Retrotechtacular: Salvaging A Capsized Ocean Liner


The scale of this salvage operation is nothing short of daunting. The SS Normandie was an ocean liner put into service in 1935 and capable of carrying 1,972 people across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship is still the fastest turbo-electric-propelled passenger vessel ever built, so it’s no surprise that it was seized by the US Navy during World War II for conversion to a troop carrier called the USS Lafayette. But in 1942, during retrofit operations, the vessel caught fire and capsized. The topic of today’s Retrotectacular is the remarkable salvage operation that righted the ship. Unfortunately, it was subsequently scrapped as bringing it into service was going to be too costly. Lucky for us the US Navy documented the salvage operation which makes for a fascinating 35-minutes of footage.

A huge barrier to success was the total lack of underwater visibility due to mud, sewage, and debris. Divers were first sent in to remove as much extraneous gear as possible, much of the time cutting with torches and attaching hoisting lines using only their sense of touch. To bring the ship upright the water flooding the hall needed to be displaced. To facilitate this, wooden bulkheads were built using timbers with tongue and groove joinery. These wooden barriers were sealed to the metal hull using cement poured under water. With everything patched up a very careful pumping procedure began, with many starts and stops to ensure the righting of the vessel was controllable. Of course not all was smooth sailing. Things get pretty interesting again at about 27 minutes in as a serious leak prevented the evacuation of the remaining water. You’ll need to watch for yourself to learn how they got around that. In the end it too 17 months and 19 days to right the ship.

If you liked this offering we’d recommend you watch the documentary AZORIAN: The Raising of the K-129 which is a fascinating look at engineering wizardry leveraged to salvage a Soviet ballistic missile submarine from three miles of depth. Here’s a trailer for that film.

[Thanks Frederick]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

20 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Salvaging A Capsized Ocean Liner

  1. So here’s my question: Instead of trying to patch everything below the water line and then pump out the water, why not patch everything *above* the water and inject (slightly, so as to not compromise the bulkheads and decks) compressed air? Then, as more of the ship (and its holes) emerges from the water, you patch those. Such an approach would have the added benefit of making underwater leaks much easier to find.

      1. Not completely true, if the container you are pumping the air in is airtight the air will push against the water and the container. This will in turn push the container up (and the water down). I feed that you would need enormous pressures to do anything useful though.

        Also making something gas tight is much more difficult than merely not leaking too much fluid.

      2. Multiple issues with compressed air approach:
        – You would have to seal up top and the other side too, so easily 3X amount of sealing.
        – Air is smaller molecule than water, so much harder to seal against air than water.
        – For every 10m (33 ft) of water below the water mark, you have to increase the air pressure by 1 atmosphere.
        – Water pumps are easily scalable and probably easier to come by.

  2. So America basically steals the ship from the French, during rushed conversion it is set ablaze, then because of utter incompetence (ship designer offered a much better solution to prevent the capsizing, but was ignored) ends up capsized, is then further damaged in the righting process (which ended up costing a small fortune) only to be abandoned and later soled as scrap for a fraction of what it cost to right it…
    My question here is (since I can’t find the answer), did the American government ever bother the pay the rightful owner the huge pile of money the ship must have cost to build?

    1. From Wikipeda:…hostilities in Europe had compelled Normandie to seek haven in New York harbor, where the US government interned her on 3 September 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland. Soon the Queen Mary, later refitted as a troop ship, docked nearby. Then the RMS Queen Elizabeth joined the Queen Mary. For two weeks the three largest liners in the world floated side by side.[51] Normandie remained in French hands, with French crewmembers on board, led by Captain Herve Lehude, into the spring of 1941…..

      France was taken over by Germany in June, 1940. Who, exactly, should they have turned it over to?

  3. I find it very interesting that there is a noticeable lack of common (OSHA) safety equipment in this video. Like hard-hats, or fire extinguishers (note the bucket being used at 20:52). Then again, this was 70 some-odd years ago…

    How times change.

    1. Contemporary fire extinguishers were often just portable cans of water with a small hose (you held it hose-side down to use)…. ABC extinguishers just didn’t exist… and neither did OSHA, until 1970. Water works just fine for taking care of torch waste.

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