was holding. They seemed to be hitting a seafloor of sand gently upsloping to the beach. The John Ross appeared but could not get close enough to hook up a tow. The bouncing continued for two days, until the storm abated, and the ship came to rest about 300 yards off the beach. A rocky reef lay just 30 feet away; had they hit it, the ship would have been lost.
Sloane and his team camped in the captain’s cabin, which was wet but the driest place to be found. The first order of business was to transfer the ship’s bunker fuel internally to get it away from the vulnerable lower hull, and then off-load it entirely using giant barrels known as sea slugs, which could be towed through the surf to the beach. There were two reasons for urgency. The first was protection of the coast should the ship break up. The second was the possibility that the fuel would come into contact with the cargo of fertilizer and transform the ship into a massive bomb. Any rupture of the Ikan Tanda’s fuel tanks would likely have caused the evacuation of Scarborough and might have destroyed the town as well.
Sloane got the fuel off, but the residents were upset nonetheless. When he started emptying cargo by having sacks of fertilizer slit open and dumped over the side, he got a message from an anonymous group that claimed to have a sniper rifle and threatened to start shooting if the dumping did not stop. Sloane answered that if they fired a single shot they wouldn’t just have sacks of fertilizer in the surf—he’d leave the wreck, and they’d have the whole damned mess. Believing that communication had to be improved, he organized a town community meeting. The meeting was strange, Sloane said—he and his rough-hewn crew trying to explain realities to a crowd largely of flower children and hippies—but by the end of it even the environmentalists understood the need to dump cargo. Afterward they quieted down.
The dumping continued for six weeks, frequently interrupted by storms. Sloane installed powerful pumps on the deck for eventual use during the refloating attempt. He rigged a complex system of ground tackle attached to the stern, and strengthened the bow for the tow. Conditions aboard were extreme. The ship was still being pounded and could at any time have broken up and died. Three of the cargo holds flooded uncontrollably when their hatch covers could not be closed. During the worst times helicopters stood by overhead in case a sudden evacuation was needed. Thousands of tourists drove the coastal road to watch the action. The police had to limit access to avoid traffic jams from happening. The press expressed doubts throughout, as did industry experts.
But then it was done. The Wolraad Woltemade came in and made the connection, and Sloane activated the deck pumps to empty water from the holds. As the ship grew lighter, it rotated to the right and developed a 25-degree starboard list—a deck angle that caused the pump lubrication systems to fail. Sloane found solutions, and on the second day the Ikan Tanda was suddenly free, floating precariously behind the powerful tug, and heading out to sea. Sloane expected the tow to proceed to a nearby harbor, but word arrived that access had been denied—and not just there but to any other refuge. After a week of wandering, during which the owners pleaded in vain with the authorities, the owners and their insurers gave orders for the Ikan Tanda to be scuttled. This was accomplished in deep water 200 miles offshore on October 27, 2001. A crew cut holes in the hull above the waterline, then opened the valves and ballasted down. The ship sank slowly beneath the surface on an even keel. It was a sad end for the salvage, but Sloane had nonetheless pulled off a remarkable feat. Never before in history had a shipwreck been refloated from the violent South African shores.
Since then, of the five other wrecks refloated in South Africa, four have been refloated by Sloane, and refloating has become a favorite challenge of his worldwide. That is partly because refloating represents the pinnacle of a salvor’s craft—something akin to raising the dead. It is also partly because, systematically, in each case that Sloane has taken on, others in the business have said it could not be done. Sloane delights in proving them wrong. One case, in 2006, involved a Canadian containership called the Valour, which ran aground in a turbulent bay in the Azores in December 2005. A former boss of Sloane’s was heard to say at a party at Lloyd’s, “It’s about time that shipowners and underwriters listen to us. For example, look at what’s happening with the Valour. We told you she can’t be refloated. She’s still there. And next year you will call us up and beg us to come and help you out.” This made the front page of Lloyd’s List. The man was Dutch. There is a saying in the salvage business that you’re not much if you’re not Dutch. Especially if you are a South African. The former boss’s skepticism about refloating the Valour was seconded by another man at the same Lloyd’s party, an executive from an American company called Titan Salvage. Sloane laughed it off. To me he said, “I know we’re Third World citizens, but they don’t have to treat us like that. No, no, no.” Sloane eventually refloated the Valour, in the teeth of a hurricane, and that too made the front page.
Six years later, in April 2012, Titan and an Italian company called Micoperi won the contract to refloat the Costa Concordia and turned to Sloane to lead the effort. The Concordia had grounded and capsized three months earlier. It was a large ship, 952 feet long, with 13 accommodation decks, 1,500 cabins, five restaurants, 13 bars, four swimming pools, a casino, a children’s play area equipped with video games, and plenty of bad public art. Now that it was dead and lying on its side in the middle of a marine sanctuary, it presented a difficult challenge.
This was going to be one of the largest refloating jobs ever done, and the most expensive. The conventional approach would have been to come in with barges, cut up the ship, and haul it away in pieces, but the owners were concerned about the environmental consequences of such a plan, and the possibility of contaminating the evidence at a crime scene. So, what about rolling it upright, raising it from the depths, and towing it away whole? The scheme was irresistible, all the more so because once again there were plenty of doubters.
He thought the work would require a year. It took more than twice that. For the tricky righting operation, in September 2013, when the ship was rolled upright onto an artificial seabed, Sloane’s wife and children flew to Italy to stand by his side. His wife, dismayed by all the press that had assembled for the occasion, said to him, “What are you, a movie star or a salvage master?” Sloane is a gregarious man but neither seeks nor enjoys publicity. When I sought him out, through friends in the maritime industry, he agreed to speak only on the condition that we would not discuss the Concordia. The most he said on the subject was that in his darkest moments he sometimes feared he would tow the Concordia toward some scrapyard only to have it sink again before delivery, trapping him in the project for years to come. It didn’t happen that way. Last July the ship was successfully refloated and towed to a secure position in Genoa, and Sloane at last was able to go home.
Over a long dinner in London, I once asked him if there is a younger generation in the industry who will be able to replace him. He said, “Without a doubt there are guys coming up who are better than I am technically. But the question for any of them is: Will you be able to withstand the pressure—the demands of the industry and your family? Because before your kids are born it’s one thing, and after they’re born it’s something else. When they’re growing and you’re often gone, it’s hard to maintain the desire to be a salvage master, but that is what’s required, a commitment for life.”
I asked, “What about you?”
He looked a little sad, perhaps because he was thinking about the personal compromises he has made.
“For me,” he said, “it’s not a commitment. It’s a love.”