Happiness is a Hard Hose

u.s. coast guard helicopter
File Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

By Michael Carr – “Happiness is a hard hose!” Those words come from CDR Barry Chambers, the Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team’s first commander. Forget what you might be thinking, he was referring to the eight-inch discharge hose which comes off the back end of a ADAPTs pumping system.

ADAPTS is the Coast Guard’s acronym for “Air Deployable Anti-Pollution Transfer System”, an ingenious pumping system designed by the US Coast Guard to pump oil and chemicals off distressed vessels and barges.

ADAPTS consists of a cylindrical pump which can be lowered through a cargo vessel’s tank tops, or any opening in a deck or bulkhead. Powered through hydraulics and efficient diesel engines these pumps push thousand of gallons per minute of thick crude oil, sludge, or any viscous material through 8-inch discharge hoses. ADAPTS enbables Coast Guard response teams to bring empty barges alongside damaged or stranded vessels and within minutes, yes minutes, be pumping off the hazardous material, before it wreaks havoc on the environment.

On this day, the Atlantic Strike Team Divers were thinking about “hard hoses” as they flew on CG HH3F helicopters out to a fully loaded tanker, drifting without power off Cape Hatteras. A few hours earlier the tanker’s engine room and completely flooded when a sea chest cover in her engine room blew off during a routine cleaning. Within minutes the entire engine room was flooded, up to the main deck.

Slung under the HH3F helicopters were their ADAPTS system. Their mission was to seal off the open sea chest and pump out the engine room. A salvage tug was on its way to take the tanker in tow. Before the Dive Team had departed from Air Station Elizabeth NC they had been briefed on their options.

“You need to seal the sea chest and pump out the engine room, the tanker’s decks are awash and there is concern the vessel will loose stability,” said the AST Commander.

“And just so you know, there is a national sail-fishing competition starting in a few days, and this damn tanker is floating in the middle of the fishing grounds, so no oil goes in the water.”

“Go out there and get it done, keep me updated”

Off the Dive Team went, with pallets of dive gear, salvage tools, ADAPTS pumps, and diesel engine power units.

As the HH3F helicopters approached the drifting tanker, they could see her stern decks were awash. There was barely 3 feet of freeboard forward and no freeboard aft. They knew what to do.

“Lower our gear onto the deck just forward of the pilothouse” the dive team leader directed the helo’s pilot through the internal communications system. “That will be perfect”.

Once the gear and his team were on deck they would carry the pumps aft, rig a tripod or overhead block and tackle and lower the pumps into the flooded engine room. Then the divers would enter the flooded engine room, seal the open sea chest and start pumping. Easy Day.

After the pallets were dropped on deck the divers were lowered using a standard horse collar sling. Each pallet was precisely “reverse” packed, so as you offloaded the gear there was no need to sort. You could unload and set-up an ADAPTS at night by feel. They trained on this gear constantly. It was all muscle memory.

Success was in getting a “hard hose”. That was the focus. As the dive team worked to set up the pumps and prepare to dive into the flooded engine room the Dive Team leader’s radio crackled with a message from the on-scene Coast Guard Cutter, “Tanker owners are sending out a commercial diving company to seal the sea chest, they want the commercial guys to do the diving”.

“No problem”, the Dive Team leader replied. “If they get out here and can get the job done on our schedule, that’s OK, but we are not waiting for them, if we are ready to dive and they are not here, we are doing the dive.” He had been through this before, delay, delay, delay. He knew that success meant constantly moving towards getting a “hard hose”. You can’t wait. He did not concern himself with the commercial divers, if they arrived and could do the job, great. If not then his Coast Guard divers would dive into the engine room and seal the open sea chest.

Within the first hour all four ADAPTS pumps were rigged in the engine room. They were suspended from overhead beams and lowered to the bottom of the engine room a depth of 50 feet. Diesel engine prime movers were fired up and running. Fuel bladders would give them 24 hours of running time, and discharge hoses were lead forward and tied down on deck.

They were ready to pump, and the commercial divers arrived. They pulled up alongside, having been brought out on an offshore crew boat. There was little time to talk.

“If you guys can get in the water now, and seal the sea chest that is fine with us, but we are ready to pump, and I will send my divers in to do the job if you can’t” said the Dive Team leader. He was polite but direct. We need to get this done, now.

“We can do this,” said the commercial divers, and they quickly suited up and swam down into the flooded engine room. Within 20 minutes they were back up, having successfully re-installed the sea chest cover.

“Fire up the pumps!” the Dive Team leader shouted. “Let’s PUMP!” Hearing an ADAPTS system start pumping is pure, beautiful music. First you hear the hydraulic power packs come under load, and the diesel engines throttle down as they start to work. Then you hear the high decibel whine as hydraulic fluid runs through hoses and down to the submerged pumps, and then comes the whine of the pumps. Rotors are spinning, pushing water up through the discharge hoses at thousands of gallons per minute.

You can see the hard rubber discharge hose filling up and becoming so hard you can stand on them. The discharge end must be tied down to prevent it from whipping around the deck. Water was coming up the hoses, along the deck, and spilling overboard! They made a chalk mark on the engine room bulkhead to gauge the discharge rate, and within minutes the water level was going down. With four ADAPTS pumps running they were pulling out over 4000 gallons of salt water a minute.

“On-Scene-Commander, this is Atlantic Strike Team, we have 4 pumps running now, pumping 4000 gallons per minute. Lowering water level in the engine room by 2 feet an hour. We will have the engine room de-watered in approximately 12 hours,” the Dive Team leader radioed to the Coast Guard Cutter standing by.

A salvage tug was on her way, hoses were hard, water was flowing, and there was no oil in the water. They had saved the tanker. And though the Dive Team was tired, soaked with sweat, dirty and grease covered, they could not have been happier. In fact, they were even happier when they discovered the Team’s Warrant Bosn had inserted several buckets of fried chicken onto one of the pallets before it was slung.

They sat on deck, eating cold fried chicken, monitoring the diesel pumps. They joked, and told sea stories, waiting for the salvage tug to arrive, but hoping it would not be too soon.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael W. Carr is a retired U.S. Army Watercraft Master and U.S. Navy Diving & Salvage Officer.