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?

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