What is Parbuckling? With Special Reference to the Costa Concordia Recovery Operation

Parbuckling is the process by which a sunken vessel is rotated to an upright position by harnessing leverage. An instance of parbuckling is called a parbuckle salvage for obvious reasons: a ship is parbuckled so that it may be salvaged. This may appear to be an esoteric topic of concern only to engineers, which is essentially true, but parbuckling came to the attention of a larger audience with the raising of the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that tragically sunk off the coast of Italy after rocks tore through the side of the vessel. The shipwreck caused 32 deaths, by far the worst cruise ship disaster in recent memory. Below is a brief explanation of parbuckling; we’ll leave aside technical details and instead focus on the amazing righting of the Costa Concordia.

Although much was made of the fact that the Costa Concordia would be parbuckled, it is actually a fairly common way to salvage wrecked ships. However, the operation is almost always used to right the position of small vessels. Parbuckling a ship the size of the Costa Concordia was, in fact, unprecedented. It was the largest ship to ever undergo the operation, so the process was fraught with complications. Obviously, these complications were largely related to the size of the Costa Concordia, but there were other factors as well, such as the ship’s awkward resting position. (Before the operation, it was lying on an underwater slope, and huge underwater platforms were necessary to build so that the ship could rest on something after it was righted.) The only other remotely comparable vessel to be parbuckled was the Oklahoma, a ship that was sunk after being struck by torpedoes during the Peal Harbor attack of WWII.

According to the engineering companies responsible for the parbuckling of the Costa Concordia – Titan Salvage from the United States and Micoperi from Italy – the operation went perfectly, if slowly, taking over 19 hours to complete. The success of the operation came as a great relief to all involved, as the operation could only be attempted once. After the parbuckling began, there was no turning back and no second chances. Failure could have been disastrous. If the ship would have broken apart, the protected Tuscan waters in which the ship sat could have been environmentally compromised, and the bodies of the two missing persons might have never been recovered. (Human remains were found just a few days ago near the central part of the ship, although they have yet to be positively identified.) Indeed, the parbuckling operation was undertaken precisely to protect the environment and preserve whatever bodies remained in or around the vessel.

The parbuckling of the Costa Concordia, therefore, was a major achievement, one that will be celebrated not only by engineers for its technical sophistication, but also by all those concerned with a successful recovery of the ship. It goes without saying that the sinking of the Costa Concordia will forever remain a tragedy, but at least the recovery of the vessel gives us no additional reason (as of yet) to mourn.

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