The television documentary series Salvage Code Red introduced many people to emergency marine salvage, one of the most dangerous jobs on earth. There are over 200
serious shipwrecks reported annually - from explosions and fires on oil tankers, to ships wrecked by storms, to head-on collisions between ships.
“Salvors” are seamen and engineers who carry out salvage to vessels that are not owned by themselves, and who are not members of the vessel's original crew. When
salvaging large ships, they may use cranes, floating dry docks and divers to lift and repair ships for short journeys to safety towed by a tugboat. The aim of the salvage may be to
repair the vessel at a harbour or dry dock, or to clear a channel for navigation. Another reason for salvage may be to prevent pollution or damage to the marine environment.
Alternatively the vessel or valuable parts of the vessel or its cargo may be recovered for its resale value, or for scrap.
The shipping world – including shipowners, operators, cargo owners and underwriters – uses the term “salvage” to describe all services rendered to save
property from marine peril. This broad definition encompasses not only actions undertaken to save the vessel or cargo, but also wreck removal, harbour clearance and deep search and
The largest marine salvage operation on record was the salvaging of ships of the German High Seas Fleet scuttled at the end of World War I. A total of five battleships, two
battlecruisers and twenty-six destroyers were raised by one company alone.
By John Julian
This excerpt from “The Lone Ranger Story: From Salvage Tug to Super Yacht” published by Seafarer Books is reproduced with their kind permission
eep-sea towing has long encompassed both commercial and military endeavours – the first documented tow took place during the third Roman invasion of Britain, in AD
367, when the Romans took five Numeri, groups of irregular soldiers, across the English Channel in specially constructed barges towed by galleys of 300 oars apiece.
The emergence of the tugboat is linked with the advent of steam propulsion and the subsequent development of the global shipping business. By 1790 the English firm Boulton & Watt
were building dependable steam engines in Birmingham and in March 1802 Charlotte Dundas towed two 70-ton barges over 20 miles of the Forth and Clyde Canal. Similar events
were taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.
However the real breakthrough was made with the invention of the marine propeller and in 1826 Josef Ressel, a Czech-born inventor, applied for a patent for “a never-ending
screw, which can be used to drive ships both on seas and rivers.” By curious coincidence two Englishmen came up with the same idea; the matter was eventually decided in
Ressel’s favour, but sadly not until eight years after his death from malaria in 1857.
The first propeller-driven ocean-going passenger vessel was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Britain, built in Bristol in 1842. Her appearance did not automatically
signal the end of the great sailing ships, the last of which were bringing grain to Europe from Australia until just before the Second World War. Indeed these windjammers were to
play their part in the development of deep-sea tugs.
The Dutch and Germans have always been at the forefront of tug development. The first Dutch tugboat service was established in 1840, described by one writer as “a tiny,
panting paddle-steamer pulling windjammers in and out of the harbours of the North Sea and sometimes, as they became venturesome in later years, towing them as far as the Isle of
Wight, if the wind had failed. Before the advent of this service the great windjammers had been doomed to wait for a fair wind, sometimes for weeks on end, before they could
By 1890 Dutch expertise in damming rivers and building harbours was sought in far corners of the world and these projects required dredgers, floating cranes and other specialist
equipment. At first these were shipped out in component parts but unreliability of local labour caused problems in assembly. An alternative solution was proposed: tow them over the
ocean in one piece.
The first Dutch deep-sea tugboat, with 750 hp, was launched by the Smit company in 1892 and made many successful voyages towing a dredger. Other operators came on the scene, too.
These long tows became legendary, as did the tug captains’ stories of the conditions they encountered, from the howling gales and mountainous waves of the mid-Atlantic to the
eerie calms and sinister sea creatures of the Sargasso.
Meanwhile in Germany tall ships continued to provide the bulk of tug-owners’ business, towing wind-driven vessels to and from the river mouth of the Elbe. Tugs also became a
fact of life on the Maas in Holland, the Thames in England and on the approaches to most of the principal ports of Europe.
As with ocean-going ships, paddle wheels were soon superseded by the propeller. By the mid-twentieth century diesel power had been almost universally accepted.
The salvage business, for which tugs are of course now indispensable, can be traced back to Ancient Greece where divers recovered cargoes from wrecks and received a proportion of
the value of the property saved.
Salvage law and practice developed over the centuries but the central tenet “No Cure - No Pay” as quoted on Lloyd’s Open Form of 1908 is still valid today and the
salvor is paid in relation to the “salved value” of ships, their fuel and cargoes. There have been some modifications to afford the salvor a measure of protection when
responding to high risk or low-value casualties, and to reflect public interest in the state of the environment.
The twenty first century has seen the amalgamation of rival firms including some of the great formerly family-run organizations such as SmitWijs and Svitzer Wijsmuller, working
partnerships with government departments and closer cooperation with ship owners and their insurers.
But some things have not changed. At the sharp end of salvage the people who man the ships and rescue vessels, cranes and pontoons – and those who work under water – are
as courageous and determined as ever.
The Lone Ranger Story: From Salvage Tug to Super Yacht
by John Julian. Published by Seafarer Books - ISBN 978 0 9550243 06
Lone Ranger worked as a salvage tug (then named Simson) and towed some of the largest oil installations ever built during twenty of the most challenging years in
the history of the business. during the mid-1990s she embarked on a second career and has become the world’s most pre-eminent exploration yacht.
The Cougar Ace story Can the deep-sea transport be saved?
The famous Smit company 170 years of maritime service
International Salvage Union The professional body
Titan Salvage from just one tug to maritime giant