Matthew Watson

Maritime Salvage: it takes time, every time – that’s the message

The bottom line? So much that could go wrong did go wrong. And once it was game on... everything that could be done was being done. / By Matthew Watson

When the Solomon Trader bauxite carrier ran aground on a reef in a remote part of the Solomon Islands during an unexpected gale in February, uncertainty was the only certainty moving forward.

The line of thinking was that the vessel could be removed in a timely manner, and as such the owner ordered salvage experts and a tug with re-floating in mind.

Mother Nature had her own plans however, and the subsequent arrival of Cyclone Oma pushed the vessel harder and further into the reef, resulting in hull and engine room damage and leaking oil. A bad and very unfortunate outcome for this beautiful and pristine part of the world. 

Local people and local and international media shouted the usual (and totally justifiable) question – why wasn’t there a quicker response? And, of course, the pressure was on to explain.

First of all, personnel and specialised equipment had to be flown in from different countries including Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Singapore, the United States and Europe. Limitations of the local airstrip meant that heavy equipment including pumps and generators had to complete the final part of their journey by sea. Time, time and more time.    

Inclement weather made it difficult and at times impossible to access the vessel, and for lengthy periods conditions were too dangerous for external underwater inspections – a key assessment ahead of salvage operations progressing in earnest.     

Other setbacks include the loss of on-board power and the vessel being ransacked once the crew was evacuated, resulting in the removal or damage to on-board resources that may have assisted with the early response.

The bottom line? So much that could go wrong did go wrong. And once it was game on as far as the casualty response was concerned, pretty much everything that could be done was being done. It took three months for the vessel to be re-floated, and subsequently towed away for scrapping. It’s a given that everyone involved did their best amidst extremely difficult circumstances. 

So here it is, the Solomon Trader – a text-book case of why it pays to be ready to communicate the realities behind maritime salvage operations, especially when the location is remote and there are hazardous circumstances. And especially when you’re up against deadline-driven journalists working amidst tighter than ever media cycles, and invariably looking for so many new angles and controversies.

You won’t instantly win audiences over by setting the facts straight up front. Nor will you detract from the unacceptable gravity of what’s happened. But you will be in with a big chance of earning some understanding from audiences as you try to deal with the problem at hand.  

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