When two maritime salvage companies needed a lightweight, high-strength solution, Dyneema®-based ropes did double duty.

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Drama on the high seas

The Bay of Biscay, between France and Spain, is notorious among sailors. Gales and storms compound the effects of the massive waves that roll in from the Atlantic Ocean. Lose power here, and you run a real risk of the seas playing havoc with your ship – shifting its cargo, capsizing it, or even sinking it – and the dangers for rescue teams are extreme, particularly during autumn and winter.

This was the situation faced by the Modern Express in early 2016. The ship, a car carrier, was en route to Le Havre, France, when it lost propulsion and turned broadside to the storm. A Spanish coastguard helicopter lifted the crew to safety – but the ship itself, drifting toward the French coast, was a sitting duck in ever-growing danger. With the vessel rolling between 30 and 70 degrees, the fear was that it would either sink (and its bunkers cause a spill) or be driven aground near the seaside resort of Biarritz. It was vital to get the ship under control.

Facts and figures: The Modern Express

  • Type: roll-on/roll-off vehicle carrier

  • Built: 2001

  • Flag: Panama

  • Gross tonnage: 33,831

  • Deadweight tonnage: 10,454

  • Length: 164 meters

  • Breadth: 28 meters

  • Draught: 8.72 meters

  • Speed: 19 knots

Dyneema® called to the rescue…

“From our experience with Dyneema® spanning more than 20 years, and given the potentially rapid deterioration of the situation, it was clear that a line made with Dyneema® would make the difference.”

The ship’s owners called for the help of SMIT Salvage. Knowing the extreme conditions they’d face, the 10-man SMIT team chartered two powerful tugs and secured help from the French Navy, who attended the scene with a frigate fitted out with two helicopters. After being lowered onto the listing ship’s deck, the team faced a challenging climb along the accommodation area and down to the bow deck. There, they would have to maneuver and secure the tow line amid the wind, rain, and heavy seas. All going to plan, the tugs would then turn the Modern Express into the wind, reducing the capsize risk, and tow the vessel to a suitable refuge port.

It was a daunting prospect. Given the challenging situation, the salvors decided to use a towing rope made with Dyneema® fiber. Why? Two reasons: weight and handling.

Lines made with Dyneema® fiber are as strong as steel wire ropes of the same diameter, but seven times lighter. This would be a major advantage. Without the ship’s power to run the winches, the towing rope would need to be handled by the team, so a Dyneema®-based rope’s lighter weight, increased maneuverability, and easier handling were important considerations.

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…but the risk of grounding grows

Despite the five-meter waves, a Lynx helicopter managed to lower a four-man team onto the ship, who then made it to the bow. But the initial attempt to get a tow line to one of the tugs failed, owing to the terrible conditions and the rigidity of the eye of the steel wire – and the Modern Express continued closing in on the French coast, several days after the incident had begun.

The SMIT team tried again the next day, but the the weather was deteriorating still further. No more attempts could safely be made; in fact, the French authorities warned that the Modern Express could run aground if another connection attempt went wrong. By now, the ship was just 50 nautical miles from Arcachon, near Bordeaux.

Turning and towing with Dyneema®-based ropes

At long last, the weather turned – and the team made a breakthrough. After again being helicoptered onboardand climbing to the bow, the salvage crew managed to connect the line made with Dyneema® to one of the tugs. With the team clear of the ship, the tug managed to turn the Modern Express around and start towing the ship out to sea. It had been just 26 nautical miles from land.

But the danger wasn’t over yet. The Modern Express was towed into Bilbao two days later. There, another challenge awaited: how to keep the vessel, with a 51-degree list, from turning over at its berth. The severity of the list meant that all the lines securing the ship had to be under the same amount of constant tension. As the ship was unloaded, this tension would have to be continuously adjusted. This was clearly a job for the ShoreTension dynamic mooring system.

Dyneema® delivers on dynamic mooring

Designed around high-strength, lightweight ropes made with Dyneema®, the ShoreTension system adds high pre-tension to reduce the loads on the mooring lines. This, along with a fendering system, reduces ship movement and downtimes significantly.

In the case of the Modern Express, the constant tension enabled by this dynamic mooring system was crucial. Not only did the six ShoreTension units not hinder the salvage operations, but they also significantly reduced the risks involved in changing out or replacing mooring lines during the process. Altogether, six ShoreTension units equipped with mooring lines made with Dyneema® ensured the ship’s safe and stable mooring – and its subsequent righting.

Thanks to the power of collaboration and the high performance of towing and mooring lines made with Dyneema® fiber, the drama and danger were finally over.

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