How to really sink a ship

Sinking a ship is really not that simple, indeed the whole process was technically challenging, with many hoops to jump through over the course of the seven-year project.

Project leader Nancy Easterbrook said the first issue was finding a suitable ship, which involved looking at ships in Mexico, Canada and the UK. Factors such as ship size, state of repair and cost of getting the vessel to Cayman ruled all of those out.

Finally, with the help of the Marine Administration of the United States, Easterbrook and the team went to Virginia in search of a ship that would be the right size, height, shape and construction.

“[It had to] have a history and affinity with diving. Finding a ship was a big challenge and that took years. We sent our application to MARAD, who are the sister organisation to the Navy.

The Kittiwake was decommissioned in 1994, sat with the Navy for six years, then was finally transferred to MARAD and she came up on the list of ships that were available for disposal,” explained Easterbrook.

There were the issues of dealing with two governments, two separate departments of environment, lawyers from two countries under different laws, state and commonwealth of Virginia and so on. In addition, new rules and regulations kept the goalposts changing.

“As an example,” Easterbrook said, “in 2007 the Toxic Substance Control Act came in in the US and we were just about there, ready to find a chance to get the ship and all of a sudden [there were different rules for disposal].


These delays caused complexities as licenses began going out of date for elements including transportation providers of hazardous materials, that necessitated constant revision of applications and documents.

“We had to keep everybody happy that we were moving forward and were going to get this done – but it was going to take a little longer and cost a little more. It was a real exercise in patience and frustration,” said the project leader.

Twists and turns

The sinking of the Kittiwake was a collaboration between the private sector, the Cayman Islands Tourism Association and the Cayman Islands Government and in July 2010, all the ducks seemed to line up so it looked very much like the Kittiwake was on her way to Cayman. Plans were even made for a series of sinking events to celebrate the occasion. But there were twists yet to come.

“The CITA, Department of Environment and the sinking contractor West Indian Marine, went up to Norfolk Virginia to meet the US EPA, the Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Environmental Quality, the Maritime Administration, the Coast Guard and the marine surveyor for the final inspection.

“We were there for five days and everything was great until we got to the bottom of the hull, saw the underwater sea-cocks and the EPA lady told us there were gaskets in them,” recalled Easterbrook.

A debate ensued – either send the gaskets, which were potentially made with unexportable materials – to a lab and wait 3 weeks for a result to come back, or try and keep on schedule with bringing the Kittiwake to Cayman over the summer as per the original plan.

Unfortunately it was not possible to dry-dock the 220-ton vessel until the end of July – which added to the tow time and would have meant the vessel trying to arrive during hurricane season. Another delay ensued after the revised plan of a November tow was nixed due to a problem with the tug boat transmission.

More weather delays meant the Kittiwake finally arrived at Grand Cayman on Christmas Day, 2010. Following some final cleaning and towing to her sinking spot at the top end of Seven Mile Beach, the day came for the actual event.

“The two options are to scuttle a ship or use explosives; we chose scuttling, which is a controlled flooding method. We compartmentalised the ship; when we were cutting there were two main bulkheads midships, which we never breached.

That gave us some control over the bow and the stern.“If you’re pumping water and it’s just falling everywhere you have no control so we had to plan getting the bow, stern, port and starboard down and make it balance itself in the water.”

Controlling the sinking

Even cutting the three holes each side in the external hull had been a major feat – through a double hull filled with foam – and re-plated so that they could be removed in the sinking process. And controlling the sinking required even more technical elements.

“They put small boats around the ship with pumps on board; they had big green hoses attached, feeding into the ship and water was being pumped inside in a controlled method.

The ship got lower and lower in the water with a very straight, even keel; she had about a 20 foot draught and when she reached her lowest the water started egressing into the sides of the external hull, the hoses and boats pulled away and she landed right where she was supposed to.

“We put a four-point anchor system of 8,000-ton anchors starboard and port on the bow and stern, both weather and lee side.

We dove there many times and made sure the chains were not on any coral. As she started to roll over, a little bit list to port, the anchors helped to secure her where she was supposed to be.”

After the sinking, the permanent moorings were finally set with the addition of an extra fifth anchor and an inspection was undertaken to remove any pieces of debris and litter – including several pairs of sunglasses. Now, however, the project is complete and the vessel is available for snorkelling or diving for visitors, locals and licensed operators.

The delays and complexities, laughed Easterbrook, were in a sense a testament to the vessel’s long career and personality.

“If I had to sum it up, it would be that The Kittiwake was a very, very seaworthy ship that served divers all her life; she went on a lot of rescue missions serving divers, serving subs, rescuing people – she went through major hurricanes and just did not want to be sunk.

She fought us all the way down!”