How do you deal with the risks involved in recovery operations?

Indeed there is always an element of risk as there is with any project or venture. However, by utilising a risk assessment system run by competent personnel, we are able to reduce any potential risk to a level that is deemed as low as reasonably practicable. The following issues are all considered during the “CLOUDS-C” risk assessment process…

  • C – Cargo quantity, type and pro-forma value
  • L – Location of target, with emphasis placed upon geographical, national / international and EEZ positions
  • O – Ownership of cargo / hull. Who has jurisdiction? Cargo insured?
  • U – Uncover any previous salvage attempts whether successful or unsuccessful, and if unsuccessful then why?
  • D – Depth of target
  • S – Specification of target, what type of vessel was it? Obtain all available general arrangement plans to aid in bullion stowage positions and assist with 
  • C – Concept for cargo recovery

Once the CLOUDS-C system has been performed and the target in question has been deemed as a viable option then a survey will be undertaken in order to understand the exact status of the wreck as it resides today. Utilising state of the art marine survey techniques we are able to clearly understand…

  • The orientation and bearing of the shipwreck
  • Any potential burial into seabed
  • The current level of degradation of the shipwreck
  • The environmental conditions surrounding the shipwreck which includes seabed condition, currents, visibility & turbidity
  • Any previous salvage attempts
  • Weather conditions during survey period as they have cause and effect on the subsea conditions
  • Assessment of all potential hazards identified on or around the shipwreck
  • Identification of the bullion stowage area(s) and assessment of the equipment and methodology required for extraction of cargoes from within

With the CLOUDS-C risk assessment system we are able to fully assess the viability and operability of each target, allowing for a low risk recovery process.

Do you have prior experience that will allow you to be successful?

Our personnel have spent decades working on and managing much deeper projects than this intended venture. The methodology, experience and practical successes and the ability to adapt to unique problems and situations stem from many decades spent in similar environments. Our Salvage Masters and Salvage Engineer stem from backgrounds in the marine oil and gas industry working on major subsea engineering projects on a global scale. Furthermore, they have a great deal of heuristic knowledge gained from working on major salvage projects such as the ‘Kursk’ Russian Nuclear Submarine recovery where they dealt with the recovery of the crew and the submarines raising to surface. They have carried out the recovery projects for the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence for the downed aircraft, and privately for the recovery of commercial aircraft. More closely related to the project in question, they have a wealth of experience in recovering commodity metal carrying shipwrecks.

What credibility does the shipping provider have?

Our preferred contractor for the provision of salvage vessel, equipment and crew is born from the fact that they are arguably the most professional and technically advanced company in the world for deep water search and salvage operations. They are able to provide state of the art dynamically positioned salvage ships, run by highly motivated and experienced crews operating tried and tested recovery equipment. Forming part of the global ‘Swire’ group, as well as many other projects they have successfully conducted recoveries of 110 tonnes of silver bullion on behalf of Odyssey Marine on the SS Gairsoppa in ultra-deep waters of 4700 meters and 3700 meters respectively. More recently they undertook the search for and recovery of the NASA Apollo 11 F1 engines from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on behalf of Jeff Bezos (Amazon)

What criteria do shipwrecks have to meet, prior to salvage?

Using the risk assessment process, first of all it begins with the level of research and identifying the providence of a suitable cargo onboard. The cargo has to have a value that far outweighs any potential cost involved in its salvage. The geographical location of the target is a major consideration as depth, known GPS or Position Approximate (PA), environmental conditions and governed waters must be considered. Secondly, ownership of the cargo must be identified. In the instance of Britannia’s Gold Ltd we understand that the UK Government is the rightful owner of the cargos which they paid for under the War Risk Insurance programme (WRIO) at the time of loss. Thirdly we look for other known high value shipwrecks in close vicinity to the first target; as our database of targets is vast we are always able to do just this. The reasoning behind this is due to what IDM call the ‘Cluster Principal’; whereby a ‘cluster’ of shipwrecks in close vicinity allowing for one mobilisation survey and recovery campaign during one expedition will reduce the risk factors in the unlikely event that one of the shipwrecks be cumbersome or impossible to work for whatever reason. Following on from this we look to conducting full survey operations on the cluster. This involves a very in-depth process of location, identification and inspection of each target within the cluster. We only employ state of the art equipment that allows for detailed filming in HD and dual head multibeam scanning with acoustic cameras in order that we can build 3D computer based models of each target. Pin point navigational plotting is taken of each part of the target and where possible artefacts are recovered in order that they are ‘married’ to the target. With all the above in place, IDM then build individual shipwreck document files including all our research and proof of ownership, method statements and procedural documentation as to how we intend to conduct the project.

What's involved in a shipwreck survey?

In most instances IDM have the GPS positional data for the intended shipwrecks, thus allowing us to navigate directly to site and commence operations. However, certain future intended shipwrecks have only what we refer to as ‘Position Approximate’ (PA) data, whereby we have the approximate sinking position only. To alleviate this issue our team of professional surveyors will lay a target grid over the PA coordinates and utilise either a side-scan SONAR (SSS) or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to sweep the grid until the shipwreck is identified. An initial visual survey is conducted using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). This involves conducting a complete 360° video survey of the target. In doing so we identify hazards such as trawler nets and plot exact points around the target using a system called Ultra Short Base Line (USBL). This allows for exact northing and easting positions to be given for any individual position or item of interest we see fit. Dual head multibeam scanning is then undertaken which involves pulsing acoustic (sound) beams at the target and receiving them back in order to generate an exact 3D CGI which we are able to accurately measure and manipulate within the software system. This allows us to overlay the measurements against the original vessel plans and completely satisfy ourselves of the correct target identification.


Further identification by recovery of items such as a ships bell (with ships name) or the identification of the ships name on the hull is also undertaken but not always successful.

Positional data is recorded to advise us as to the shipwrecks heading, this is important as we must have a clear understanding of the bow, stern, port and starboard positions so that true identification of bullion stowage locations can be correctly plotted. We look closely for any evidence of past salvage attempts on each target and in the unlikely event any is found we ensure that no bullion stowage areas have been compromised. Environmental data is recorded such as weather conditions, sea state, subsea currents, and seabed conditions and tides which all forms part of the recovery procedure process. A complete dossier is compiled upon each individual survey undertaken, 3D scans are printed and included and all video data is compiled into colour, black and white as well as SONAR view, all video footage can be paused at any location the viewer deems and coordinates are displayed giving the exact position on the shipwreck the footage relates too.

How do you salvage cargo from a shipwreck?

Each shipwreck must be decided upon its own merit, this will occur during the survey stages which gives us a complete understanding of the current status of the wreck. For example, how it lays on the seabed, if any sinking into the seabed has occurred, what level of destruction was caused during the sinking, what level of structural degradation has occurred since the sinking, accessibility to the bullion storage location within the target, the seabed make-up (mud, silt, sand etc.), water conditions such as tides and subsea currents, and any other cargo that may interfere with access to the valuable cargo (known as over burden). A detailed and extensive ‘Salvage Overview Document’ forms part of this project due diligence, however it can be considered that the following is a basic requirement for salvage operations…

Dynamically Positioned (DP) salvage vessel in the vicinity of 90 – 120 meters in length. The DP capability of such a ship allows for pin point positioning over the shipwreck by computerised referencing of positional systems such as DGPS, satellites and seabed positional beacons. Such a salvage vessel would have a cost value in the region of $150,000,000 to build and be equipped ready for operations!

Proposed salvage vessel – Seabed Worker

Aft Deck complete with salvage equipment. Work Class Remotely Operated Vehicles (WROV) are deployed from the salvage vessel and are remotely guided to the shipwreck upon where they are able to undertake a multitude of tasks. Vehicles are equipped with acoustic cameras that allow for real time visualisation of operations even when normal vision is obscured due to turbidity and darkness.

Work Class ROV

Vessel crane with lifting capacity in the region of 100-250 tonne Safe Working Load. Crane equipped with Active Heave Control (AHC) which allows for safe controlled work on or around the shipwreck during periods of high swell.

Salvage equipment is variable depending upon the individual shipwreck and what is required for access, however the following would all be considered…

  • Hydraulic shears – used for cutting shipwreck structure and beams, they have a closing force of 2500 tonnes and can cut beams to a width of 1 meter at a time.

  • Deck plate removal tool – allows for the gripping, pulling and removal of a shipwreck decking (not unlike removing the lid from a can of beans).

  • HP water jetting – running at pressures of 18000 PSI and controlled via a WROV, the jetting system can easily cut through plate and steel beams as required. (We have first-hand experience of these systems as they were utilised to gain access to the interior of the Kursk submarine)

  • Dredging systems – are also controlled by the WROV and can remove silt, debris and seabed at a controlled rate in order to give access to further cut locations or indeed the cargo itself.

  • Grabs – hydraulically operated ‘octopus’ grabs of varying volumes are utilised for the removal of cut sections of hull and superstructure, removal of overburden and where required the extraction of cargo from a shipwreck hold.

  • Recovery baskets – cargos are deposited into secure recovery baskets and recovered to surface prior to being passed to our archiver’s who then commence the cleaning, data inputting and storage of all items recovered.

So what exactly are the shipwrecks within this project like?

At the time of the World Wars, the UK Government was moving so much gold that it was impossible to move it all on HMS war ships. Instead commercial vessels where commandeered by the government as an aid to ship globally. Indeed, with the fact that HMS vessels were engaged in military operations, it was the commercial freighters and liners that undertook the majority of the shipments. The liners, although small by today’s standards, they were classified as large liners in their day, with space for many hundreds of passengers classified as 1st, 2nd and steerage class. The vessels were mainly built in the UK by reputable companies; steam powered and had made the same journeys on many occasions carrying gold prior to their eventual demise. Through diligent work in the archives we have obtained documents such as detailed builders plans, yard reports developed at the time of their construction and many images showing the state and grandeur of the vessels prior to their loss. Furthermore, we have obtained the official inquest reports pertaining to their losses which include written survivor accounts of the sinking’s (including the likes of the ships Captains) as well as further more pertinent data that has helped us tremendously in building our plans for recovery.

Do you need permits or environmental studies before salvage can commence?

The shipwrecks are in open water out-with any territorial limits, and although the vessels and cargoes are predominantly owned by the UK government, they do not issue salvage permits presently, therefore recoveries will fall under the International law of salvage. The wrecks pose no environmental danger, they were not fuelled by today’s methods of fuel oil; instead they were steam powered through the burning of coal onboard. Any other oil and fuel spills from the shipwrecks cannot happen as these liquids turn to jelly like compounds over the years and will now have washed away and disbursed into the ocean. All that is required is a pollution response contingency procedure of which is already in place.

Many salvage projects have failed to make a profit, what makes this project different?

There has been a history of unsuccessful salvages expeditions over the decades; these have mainly been “treasure” type salvages where the location of the wreck has always been the first main challenge. (Mel Fisher took 10 years to find the Atocha off the Florida Keys). Government intervention over ownership is a major concern; the 2007 Odyssey Marine project with the Black Swan wreck and the Spanish government has ended badly for Odyssey. Britannia’s Gold is not seeking “treasure” wrecks, instead we are only interested in modern day commodity wrecks and these have already been located through our in-depth research. Advances in subsea related technology which came about through the marine oil and gas industry have been adapted to suit salvage requirements, which when coupled together with the unique research allows for efficient recovery operations.

What if you’re caught in bad weather?

As part of the consideration process, we utilize a weather risk assessment system called ‘Mermaid’. This gives us 20 years of historical meteorological data for any given coordinates in the ocean such as sea states, currents, swell periods, wind speeds and direction. This allows us to determine the best time of year to undertake survey and salvage operations, the system even advises on the best size and caliber of vessel to use in order to operate efficiently and safely. Whilst on site, we monitor the weather conditions from the survey and salvage vessels 24/7 through at least two different online meteorological systems, furthermore we are provided with 12 hourly updates from the UK Met Office for the given coordinates we provide them. The vessels are designed to hold station and operate in high seas due to their unique propulsion and anti-roll systems, and for the majority of the time we are on site during the high season we will continue operations around the clock despite the weather conditions. However, should we forecast weather beyond the limitations of the vessels we will temporarily leave site and shelter at the nearest landmass or port, invariably no more than 8-hour transit from the work site.

What if the salvage equipment breaks down?

Having years of experience in similar operations the team is fully aware of any potential failures of the salvage equipment, subsequently we carry a large inventory of spare parts onboard the salvage vessel controlled by highly experienced technicians which allows for immediate on-site repairs should the need arise. To reduce the risk of redundancy in our most widely utilized equipment, namely the work class ROV, we operate a full 100% back-up system which is ready to dive at any time whilst the first system is either being repaired or undergoing maintenance. All equipment onboard falls under the Provision & Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER 1998 / SI 2306) thus ensuring it is certified fit and safe for use. Furthermore, all lifting equipment onboard is controlled by the Lifting Operations Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER 1998 / SI 2307) and therefore fully certified fit for purpose and regularly maintained through the onboard maintenance system.

How are you going to counteract potential piracy or terrorism?

Piracy and terrorism are deemed as little or no threat within the region we initially intend to operate (North Atlantic), however due to the nature of our operations it cannot be dismissed entirely. As a counter measure and to comply with international shipping law, our salvage vessels operate under the International Ship & Port Security (ISPS) system. Implemented by the IMO the security system operates on three increasing levels as follows…

Security Level 1: Low Risk. This is the level of threat at which port facilities and ships will normally operate, this will mean that minimum security measures shall be maintained at all times.

Security Level 2: Medium Risk. This security level will apply in circumstances where there is a heightened risk of a security incident; this will mean that additional protective measures shall be maintained for a period of time.

Security Level 3: High Risk. This security level will apply in circumstances where there is an exceptional risk of a security incident.

The salvage vessels have already undergone security assessments and carry a full time security officer onboard at all times whom will both monitor any potential threat to the vessel and implement procedural security measures as required. Furthermore, once the team commence on the recoveries of cargoes the security team onboard is set to be upgraded with a further team of professional security experts covering 24/7.

How do you uphold security onboard?

Britannia’s Gold has no intentions to utilize divers for the recovery of cargoes, instead we intend to employ sophisticated remote control robotics operated from the control rooms of the salvage vessel. Quite simply, every action that is undertaken on or around the shipwreck is filmed and recorded on a black box recorder system; the cargoes are then recovered to the deck of the salvage vessel by means of a crane hoisting the goods in a secured cage, and met by an IDM representative who will take stock of the recovered goods. Again, all actions onboard are covered by a 24 hour CCTV system and recorded for future scrutiny should the need arise. All recovered items of value will be photographed and logged into a digital database before being moved into locked secure facilities below decks on the salvage vessel.

Britannia’s Gold will be employing the services of a highly reputable and professional sub-contractor for the supply of salvage vessels, equipment and personnel to undertake the operations. Each person onboard is qualified and considered professional and operates under a code of practice that if they are un-beholding to can lead to their instant dismissal from the vessel and potentially their company. The Captain of the salvage vessel has the right to perform baggage checks on all persons both boarding and departing the vessel if he sees fit, or by request of the Britannia’s Gold representative onboard at the time.

With the above measures in place Britannia’s Gold are confident that onboard security will be kept at a high level whilst also allowing for a pleasurable work environment for the crew onboard.

What is the law pertaining to war graves?

Under international law, there is no concept of “war graves”, and therefore automatic protection from salvage operations is not afforded to “war graves”.

Under English law, certain shipwreck sites can be designated “protected places”, i.e. under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, with restrictions placed on interfering with those sites. However, such shipwrecks need to be specifically designated and are mainly located in UK waters, although it is possible for some sites in international waters containing UK shipwrecks to be protected, with UK nationals and UK vessels prohibited from operating on such protected places without permission; from a legal standpoint this does not apply to the wrecks we have identified as they all reside in international waters out with the UK territorial boundary.

There is however a moral obligation in dealing with such sites that could be considered “war graves”. The sanctity of the ship/site as a war grave has to be properly considered in the planning, preparation and execution of a salvage operation. The ship/site must be treated with respect and sensitivity throughout the operation, with proper archaeological protocols and safeguards put in place. Appropriate care must also be taken to preserve the ship/site’s status as a war grave.

With the above on mind, Britannia’s Gold will treat all shipwrecks and surrounding areas with the highest level of respect at all times.