6 weeks to pull out US ship from Tubbataha
PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The US Navy hopes to pull out its ship stuck in Tubbataha Reef Natural Park within 6 weeks so it will not disrupt the official diving season, a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) official said on Tuesday, February 12.
PCG Palawan Cmdr Efren Evangelista told Rappler the best case scenario is for the salvaging operation of the USS Guardian to be concluded by March 23.
"The March 23 target [can be accomplished] if the condition and situation at the site [are] favorable," he added.
Evangelista however warned that the weather and sea condition "may become unfavorable for salvage operations," in which case the salvaging may have to be temporarily halted "for safety reasons" under the approved plan.
So far the efforts to extricate the vessel have prompted authorities to consider closing at least 2 of Tubbataha's 15 dive sites for the official March-June diving season.
The USS Guardian ran aground on January 17 inside the protected area of the marine park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world's top diving destinations.
2nd floating crane to lead salvaging
The salvage operation is currently suspended pending the arrival of the Jascon 25, a 2nd floating crane hired by the US Navy from Netherlands-based maritime support company Sea Trucks Group.
Evangelista said that the Jascon 25, expected to arrive on February 16, will be the leading vessel in the salvaging, while the SMIT Borneo already on site will be a support ship.
"The main crane ship which will be used for dismantling the USS Guardian [will be] the Jascon 25. It has a dynamic positioning system which can maintain its position without anchoring," the PCG official explained.
The 112.8x30.4 m Gibraltar-flagged Jascon 25 is equipped with a main crane capable of hoisting 800 metric tons from a distance of 30 m and 50 tons underwater from 720 m, apart from an auxiliary crane designed to assist the main one.
Although the SMIT Borneo arrived ahead of the Jascon 25, the former was scrapped as the lead ship after it was unable to anchor in deep water to prevent further damage to the reef, currently estimated at around 4,000 sqm by Tubbataha officials.
Washington has agreed to pay almost $25 million for the SMIT Borneo, but the fee for the Jascon 25 is yet unknown.
Salvage plan being revised
After the SMIT Borneo failed to anchor 3 of its 4 mooring legs due to 16-to-24-knot winds, strong waves and the slope of the sea floor, officials are now revising the salvage plan.
USS Guardian spokesman Lt Frederick Martin told the US military publication Stars and Stripes on Tuesday that the plan "was being revised" but said the operation will start as soon as the Jascon 25 arrives.
Martin added that the 2nd crane ship has a higher lift capacity than the SMIT Borneo and a dynamic positioning system, which allows it to operate without anchoring.
“While the inability of the Smit Borneo to be moored affects the plan, we are adjusting our operations accordingly, including bringing in the second crane, Jascon 25, earlier than originally planned. Jascon 25 is already underway and moving toward the site,” the US Navy official said.
In June 2009, the Jascon 25 performed the heaviest ever completed lifts of subsea structures weighing 650-710 at an offshore underwater pipeline in northwestern Australia.
The original salvage plan for Tubbataha was for the cranes to lift the whole USS Guardian from the reef, but the Americans later changed their mind and decided to dismantle the minesweeper into sections and transfer these to a barge with the cranes, without moving the vessel to minimize damage to the coral. - with reports from Carlos Santamaria/Rappler.com