The Oddly Weighty Story of Heavy Lift

I’m not sure how long its been available, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the official history of US Navy salvage is now available online on the Naval History and Heritage Command website. Weighing in at a hefty 622 pages, Mud, Muscle, and Miracles (hereafter, M3) has everything you ever wanted to know about the organization, technology and key events in USN salvage history. In fact, unless you’re the kind of person who finds the odd details of logistics interesting just because they’re odd, it probably has far more information than you ever wanted to know.

If that comprehensiveness is both M3‘s greatest virtue and its greatest weakness, the fact that the book is well-organized and clearly written is a definite plus.

So what sort of odd facts does M3 contain? It turns out that in World War II, American navy tugs and early salvage ships weren’t equipped for vertical lifts—unlike their British counterparts. It turned out that lifting power was vital for harbour clearance, and after the war the navy made plans not to be caught out again. In 1965, the USN started leasing British 750-ton heavy lift craft for belly lifts, and followed up by converting large landing craft by into lift craft with 25-ton shear legs, buying two German heavy lift craft (renamed Crilley and Crandall) that could lift 2,400 tons each, and hiring two self-propelled heavy lift cranes (Thor and Roland) from the same German company.

(If this all sounds very complicated, it’s because it is. M3 explains most of this, but you may want to keep Google handy. To be brief: belly lifts involve pumping ballast into a ship so it sinks down, then cables are connected to the wreck below and the ballast is pumped out, lifting the ship and—hopefully—the wreck; a shear leg is a two-legged crane that uses a wire instead of a third leg).

The USN put all this money into heavy lift expecting that it would have plenty of harbors to clear in Vietnam, in Europe (if the Cold War went hot), and elsewhere in the world. It turned out to be less of a problem than expected. The smaller lift craft got a lot of work in Vietnam, but the swansong of Crilley and Crandall was the 1974 clearance of the Suez Canal—where they were noticeably outpaced by the cranes Thor and Roland.

It turns out that the need to lift wasn’t just an American one. During the 1984 Falklands War, the Royal Navy hired not just liners and cargo ships like the Queen Elizabeth II and the Atlantic Conveyor, but also a commercial anchor-handling tug. In the wildly bad weather of the south South Atlantic, the navy needed the Wimpey Seahorse to lay and adjust moorings off the island of South Georgia. Of course, Wimpey Seahorse wasn’t the strangest ship hired for the Falklands, but that’s another story (or two).

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