Article written by David A.Pockett – Co-founder of LOC and CEO from 1999 to 2007
One day in 1983 I was having lunch with a client and munching a delightful crab sandwich when my colleague and LOC co-founder, John Mervyn Jones, nudged my shoulder. “We have had a call from Standard Club. A ship has run aground on Christmas Island and they have asked if you can attend. It may well become a wreck removal”. I excused myself and ran back to the office. Contact was made with the Club (the late Ian Lawson) and true enough, with one important exception, a ship, “REGENT OAK”, had indeed run aground, not on Christmas Island but Easter Island in the middle of the South Pacific! She was carrying a cargo of Chilean pine logs bound for South Korea. During the voyage a seaman had been badly injured and the master, having checked where the nearest medical assistance might be, diverted to Easter Island where there was a hospital. The vessel anchored off Hanga Roa on the western side of the island but in the prevailing swell conditions, rode over her anchor and grounded on a rocky outcrop.
Smit Tak, as it was known in those days, had mobilised a salvage crew from the Netherlands who were already in flight. There were flights via Santiago or Papeete, Tahiti to Easter Island but only once a week. My best option was to go via Santiago and there was a flight from Gatwick that same evening. I had insufficient time to go home and so my wife met me at Gatwick with a packed bag and I was on my way!
Ironically my flight was delayed and arrived in Santiago just as the flight to Easter Island was closing. I was very much in the hands of the Lan Chile ground staff to try to get on the plane. There was no time to re-check my bag in but just get to the gate. Alas, as I arrived, the plane was moving back and my worst fears were being realised. I watched with dismay as it taxied to the runway. But then, my luck changed. The plane came to a stop and remained stationary for several minutes. There were VHF calls to and fro with Lan Chile ground staff and suddenly I was told that there was a minor fault and I could get out to the plane and board. I was taken to the ground level and told to hop on to the back of an open truck loaded with oil drums and we sped along to the waiting aircraft. The gangway was lowered and I made my flight!
As with all visitors to Easter Island, at least in those days, we were welcomed by local girls in traditional dress and garlands of flowers were placed around our necks. I was met by the Smit salvage master, Flip Geerling, and driven to the one and only hotel on the island at Hanga Roa. The salvage team and an owner’s representative were there and I was soon to be familiarised with the casualty status. The vessel was hard aground, double bottom tanks had been breached and also the engine room. There were about 6,000 tonnes of logs on board, those on deck being restrained by chains within a set of stanchions along the port and starboard sides. There was no leakage of oil at that time. There had been two French divers who had tried to assist at the outset in freeing the anchor, these being from the team of Jacque Cousteau who had visited the island some months previously and had remained. However, their efforts were unsuccessful.
There was a little fishing quay near Hanga Roa which was the main place to mobilise to the vessel but this entailed riding through a surf zone which could be quite severe at times. The vessel was about 15 minutes away and half a mile or so from the shore. Salvors had set up their equipment on board. The vessel was working on the rocks, heavily at times, in the prevailing Pacific swell and clearly, the situation was precarious to say the least. Strength and stability calculations were in progress and a salvage plan was under development. It was clear that cargo would have to be removed and this in itself, given the remote location and complete lack of resources, would prove to be a logistical challenge.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known by its native inhabitants, is about 2,400 miles from the Chilean mainland. It is 63 square miles, and in 1983, had a population of nearly 2,000. There is no natural harbour although there was an acting harbour master on the island at the time. There were 19 small fishing boats and in fact, Smit hired 18 of these to assist in towing the logs discharged from the vessel, to the shore as I discuss later. There were no roads on the island but only dirt tracks. Most of the population lived in the Hanga Roa area with small communities scattered elsewhere.
As mentioned before, commercial flights from mainland Chile or Papeete were once a week. Communications were extremely difficult at best with telex facilities at the small hotel in Hanga Roa. The telephone number had less digits than my hotel room number and calls to the mainland or UK were very unreliable. Under these remote circumstances, we on site were very much alone and dependent on meticulous planning, complete trust between all parties, cooperation from the Chilean authorities and islanders and good fortune! Patience was indeed a virtue.
With calculations to hand and agreed, plans to re-float the vessel were finalised and included the removal of all the deck stowed logs and part way into the holds as well. The stanchions along the decks would be cut and/or severed using explosives and studies were performed in the Netherlands to ensure any impact from the explosives would not compromise the precious stone statues known as the “Moai”. A very prudent consideration as was proved to be so when authorities visited from the mainland as I touch upon later. The logs would be discharged overside in a controlled manner as possible and towed/manoeuvred to the nearby shore using the 18 fishing boats I mentioned previously. An agreement had been reached with the fishermen for the purpose. Once close to the shore, lines would be attached and the logs hauled onto the beach using local bulldozers. A bonded area had been designated by local Customs in a nearby field and trucks and oxen would be used to pull the logs along the dirt track to the field where they were to be stored – very temporarily!
Once lightened, and with temporary patching and damage control measures where possible, the vessel was to be re-floated and towed to a designated location for re-delivery. However, that was soon to change.
With the vessel constantly working on the ground in the swell, so the bottom damage continued to deteriorate. Owners declared a constructive total loss. Wreck removal was required by the Chilean authorities and all efforts were focused on gaining approval for the plan and agreeing a solution for disposing the wreck.
Discussions took place in Valparaiso with the naval authorities and P&I Club, Correspondent and legal advisers and the wreck removal plan was explained. Many discussions also took place with the Governor of the island and his officials and elders, as well as the local inhabitants, all of whom were very friendly, cooperative and a pleasure to deal with.
Discharge of the deck stowed logs proceeded in earnest. The stanchions were removed and logs discharged overboard for the fishing boats to tow to the shore. They were dragged up and then pulled to the so called bonded area. However, lo and behold, the next morning the bonded area was empty and furrows in the dirt tracks running in various directions, provided tell-tale evidence of where the logs had been taken to during the night! Timber was indeed a precious commodity on the island as we were soon to find out and, no doubt, cargo interests too! With 6,000 tonnes of logs on their doorstep, Christmas had come early for the locals!
Our friendly islanders arranged a party one evening away from the line of sight of the wreck. A pleasant break and relief from the rigours of log discharge, pumping and patching. A 24 hour watch had been in force but was relaxed for a few hours. Upon returning to the wreck it was found that salvage pumps had disappeared along with other salvage equipment. The perfect “sting” had been carried out! Clearly the fishermen were the only ones who could have provided the transport from shore to wreck and so after some friendly discussions and explanations about the importance of the “borrowed” equipment, it was soon returned. No harm done.
Eventually the log cargo was discharged in accordance with calculations and stored in the agreed bonded area. It was a time consuming exercise but with the willing help of the islanders, and despite the on-going “borrowing” of some logs, the end result was quite successful bearing in mind the prevailing conditions and circumstances.
There was an occasion when a visiting naval commander strongly protested that using explosives to sever the deck stanchions would run the risk of severing the hats from the Moai statues. It was indeed fortuitous that Smit had had the foresight to commission studies before explosives were used! Concerns were also raised about the leaking of oil which, although minor in quantity, was blown out of all proportion by the media who attended the island for very brief periods on a couple of occasions. Smit had gone to great lengths to contain the oil and prevent any leakage. Despite the frequent heavy swell, navy booms were ordered to be placed around the wreck which were soon destroyed and of no use at all. Efforts to contain the oil continued as high priority and at the time the wreck was towed for scuttling, it was estimated that significantly less than 1,000 litres had reached the shore.
Patching the hull was a continuous process in order to prepare the wreck for re-floating. Wreck disposal was the key consideration and one which involved many factors. The wreck was working on the rocks daily and the hull condition was constantly deteriorating. With the prevailing swell and seasonal considerations, there was a high risk the hull would break up. Bunkers were still on board and widespread pollution on the island shoreline was always an increased risk as the hull condition worsened. There was still a partial cargo of logs in the holds and to have discharged all cargo was neither a practical or sensible solution given the difficult logistics, time and hull damage factors. This in turn had an impact on any considerations for removing bunkers.
And so, it was decided that the most sensible solution would be to blow down the appropriate double bottom tanks using compressed air, re-float the wreck and tow it into very deep water well to the north west of Easter Island where it would be scuttled. A tug would be mobilised for the purpose. The disposal plan was presented and discussed with the authorities and approval was granted. Alternative options were too risky to contemplate and Easter Island was deemed a national and world treasure and too precious to risk further environmental impact.
Smit opted to use shaped charges in scuttling the wreck and these were ordered from the mainland and transported by a chartered cargo plane. A tug had already been mobilised for towage. Sealing of the wreck and preparations for towage was on-going in the meantime and the tanks prepared for compressed air.
About a week or so short of three months from the time of grounding, the wreck of “REGENT OAK” was re-floated and towed some 200 nautical miles or so north west of Easter Island where it was scuttled in a water depth of about 3,000 metres. The scuttling location was monitored for an agreed period of time and shipping advised by way of navigation warnings. There were no reports of any pollution or subsequent incidents which might be related to the scuttling. Wreck removal was complete and a tremendous success under the prevailing circumstances.
In the meantime, on the island there was a need to clean up the pollution that had been caused from the wreck albeit relatively minor in extent. In order to achieve this in an orderly and efficient manner, and following discussion with island Governor and elders, it was decided to invite various island groups to bid for the job. They were given appropriate time to size up the task and provide a method, proposed resources and a price. They insisted that the bids be opened with all bidders present and read out! A contractor was engaged and using a local species of tall grass, bound to make purpose designed absorbent bundles, the oil was cleaned up with the grass bundles and put into holes which had been dug where it was burned. The clean-up operation did not take very long and was very effective. All parties were satisfied.
Some Final Thoughts
After all these years, it is worth reflecting upon the past and present. The grounding of “REGENT OAK” occurred 36 years ago. At that time there were no mobile phones, no facsimile machines but only telex. Even then, at remote locations communications were limited at best and sometimes non-existent. Landline telephone facilities were not necessarily available and when they existed, reception was very unreliable. This was the case on Easter Island. As a consequence, plans and decision making were made on the spot without the benefit of immediate and on tap support from home bases. Even approvals for significant costly equipment, materials and their transportation by charter aircraft had to be assumed due to communication constraints. It was often a case of preferring to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission!
However, in my view it brought out the very best in participating personnel and parties. The urgency of re-floating the wreck before it started to break up and cause no end of harm to the island’s marine environment, was first and formost in everyone’s mind. The log removal operation using the small fishing boats, limited hauling facilities and oxen was unique as was the disappearance of bonded cargo overnight! The efforts to contain the bunkers and minimise leakage in parallel with continuous patching of the hull had the desired effect. The on-going wreck removal plan and its implementation on site was always with due consultation and agreement. Teamwork throughout the operation was superb. The sourcing, acquisition and mobilisation of equipment and explosives by chartered air transport from the mainland was readily agreed albeit after the event! The rare times reporting to the Club was possible and plans and associated costs explained, were always met with a full understanding and support of the unique situation. Ian Lawson was the epitome of an experienced and understanding Club senior executive who could see the risks and implications of delayed decisions and inaction and had faith in those on site.
On reflection, it was a joy and privilege to have been involved with the operation and to experience the trust and support of the client throughout without question. There was always a responsible attitude to costs and these were never questioned during or after the operation was completed. The high cost of replacement oil booms for those which the authorities insisted be deployed and were quickly damaged was unwelcome but fortunately, this did not cause any delays to the re-floating. Failure to have complied with orders at the time would have been detrimental to the re-floating progress.
Risk assessment, so much more the talking point today compared with yesterday, was a continuous process even then, albeit in less sophisticated terms. “What ifs” were regular features in daily discussions and contingency planning was always under consideration. The risks were plainly obvious in fact and given the remote location, the solutions were limited at best and practical solutions using everything available, oxen included, were the order of the day. Sourcing barges from the mainland and towage to the island would have presented yet more risks as would log lightering operations howsoever performed, not to mention the likely restrictions placed upon such operation and probable impractical requirements given the prevailing Pacific swell. The time factor alone for sourcing, preparing and mobilising to Easter Island were prohibitive and the structural condition of the wreck continued to deteriorate.
Building relationships with the islanders and gaining their confidence and cooperation was paramount to the success. The occasional “borrowing” of logs and salvage equipment was soon overcome! Indeed, without the help of the islanders, the operation would have faced some insurmountable challenges. Thanks to the Club, the Correspondent in Valparaiso, (the late) Gordon Cave, and their legal advisers, there was close liaison with the Chilean authorities. All parties recognised the dire consequences of delaying action. Agreement and approval of plans was obtained relatively promptly and wreck disposal executed expertly by Smit and witnessed by the authorities to their satisfaction.
I often think what might have happened but for the rapid emergency response of Smit Tak, the effective wreck removal plan and its implementation and the responsible and realisic attitude of all parties to the casualty. The treasure of Easter Island with its history, mystery, stone statues, culture and unique archeology, demanded protection from a potential environmental disaster. The concentrated efforts to develop a workable salvage/wreck removal plan allowing for the remote location and numerous logistical challenges were paramount. Avoidance of delays was crucial in getting permission and approval for the various stages of the much needed operations to re-float the wreck and the disposal in its partially laden condition with bunkers still on board. In my view, it would have been a nightmare situation had these actions not been taken.
Easter Island was recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. Today, it has a population of nearly 8,000 and far more resources which might be useful to salvage operations than were available in 1983. There are roads instead of dirt tracks, rental cars and taxis, modern communication systems and far better access than in the 1980s with far more regular flights. The airport runway was extended by 1987 and designated as an abort site for the US shuttle. The tourism has increased significantly since 1983 and remains the prime source of income. Easter Island is indeed a world treasure.
And today? Would the wreck removal operation conducted in 1983 have been agreed and approved in the same time frame? Probably not. Increased concern for the marine environment, ill-judged or not, would come into play with perhaps unreasonable demands for removing the bunkers and sanitising the wreck; cargo removal might well be required in a greater quantity; lobby groups would be out in force, including many from the inhabitants of the island; a wreck removal contract might be delayed until an appropriate form and agreement on risk sharing was concluded. However, if I am right, all these factors and others would result in far greater risk in the wreck breaking up, widespread marine pollution affecting the island coastline and ocean, and without doubt, a significantly greater cost.
Back to the future? I just wonder……………………