60 seconds with Moya Crawford
Thu 19 Apr 2012
Moya Crawford, Managing Director of deep water salvage company Deep Tek Ltd, has recovered material from some of the world’s most famous wrecks, including Titanic’s forerunner, the White Star Liner RMS Oceanic. At 17 she went on her first salvage operation and hasn’t looked back since.
Tell me about your experience working with the Oceanic
The Oceanic was the White Star Line’s forerunner to the Titanic. She was built as the largest ship in the world in 1899 and went aground on a reef off Foula, west of Shetland, a month into the First World War.
Charles Lightoller, Oceanic’s first mate, was aboard the Titanic’s maiden – and final – voyage and was the most senior officer to survive the sinking. After the disaster he was posted back to the Oceanic and was on board when she later ran aground. He always referred to Oceanic as his favourite ship.
She remained on the Foula reef for several weeks and then was completely broken up one night in a storm. My husband Alec Crawford and his diving partner at the time Simon Martin found her in the early 1970s and put together an early operation to recover the non-ferrous metal from her.
It’s considered to be one of the classic salvage operations in British waters. The Oceanic had two propellers on her and five spare blades and one of those spare blades now sits outside the Titanic exhibition in Belfast.
What are some of the challenges salvors face when dealing with wrecks of this nature?
Something like the Oceanic is essentially underwater demolition – one takes apart the wreck for the value of her non-ferrous metal. The other type of recovery that we have gone into is cargo recovery where the hull itself is of no value but parts of the cargo – copper or zinc or other artefacts – need to be recovered.
There are a number of issues. The ownership of a property is always an issue – who owns either the hull or cargo? The jurisdiction is another – in whose waters does she lie or is she in international waters? Then there are the engineering and general weather issues to consider. There are many places in the world where even if the cargo is worth a lot of money the political jurisdiction and difficulties surrounding that would mean it isn’t worth your time.
There are obviously some issues that are a lot more sensitive than others depending on the ship, what she was doing and whether people were lost on her when she sank. One not only has to be very good in engineering terms but also very sensitive to these issues and to have a very good understanding of salvage law.
Who typically pays for a deep water salvage operation?
We undertake our own salvage operations – we’re not paid by someone to do it. Operations are undertaken under ‘No Cure/No Pay’ so that they’re high risk financially. Your engineering has to be very good and you have to have as much information as possible to make sure your chances of success are as high as possible.
The principle behind No Cure/No Pay goes back to the fact that the ship and the hull machinery and cargo are all owned by somebody. You are entitled to a fair remuneration for returning that property to the owner and the basic premise is that the amount of the reward for one’s efforts is based on fairness. The Lloyd’s Open Form for casualty salvage embodies the same law and works on the same basis.
Working on this basis concentrates the mind wonderfully – getting cost-efficient technology, doing your job, as well as properly assessing the risk. It’s very exacting and very skilled work and it is underestimated by many people, because they get swept up in the romance of a wreck.
The amount of information one has can sometimes be very scant, but we would always very carefully assess whether a salvage operation was worth the risk or not.
If you go back to something like the Titanic it is a very different situation. She’s in international waters and there’s a special treaty which prevents nationals from various countries going to her and removing artefacts from her or around the seabed. But the interest in the Titanic is down to her story and the circumstances of her loss – so she is a very different sort of vessel. The expeditions that go to her are not what I would call salvage expeditions.
Does the prevalence of treasure hunters give professional salvage operations a bad name?
I think it does because people confuse the two things. Our operations are engineering operations. The deepest wreck we have worked on is the SS Persia and she lies in 3,000 metres of water in the central Mediterranean. We cut through five deck levels to get to her bullion room and that’s unprecedented engineering work. That’s very different from people putting on an aqualung in 30 metres of water where they’re picking material from a wreck.
But you cannot work on these wrecks without being fascinated by them and by virtue of doing your research into their loss you find out about the people who were the ship’s crew and passengers, what people were doing and the historical context of the time.
So that is fascinating for us too and the artefacts from the Persia have gone to an exhibition at Buckler’s Hard in the south of England. We’d like to think that not only do we do our engineering work very well, but we pay due respect to the circumstances of a loss and the cultural interest a wreck may have.
Why do shipwrecks capture the public imagination?
A salvage operation brings a wreck to life. There’s always the potential that they hold something unknown, because they have such a mixture of things in them, and you’re usually the first to explore it. That sense of adventure appeals to us all.