Salvage experts tasked with removing the bow section of the Rena wreck are working in dangerous conditions similar to the “inside of a washing machine”.
Frank Leckey, of US-based company Resolve Salvage & Fire, said salvors had to cut sections of the bow into small pieces and navigate their way along slippery surfaces while the ship was on a 32-degree list.
At the same time, the wreck was being battered by rough seas, making the job more challenging.
“It’s like cutting in the inside of a washing machine. The sea is coming in and it’s quite rough then it batters around inside the ship then it wants to get out again. The waves are rolling inside the wreck so it’s fairly dangerous for us,” he said.
“[The ship's condition] has changed since we got here. It was 22 degrees – now it’s 32 degrees so it’s very steep and slippery. It’s like we’re walking on the side of a mountain.”
The salvors task is to reduce the Rena’s bow section to one metre below the water line at Astrolabe Reef.
This was done by cutting up pieces of the bow into 1.5-2 tonne pieces for a helicopter to lift to a waiting barge.
Mr Leckey said this was the first time helicopters had been used in a wreck removal.
“The equipment we’re using – the use of a helicopter – in a wreck removal has never been done like this before. The equipment we’re using is specialised, the crew are specialised, the helicopter is a new thing and the closer we get to the water we have to use special floating equipment, and divers that have five years-plus experience will be doing this, so it’s a big task ahead.”
Salvors spent nine hours at the wreck yesterday, from 7am, cutting the bow section into suitable sizes for the helicopter to lift. Once about 20 pieces had been cut, the helicopter was called to move the pieces to a waiting barge.
“From 1-2pm, the helicopter came out and they lowered a hook and we put the rigging on to the hook and loaded on the pieces, which were still connected at this point.
“Once the helicopter had tension, we cut the remaining steel and it was put on the barge. Then once it touched down, they released it and came back for the next load of pieces.”
Mr Leckey said this process continued for about an hour, until the helicopter had to refuel.
Salvors continued to cut sections of the bow until 4pm, when heavy rain set in. Mr Leckey said the crew could work in most conditions, except when there was heavy rain or lightning. A second specialised helicopter was involved in the salvage activities.
Mr Leckey said the Australian machine was able to land on the bow of the ship and transport crew to and from the vessel each day. A maximum of 12 crew could be on the wreck at one time, due to limited space and the challenging conditions.
Mr Leckey said the highest part of the bow was about 17m above the water and the other side was “practically under water”. Salvors were cutting “from the inside out” at both ends of the bow.
He hoped the project would be finished within 100 days.
He said the crew involved was from United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium, Ireland and Poland. They were “the best possible team, the most experienced and perhaps the craziest to do a job like this”.
Meanwhile, the ship’s insurer, The Swedish Club, said marine life had returned to Astrolabe Reef.
John Owen, senior claims manager for The Swedish Club and who was overseeing the recovery project, said: “I’ve recently seen some under water images of huge numbers of fish, of great varieties and huge numbers, so the habitat is already being established by the species that are out there.”