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Salvage of large container vessels – APL Panama
Mike Mallin’s talk to the branch last year was so well-received that we invited him back in May to discuss the salvage of large container vessels.

His qualifications and accomplishments were listed more fully in the December edition of Seaways, but it may serve as a reminder to mention that he is a Master Mariner who went to sea with Blue Funnel before turning to the law. He is a partner with Hill Dickinson and recently opened their Hong Kong office.

APL Panama found herself aground on a sandy beach after a failed attempt to abort a port approach at Ensenada in Mexico. Heavy weather forced her around until she was parallel to the shore, and there was a rapid build-up of sand on her seaward side. Needless to say, Ensenada is a popular tourist destination and the authorities were keen that the local beaches should not be polluted or damaged.

Mike was flown in by the salvors to offer legal advice from the outset, but he also found himself handling liason and negotiations with the local authorities. There were dozens of official bodies to deal with, from naval and port authorities to local business interests and environmentalists of all kinds. He had to give daily briefings to the local authorities to give them a detailed knowledge of the operations, and deal with the concerns of both the salvors and the local people.

The salvors arrived two days after the grounding, after an initial attempt by owners to refloat the vessel using tugs failed. Lloyd’s Open Form was then signed but the weather was so bad that the vessel had been aground for 3 weeks before an offshore sounding survey could be completed. The ‘wave bounce’ effect had build up an impressive sandbank to seaward, so the vessel was 450 metres from deep water.
Depths alongside were 2 metres, despite the efforts of tugs to prevent her going further ashore. The only way to board the vessel was by jet-ski from the beach, and even that was a fairly rough ride.

Salvors wanted to pump away the sand, but there was no space at maindeck level to site the equipment, and the top of the container stow was 29 metres above sea level – too high for the pumps to be effective. In an aside, Mike pointed out that a modern Maersk ‘Triple E’ vessel would be more like 43 metres above sea level.

A dredger was considered, although it was an expensive option and would risk damaging the dredger, but none were available. The tugs attempted propeller washing, which removed some of the sand but was dangerous due to the surf coditions and never very effective in the prevailing conditions, so the only remaining option was to lighten APL Panama.

The ship’s inlets were blocked, so her pumps were not available and she had no cargo cranes. It was too shallow for barges to get alongside, and no jack-up rigs were available within acceptable distances.

Our speaker pointed out that, nowadays, there are sophisticated heave compensation systems, and jack-up vessels for windfarm installation, but at the time they were not available. He also discussed the particular problem of obtaining security for the millions of parcels of cargo on a modern container ship.
He estimates that obtaining security for a ‘Triple E’ might cost US$3 million and take up to four years! To date, nobody has found a way to ease this situation, although there is a proposal that every container ship owner should take out an insurance policy on the cargo, with each box valued at US$30,000.
This would avoid the need to declare general average and collect security, but not everyone likes the idea and it is still being discussed.

So how did the salvors deal with APL Panama?

They first removed the 3,600T of bunkers. The salvors wanted to build a temporary road down the beach for fuel trucks, but the local authorities would have refused because it would damage their tourist beach. The salvors then did what salvors do best – they waited until everyone went home for the New Year holidays and built the road.
A flexible hose was laid from the vessel to waiting fuel trucks. The hose was deliberately made significantly longer than necessary and flaked along the sand, so if the casualty moved the salvors would have time to stop pumping and disconnect before the hose parted.
With stringent anti-pollution measures in place, the bunkers were removed. They were later fined for their illicit venture into the world of civil engineering.
The attempt to refloat on the first spring tides was unsuccessful, although the tugs managed to swing the ship’s head 30 degrees to seaward.
Thus it was time for Plan B – the discharge of containers by helicopter (sky crane). The helicopter managed to discharge 1900 tonnes of containers, and the tugs brought the vessel’s head further to seaward, but the operation was not without its problems.

The refusal by the Mexican customs authorities to allow the helicopter’s maintenance equipment into Mexico meant the helicopter had to return to the USA every evening for maintenance, and an attempt by the Mexican authorities to charge full import duty each and every time it returned had to be negotiated away.

Plan B involved deploying a puller barge from Alaska. It had been modified to use high-tech plasma rope instead of wire so that rigging could be effected using the jet-skis, and added a further 800T of bollard pull to that of the tugs. It also had four large pumps for sand washing and, since they were not in the shallows, they did not suffer from blockages.
Unfortunately, one of the double bottom tanks was breached. The oil inside was trapped by the pressure of water from outside, but on one particularly low spring tide the damage was exposed and 400 litres of oil escaped. This is not a large amount, but a little oil goes a long way, and it made the beaches look horrible.
The local authorities were not happy and, from then on, Mike Mallin had to give additional daily briefings to a 40-strong committee of local environmentalists.

Plan B brought the ship’s head further around towards the open sea, but she did not refloat. Finally, after two spring tide cycles had passed without a successful refloating and with the holiday season fast approaching, the Mexican authorities at last relented and granted permission for the salvors to build a road out to the casualty.
This took three days, by which time a large mobile crane had been located and direct discharge of the containers could begin. Once a space had been cleared in the deck stow two further crawler cranes were deployed on board to move containers within the reach of the larger crane on the road.

Meanwhile, the salvors were busy drilling holes every few metres through the hull from the double bottoms at the turn of the bilge and fitting an air blowing system to help disperse the build-up of sand immediately alongside the vessel. A dredger finally became available and this, too, was able to help shift the sandbanks to seaward.

Finally, after all the cargo had been discharged and 2 months after she had grounded, the casualty was refloated and the beach fully restored to pristine condition. Naturally, the salvors were fined for leaving a large and deep depression in the sand where the vessel had been.
For their remarkable efforts, the salvors were rewarded with what was, at the time, the largest salvage award since the Lloyd’s Open Form was invented.
Sadly, Mike did not reveal the amount.

This was another fascinating paper from an excellent speaker, richly illustrated with some stunning photographs. His comments on problems associated with the salvage of large container vessels were topical and pertinent, and it is obvious he has devoted a great deal of thought and research to the subject.

It was fitting that we had such a grand evening, because this was the last branch function at the Police Officer’s Club before it closes. It has been one of our favoured venues for more than 20 years, and a plaque was presented to the Club to express our thanks for their hospitality over almost a quarter of a century. We hope to return when major construction works in the area are completed and the police get their club back, but for the next few years we will have to find an alternative venue.

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16 July 2024
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