After months of delays, efforts finally got underway during the night to raise the wreckage of the sunken Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad just off Norway’s West Coast. The complex and expensive operation remains threatened by heavy seas, wind gusts and a critical point when massive cranes lift the once-proud vessel from its current forlorn position.
The frigate collided with a fully laden oil tanker on November 8 that its crew apparently didn’t notice on radar and then mistook for being part of a nearby oil terminal. The important frigate, one of just five in Norway’s naval fleet, was returning to its home port in Bergen after NATO exercises last fall. It sustained severe damage and sank in shallow waters after drifting towards the rocky island just north of where the oil terminal is located.
No one was killed or injured during the dramatic collision, and all on board were able to abandon ship, but the incident has been a huge and costly embarrassment to the Norwegian naval defense force. The salvage operation alone has already cost hundreds of millions of kroner, and political debate is raging in Parliament over how to finance the frigate’s replacement, expected to cost around NOK 5 billion.
Efforts to raise the sunken vessel and transport it by barge back to Bergen have been disrupted several times by bad weather this winter. Defense officials launched the current operation around 4am Tuesday, with Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) following the operation live (external link to NRK).
Anders Penna, leader of the salvage operation, called it “unique” and “monstrously complex,” involving around 300 people. “A vessel has never been lifted in this manner,” Penna told NRK early Tuesday morning. “We’re writing our own instruction manual as we carry this out.” He stressed, however, that the operation “finally has the window of opportunity we need” weather-wise, with forecasts now calling for more steady winds over the next five to six days.
Penna said that 16 heavy chains weighing 270 kilos per meter have been wrapped around and under the frigate, all of them fastened to three heavy-lift vessels on which the cranes are mounted. Each vessel is vulnerable to being moved out of position, which is why concern is so high over swells in the sea that come with winds from the north and northwest.
Penna said it would likely take three- to four days to hoist the frigate to its normal depth at sea. Plans call for the Helge Ingstad to then be moved and secured onto a submerged barge lying alongside that will then transport the frigate to the naval base Håkonsvern in Bergen.
The most critical point will be when the frigate, currently full of water, is raised off the seafloor with the cranes taking all its weight. If any problems arise, Penna said, plans are in place to halt the operation for safety reasons.
The frigate’s torpedos and missiles were removed from the vessel and detonated in February, with Penna claiming there’s little dangerous material left on board. Instruments are in place, however, to measure any hazardous gas that may have built up in the vessel.