Words Caroline Reese

What exactly do you do?
Salvage masters get called in by a ship’s insurance company and generally have to either re-float a ship and save its cargo, or remove a wreck that’s causing an obstruction. One recent job in Iceland, for example, was a container ship that had run aground and spilled some of its cargo on the beach. It was lying at too severe an angle for normal cranes, but we came up with the idea of cutting a wedge out of the cranes’ pedestals, so they could lift the containers. It was difficult to judge, but we didn’t drop one. Then we blew the engine to bits and cut the ship down to sand level.

Cool. So what special skills does a salvage master need?
Most salvage work is based on understanding the laws of physics. I’m a qualified ship’s captain. I know how ships work and how they float. You need to know how much water to pump out, and which direction the tugs need to pull in. You do the calculations, come up with a plan and direct operations. You have a team of salvage engineers, welders and divers to deal with, and they are not run-of-the-mill guys. They don’t mind working 16 hours a day and getting up to their chests in a tank of oil.

How hands-on are you?
I draw the line at rappelling down the side of a ship or diving, but I like doing the rubber-boat work, especially in rough seas, I’ll drive a crane and I don’t have problems fire-fighting on the deck of a burning tanker.

I was in the Gulf for three years of the Iran-Iraq war and did about 30. The Iraqis were firing Exocet missiles to disable Iranian tankers and the Iranians were retaliating by attacking vessels taking supplies to assist Iraq. It’s a dangerous, frightening situation. The soles of your boots melt and you never know if the cargo’s going to explode.

Which fire was the most memorable?
The biggest fire was on a ship carrying naphtha [a kind of tar], which is quite flammable. It had been hit by rocket-propelled grenades and flames were blowing out one of the vents 100ft in the air like a Bunsen burner. The heat was so intense it was burning off the paint in the wheelhouse 60ft away. We were hot and wet and the salt in our eyes was affecting our vision. It took 24 hours to put the fire out. We just took catnaps for 20 minutes at a time.

When was your life most at risk?
When we were shot at by the Iranians. A gunboat chased us and fired. It was a heart-stopping moment but, luckily, the grenades passed over the deck and exploded to the side.

How many ships do you salvage each year?
With my last company, Titan, I’d be involved in four or five major operations a year. That’s out of perhaps 50 or so incidents worldwide.

Do you still get a buzz from the job?
It’s always exciting when the phone call comes – once my wife nipped to the shops and by the time she was back, I was on my way to Singapore – but the biggest rush arrives when you’re climbing onboard while the ship’s crew are doing their best to get off. At that point you know that you can do something that other people can’t.

What’s the most common cause of ships going belly up?
Human error and bad weather. One container ship ran into a 200ft cliff because the guy fell asleep. The cliff even had a lighthouse on top.

What’s the most lucrative salvage operation you’ve run?
Re-floating the ‘APL Panama’, a container ship that had run aground in Mexico. The value of the ship and its cargo was about $150 million. We had 25 guys working on the ship, plus seven tugs and a support team. A large amount of sand had built up on the offshore side, which made it difficult. For a month, we took off ballast and fuel, then waited for high tides to bounce the ship off, but that didn’t work. So we brought in heavy pulling equipment; that wasn’t successful. In the end, we built a road to the ship and took cranes out to lift 2,000 containers off until the ship was light enough to float. It was a massive operation. It probably cost $30 million – risky, given we were working on a ‘no cure, no pay’ basis, so if we didn’t succeed, we weren’t going to get paid.

Is that how the payment always works?
Most salvage is done on an emergency basis, so you don’t have time to negotiate a contract. You try to save the ship and the cargo then agree what you’re going to be paid. At best, the salvage company might get two-thirds the value of the salvage. Most of the salvage crew are on a salary, though. A salvage master is on about $250,000 a year.

Nice money. Could we salvage an abandoned vessel?
In theory, yes. But the owners will claim it was only abandoned temporarily – to ensure the crew’s safety, for example – so they will want a share of the cargo recovered.

Are you tempted to hive off some of the gear you save?
No, it would really damage your reputation. We hire security to make sure nobody pilfers cargo. In the old days before containerisation, stevedores [dock workers] would come on shift with an empty rucksack and go ashore with a full one. There was so much pilferage that one ship would carry all left shoes and another one all right.

Ever been spooked by boarding a ghost ship?
There have been a few with dead crew, and I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to blood and gore. One with a lot of fatalities was a container ship that hit a tanker in the Malacca Strait and caught fire. The tanker crew abandoned ship but were never seen again – they were probably caught in a pool of burning oil. The impact had torn off the bow of the container ship so my colleague towed it into shallow water. I didn’t find the bodies until two months later. They were just ashes really.

Ever walked away from a job?
Things got too much for me in Romania in 2004-2005. We’d been working on a wreck that was causing an obstruction for five months for a Romanian government that was more into scoring political points than solving the problem. It was a diving job, so not my particular strong point. The divers were working in a 4-knot current – that’s fast – with no visibility. Then one of the divers got killed. It was the worst rain for years. Then the Danube froze. It was one thing after the other so I left.

Finally, would you rather spend the rest of your life at sea or on land?
On land. I went to sea when I was 16 and have been there for seven months a year for the 33 years since, so I’ve no desire to spend my spare time sailing or canoeing. I’ve got a 240-acre farm and I come home to be with my tractor and chainsaw.