Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lotsa flotsam: Crane vessel joins the Rena scene

Quick DW sitrep: The Rena will never float again, or not in one piece, but at least it's holding together at its location on Astrolabe Reef, so far. There's some progress in pumping the heavy fuel oil and diesel out of the tanks: 256 metric tons so far. That's out of the port-side tanks, which are a lot easier to reach than those on starboard side.

The work on the inside is truly miserable: a sickening smell of rotting food and oil; very slippery ladders and stairways tilting beyond 20 degrees; the danger of getting flattened by something breaking loose.

And then there's the noise. If the salvors have a spare moment to make an audio recording and send it to someone like me, it would do justice to a techno-haunted house. As each wave hits, those on the inside say it raises an unearthly chorus of shrieks, groans, and grinding noises. "Cacophony" is the word that comes to mind, but it's not strong enough. This description from Svitzer spokesman Matt Watson:
"When you are up close to it, it sounds like Jurassic Park - you hear this groan, and then a crack, and then a roar like she's kind of writhing in the water.… It runs from one end to the other and then it just seems to ricochet back. It's a very interesting sound, to say the least."
As to the crane-vessel question that I raised in this post, now we know the name of the ship hired by marine salvor Svitzer to round up containers from the Rena: the Pancaldo. Here's a picture from MarineTraffic:
According to RadioNZ, the Pancaldo will start by hoisting stray containers aboard (that's flotsam, meaning debris floating in the water). Here are containers setting out on their voyage, which could reach South America if not picked up first:
Whenever Pancaldo pulls a sunken container off the seafloor, it's got a grip on lagan. Lagan includes containers that its cranes pluck from the tilting deck of the wreck.

But it won't be bringing back jetsam: that's because admiralty courts say jetsam is only that that stuff that a crew physically heaved overboard to lessen the draft. Months from now, when you're trying to keep all these straight, think of jetsam as something that is jettisoned.

These kind of details may seem like nit-picking to the rest of us, but in legal history it's meant a good deal in fights involving claimants who came across extremely valuable cargo: was it free for the taking, or did it belong to the salvor, the insurers, or the vessel owner?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Rena carried two grades of fuel oil

The Containership Vessel Rena hasn't broken in half yet, but the hull is seriously fractured, given the flexing of the ship. Here's a diagram from Maritime NZ showing how the ship sits half-on, and half-off, Astrolabe Reef. The bow is on the right:
Each technological disaster and close call offers a window into how systems work, and how they fail. The grounding of the Rena is an opportunity to learn about the modern combination of fuel and machinery that makes big ships get up and go.

By the early 1900s, the most common approach to powering a steamship was coal-> steam-> reciprocating engine. Ships carried thousands of tons of coal in storage compartments called bunkers, and men called coal trimmers shoveled it within reach of firemen, who heaved it into fireboxes, which heated a bank of boilers to raise steam. Later, shipbuilders turned from reciprocating engines to the more compact and powerful steam turbines. 

Loading and handling coal on board ship was a nuisance, dirty, and labor-intensive. Coal for bunkering ships began a long decline following the amazing discovery of Spindletop Field near Beaumont, Texas, in 1901. Ships began experimenting with crude oil, but the quantities required were large and oil had better uses. Steamship engineers turned to steam-generating systems that burned the cheapest grade of petroleum-derived fuel, a tarry residue from refining called Bunker C

Some power plants use similar stuff today; it's called No. 6 Fuel Oil, or a blend of No. 6 and No. 2.

Number 6 and Bunker C must be heated before pumps can force the stuff from storage tanks, through pipes, and into burner heads mounted under the boilers. Normally this is not a problem, since ships have a surplus of waste heat and use it to keep the tanks hot.

Later, shipbuilders began moving away from steam plants to marine diesels, but those gulped expensive diesel fuel. Filling an ocean-going tugboat with a load of diesel can cost upward of $30,000.

What to do? Big ships with diesel engines, and now some big tugboats, turned to a heavy fuel oil (called HFO) similar to Bunker C, heating it and injecting it at high pressure into the cylinders of a diesel engine. 

In a busy containership or tanker harbor, a crowd of heavy-fuel-oil-burning ships would contribute much to local haze. Many ports, such as Long Beach, California, prohibit ships from burning it in their waters. One legal solution is for a ship to carry a smaller quantity of gasoil or diesel fuel for harbor use, because these burn (relatively) more cleanly in marine diesel engines. (The biggest of shipboard diesel engines are very big, weighing 2,300 tons.)

Here's what a smoke plume from untreated heavy fuel oil looks like, when burned in an urban setting (photo from the Environmental Defense Fund):

So that's why the Rena approached Astrolabe Reef on October 5 with two kinds of fuel in its bunkers: 1,400 tons of cheap heavy fuel oil, and 300 tons of diesel to use where HFO is banned, like harbors and Antarctic waters.

Once the ship lost power, the heavy fuel oil started cooling and congealing. Here's what HFO looks like when washed up on a New Zealand beach:
There's about a thousand tons of such goo still on Rena, so we can only hope the salvors can get their augers and steam-generators working and force it from the tanks before the ship breaks in two.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Containership emergency off NZ: Rena on the rocks

Those who follow maritime news might have heard about a dramatic scenario unfolding around the containership MV Rena, which on October 5 struck a submerged stretch of rock about 15 miles from Tauranga, a port on New Zealand's North Island.

The reasons haven't been given but faulty navigation is probably on investigators' short list, given that the ship was making its full speed of 17 knots when it struck a reef that's well-known to mariners. Ironically if so: the obstruction is called Astrolabe Reef, after the early navigation instrument. 

NZ authorities say a high-speed freighter grounding in the open sea is so rare there are no standard operating procedures written up to guide the emergency response effort and salvage work. Meanwhile, the captain has been arrested.

The Rena is a Greek-owned, Liberian-flagged containership. The crew numbered 17. Containers are stacked up to seven high. Here's an overflight video 

Here's how it looked before the weather went bad:
The situation has deteriorated quite a bit given high seas, with 70 containers having tumbled off and more to follow:
Waves up to 13 feet high worsened the ship's lean, which at last report was 19 degrees off vertical. Here's a magnification of the previous photo, with yellow-highlighted boxes near the bow that are about to break loose. Note that there are gaps showing, an indication that the lashings are in the process of failing. Another cause for containers breaking loose is when a box collapses under the compressive loads.
Meanwhile the ship is taking on water and grinding down high points on the reef. Blobs of fuel oil from a two-thousand-ton supply in the ship's bunkers are washing onto beaches in the Bay of Plenty. Residents at a meeting in Tauranga were upset that off-loading of fuel oil hadn't been started and finished during four initial days of good weather. They also were concerned about the proposed use of Corexit 9500 dispersant instead of deploying floating booms. 
Given the equipment, decent weather, and a barge or tanker to put the stuff in, it's not hard to pump hundreds of tons of fuel oil out of a ship. This particular job was hampered by the collision of the receiving tanker with the Rena, and then the evacuation of shipboard personnel due to heavy weather and a dangerous lean. 

As containerships go, the 21-year-old Rena is on the smallish side, at 47,230 deadweight tons. Before the drama began, it was carrying 1,351 containers. The biggest of the new breed of post-Panamax containerships -- meaning, ones too wide to fit through the Panama Canal -- will be hauling six times that many trailer equivalent units, called TEUs in the trade. (A TEU is a 20-foot-long, sturdy metal shipping container. The common 40-foot-long box like you see on the highway or in a train is two TEUs). 

A floating crane is en route from Singapore with the stated plan of plucking containers from the stack, to lighten the ship and make refloating possible. I don't know which one, but here's a link to the QP 2000, a big derrick barge that sometimes operates out of Singapore. 
The Rena's owners contracted with Svitzer Salvage BV to head the work. They were signed under the famous Lloyd's Open Form, or LOF.

Who says contracts have to be dense beyond human understanding? Here's the simple but meaningful header for the 2000 version of the LOF:
Under the LOF, if a salvor doesn't save what he's agreed to save, it doesn't matter how much he's spent battling the elements. Cash payments are a percentage of the value of whatever equipment or cargo he saves. In general, successful salvors receive 15-20% of the value under an LOF agreement. 

Since the containers are lashed to deck fittings with steel rods that need manual labor to release, and given that the Rena is leaning dramatically, and given that the waves are driving it higher onto the rocks, this salvage job is shaping up as a world-class challenge. As Radio New Zealand put it, taking a load off the Rena will be a job "difficult at best." 

Here's an account from the ILWU, the longshoreman's union, about the dangers faced when their members got the job of pulling containers off the storm-ravaged APL China ... and that was after the ship was safely tied up in Seattle harbor. Some containers came to pieces when lifted, spilling cargo. Here's a photo of the China in port, from CargoLaw:
Does anyone know if a containership has been offloaded under conditions like those of the Rena? I haven't heard of one. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Another lesson from WW2: Facts should lead action

In the struggle to achieve titanic production under conditions of extreme urgency, nothing good happened in the war effort without an expert, unbiased look at the facts first. 

Among the leaders of the industrial miracle that was America's home front during World War II was speculator and industrialist Bernard Baruch, who made his millions in sugar futures before World War I, but then retired and devoted the rest of his career to industrial preparedness in case of war. Here he is:
Officers at the Industrial War College in the 1930s (including Dwight Eisenhower) called Baruch “Dr. Facts” because of his ruthlessness in digging into details about how civilian factories could retool to meet wartime demands. Baruch once said this to justify his take-no-prisoners pursuit of production facts and figures: "If you get all the facts, your judgment can be right; if you don't get all the facts, it can't be right." 

Baruch and other industrial experts decided that the three most urgent production needs in early 1941 were ammunition, cargo ships, and synthetic rubber

Rubber was critical to defense equipment and transport, but Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies had cut off 95 percent of our supplies. How to fill a quarter-million-ton shortfall set off a very public battle about which production process (and therefore which feedstock) to use.

Should the new factories use ethanol from American corn farmers, or oil from American oil producers? This had to be settled before factories could go up. Competing interests fought hard because a lot of money was at stake; by the end of the war the US would spend as much on synthetic rubber as it did on the Manhattan Project's A-bomb. In the end, oil won the argument.

Here's a slab of the new stuff.
Sometimes it got ugly: the ethanol vs. oil dispute once triggered a fistfight between the nation's rubber administrator and a newspaper publisher, in a swank Washington club. But the job of making millions of artificial tires, tubes, membranes, and gaskets got done in time ... because facts led the way. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Mayor of Fudai: A man, a plan, and a wave

Following up with a few images and maps behind a news story published in May on the story of a mayor's determination to safeguard the 3,000 residents in Fudai, a seaside town about 320 miles northeast of Tokyo. Here's a map, from the Fudai Wiki page
That man was Kotoku Wamura, mayor of Fudai from 1947 to 1987. For those familiar with Japanese or at least Google Translate, the good mayor's Wiki page is here. His photograph:
It's from Culture Smash, which also corrects English-language news accounts' spelling of the mayor's first name.

Beginning in 1972, and against much opposition over the $30 million cost and land forfeitures, Wamura pushed through a twelve-year project to build a 51-foot-high set of floodgates spanning two mountainsides. He wanted to protect the town from the kind of devastation he saw in 1933, after the wave generated by the Sanriku Earthquake drowned or buried 439 people in Fudai. That wave topped out at 94 feet at TarĊ

Of all the Japanese towns and cities that erected some kind of wave barrier, Fudai's was the tallest. 

Here's an oblique view of Fudai's setting, from LongNow:
A Google Map overhead view of the town:
And the structure itself. The movable floodgates are necessary to let the river flow through in normal times.
And a view from the seaside.
The tsunami on March 11 actually overtopped the giant gates by 15 feet, but the main force of the wave was broken. Damage to the town on the protected side was inconsequential. 

Wamura died in 1997, but the people of Fudai have been visiting his grave to pay respects. His theory became their reality. 

So when you face opposition and wonder whether one person can ever make a difference, recall Fudai, town by the sea ... a town that's still standing.