Nick Sloane, the SA man leading the Costa Concordia operation, chats to Henri du Plessis.
Cape Town - A parbuckle is a loop of rope arranged like a sling used for raising or lowering cylindrical objects.
When the wreck of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia finally sat upright after a nerve-wracking 19-hour parbuckling operation involving technology of which the 17th-century originators of the word would not have dreamt, the world got to know its meaning only too well.
It got to know the name of South African salvage master Nick Sloane, too.
On January 13 last year 32 people died when the Costa Concordia hit a rock, capsized and sank on the coast of the Tuscan Giglio Island near the Italian coast.
Conditions were conducive to the use of parbuckle salvage techniques.
Today, the ship sits upright on the sea bed, on a specially prepared surface and a series of platforms, a huge job for which there was no precedent, no ready-made parts and for which all calculations were based on estimates.
Sloane is in Cape Town this week, spending time with friends and family, especially his long-suffering wife, Sandra, and three children – twins Jonathan and Nicola, 17, and daughter Julia-Raine, 10.
A salvage master’s wife has to be able to cope, because her partner will probably be away for months.
“Sandra and the children moved here to the Cape because her family is here. This gives her a proper support structure,” Sloane said this week in an interview near their secure golf estate home.
“When I was at sea as a tug master, I would work three months on, three months off. This allowed us to have ample time together. But since I started working on projects, it has been very difficult,” he explained.
“When she has a problem, I can’t help her. She has to cope. Is the house flooded? Call a plumber. Is the roof leaking? Call a repairman. That is why when I get home now, I do not talk about how things should be done. I would rather be happy than right.
“I owe my family a lot. When the Costa Concordia job is done next year, I am going to spend six months with them, the last six months of the twins’ school career.”
Sloane can be away from home for 11 months at a time. However, his family visited him in Italy twice and spent time on Isola del Giglio at the scene of the shipwreck.
“When they came the first time, there wasn’t much progress to see, but when they came the second time, a lot had happened. Then it was good to show them around,” Sloane said.
After two weeks with his family, Sloane will return to the Costa Concordia to oversee preparations for winter, before returning home for Christmas.
The unassuming mariner is known for calm, a dry sense of humour and the ability to thrive under pressure – all characteristics that are required for the job, one of the most stressful anywhere.
“I am fortunate that I have this ability to compartmentalise things. I can look at the big picture and break it up into sections and deal with the difficult situations while appreciating the progress made in other parts of the job.”
But he also knows how and where to draw lines in the sand.
“This type of job is not a democracy. I had a situation where some individuals wanted everybody involved in the planning to vote on a certain issue and I absolutely refused, because I knew what I wanted to do. I have to take the responsibility, so I will decide the direction.”
The scale of the operation to right the Costa Concordia and prepare her for refloating demanded the ability to see the big picture and to analyse how each part of the job affected the other.
This is important on a huge job in which 33.5km of welds were done, using 9.5 tons of welding rods.
“When we started drilling into the granite on the sea bed to install the anchors for the underwater platforms, things did not go well. The 2m-diameter drill would break away and tear off rock.
“The techniques to drill the way we had to in a rock face at an angle of 45 to 50 degrees did not exist until we had to make it happen. We were told it could not be done.”
After that, several other extremely complex parts of the job were made possible only through the latest high-technology computer analysis and draughting.
For example, the huge seven-storey sponsons (tanks) fitted to the ship’s port side only had 38mm space between each of them.
The blister tanks fitted to the ship’s bows like a neck brace, had to be fitted with a clearance of only about 50cm between it and the sea bed on the starboard bow. It fitted.
Eventually, after the ship had been righted, there was a minute deflection of less than a degree along the 300m hull, thanks to the precision of the fabrications and the accuracy of the hydraulic rams that provided the pull on the 56 chains strung underneath the ship’s hull.