CAR AND DRIVER - October 2008
BY JOHN PEARLEY HUFFMAN, PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN WING
About every two years this new century, the oceans of our planet seem to get hungry for cars. For example . . .
Early on the morning of December 14, 2002, the container vessel Kariba rammed the Norwegian car carrier Tricolor while both were squeezing through the English Channel. Though its crew was rescued, within 30 minutes the Tricolor sank, taking 2871 new cars—BMWs, Volvos, and Saabs—down with it.
On May 22, 2004, the car carrier Hyundai 105 collided with a tanker off the Singapore coast, and almost instantly it—and its Germany-bound cargo of 3000 new Hyundais and Kias and 1000 used Japanese cars—plunged to the bottom of the China Sea. The crew got off safely that time, too.
But when this hunger arose again in 2006, the sea got its cars but refused to swallow.
Pure car carriers are bull-nosed, windowless and graceless ships. They take on new cars at the factory, wallow across the oceans, and roll off their wheeled cargo in faraway lands.
Built in Japan during 1993, the $100-million-plus, 55,328-ton, 654.6-foot-long Cougar Ace is among the biggest car carriers and can tote more than 5000 cars. Though owned by Japan’s Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL), the Cougar Ace sails under the convenient flag of Singapore.
The Cougar Ace sailed out of Hiroshima in mid-July 2006 with a cargo of 4703 brand-new Mazdas, all 2007 model-year vehicles (plus 109 small commercial trucks from a manufacturer no one seems to recall) strapped to its 14 decks. On July 23, the ship’s massive 15,683-horsepower diesel engine was powering the vessel near the Aleutians, headed toward the coast of Alaska, and then down to Mazda’s three ports along the North American west coast. The seas were relatively calm and the weather almost balmy by Arctic standards.
And then things began to go wrong in a hurry. Before sailing into American waters, U.S. law requires that a ship’s ballast tanks be purged of the seawater taken on in foreign lands to avoid fouling local marine environments with nonnative species.
Whether it was a mechanical failure or human error (MOL hasn’t said), that afternoon the water from the starboard ballast tanks was drained without being refilled simultaneously with fresh seawater. And so the top-heavy ship keeled over almost instantly and onto its port side. And that sent everything not strapped down—including its crew of two Singaporeans, eight Myanmars (a.k.a. Burmese), and 13 Filipinos—sliding along the steel decks.
An anonymous longshoreman shot these four photos with a cell phone aboard the Cougar Ace just after it docked in Portland. Only a scant few Mazdas broke free of their tie-downs and hit sections of the boat or each other. Mazda CX-7s pictured here.
Luck was with them. The worst injury was a steward’s broken leg. The crew put on survival suits, scrambled atop the starboard side, and waited 23 hours until U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Air National Guard helicopters lifted them to safety.
The Cougar Ace’s list was close enough to 90 degrees that it seemed to be floating on its side, props and rudder oddly exposed. It was slowly taking on water around its then-submerged, side loading ramp, but because it wasn’t leaking anything into the ocean, it was left to drift, monitored by a Coast Guard cutter.
Five days later, the ship had drifted 100 miles closer to the rocky shoals of the Aleutians. MOL chartered a tugboat to tow it away and on to safety at Dutch Harbor, within the city limits of Unalaska, Alaska.
Meanwhile, Mazda officials didn’t know much more than anyone else about what was going on. “O.S.K. called Mazda Japan, and Mazda Japan called us,” says Robert Davis, Mazda North America’s senior vice-president of product development and quality. “I was shocked at how cool the U.S. Coast Guard Web site was. It had all the up-to-date information. It was awesome.”
Salvage work is fraught with fiscal and physical risk. Florida’s Titan Salvage was called in and would be paid more than $10 million if it could save the hugely expensive Cougar Ace. But according to the “Lloyd’s Open Form” agreement it signed, Titan wasn’t even entitled to sympathy if it failed. Just assessing the challenge of righting the Cougar Ace meant the four-man Titan team had to rappel on ropes down into the dank, pitch-black hold, past the Mazda vehicles that were creaking and groaning against their straps. If one Mazda broke free, it could start an avalanche of cars that could crush the Titan team and possibly sink the ship.
Soon after arriving at the Cougar Ace on June 30, Titan naval architect Marty Johnson, 40, of Seattle, created a virtual model of the perilously listing ship using software called General HydroStatics (GHS). With that in hand, Johnson constructed a plan to right the ship—pump the 1026 tons of water that had flooded several dozen Mazdas from the cargo decks while also pumping 170 tons of water into the starboard ballast tanks. Miss that balance, though, and the ship could keel over onto the other side.
And then on the evening of July 31, disaster struck. While departing the Cougar Ace for the tugboat Sea Victory, Johnson fell 80 feet along the ship’s stern, hitting his head on a bollard on his way down and landing on a winch. He died about an hour after being evacuated to a Coast Guard cutter.
Starting on August 11, after a few tweaks to Johnson’s scheme by Titan’s senior naval architect, Phil Reed, and more than a few daring dives by the Titan team, pumping began on the Cougar Ace. Over the next two days, the ship groaned and slowly became upright—the ship and its cargo had been saved. Sort of.
If the Cougar Ace had simply sunk to the bottom, all Mazda would have done was file a claim with its insurer. Then, while it waited for a big check to arrive—about $103 million, according to published reports—it would have gone on with the business of building cars.
But by the time the Cougar Ace was righted, Mazda was getting calls from people around the world hoping to get a deal on the ship’s cargo of 2804 Mazda 3s, 1329 CX-7s, 295 MX-5s, 214 RX-8s, 56 Mazda 5s, and 5 Mazdaspeed 6s. And, Mazda says, it was getting just as many calls from buyers determined to know that the new car they awaited delivery of hadn’t been aboard the ship when it flopped.
Put one RX-8 on top of another, and the lower car's windows don't even shudder.
Mazda posted a list of Cougar Ace VINs on its Web site, intending to reassure buyers that their new Mazda hadn’t been aboard. But the company still had to deal with all those vehicles that had been aboard—hanging from nylon deck straps, bouncing and shaking with the ceaseless motion of the ocean for three weeks. Only 68 had broken free, been banged up by other cars that had broken free, or suffered water damage. Mazda had to do something with them.
During September, the Cougar Ace was towed 3000 or so miles from Unalaska to the Port of Portland in Oregon, which had repair facilities to get the ship fixed and enough space—about 50 acres of empty lots—in which to park all the Mazdas.
A year and seven months later, on an overcast April morning, what remained of the Cougar Ace’s cargo was parked on a leased black-gravel lot at the Port of Portland—about a thousand apparently showroom-ready Mazdas in rows of four. The one weird thing being that they still had steel shipping loops sticking out through holes in their bumpers—the fixtures with which they were strapped to the ship’s decks. “Usually those hooks would be used again,” says Bob Turbett, the Minnesota-based port operations manager Mazda sent to Portland and put in charge of this project. “But the cars have been hanging from them, so they’re being recycled, too.”
“The day they came off the boat, we started doing some testing on a 70-degree list,” Mazda’s Davis says. “The guys in Japan put some powertrains on jigs at that level. Really, what concerned us most was the electrolyte in the batteries. On their sides, it’s not bad. But the saltshaker motion [of the ship at sea] added a lot of damage. We were also concerned about the durability of everything from seals on powertrains that weren’t immersed in lubricants to electronics and sensors. And there were concerns about angle and motion that couldn’t be tested.
“The cars were parked in that ship in four different directions, and that added a level of complexity. I’ll never forget when I got the load plan and [it showed] how every car was parked on the 14 decks. On ramps. On corners. We had to mark on which side each listed to.” Throw on top of those considerations different engine options and different transmission options, and the prospect of prepping the vehicles for sale grows ever more daunting. “Remember these are unibody cars, and some of the damage could be hidden,” Davis rues. “I don’t even want to get into cutting open the cars.”
There were dozens of ideas of what to do with the cars. Filmmakers wanted to wreck them in movies. Trade schools wanted them for service training. Fire departments wanted them to practice extractions. Many thought at least the MX-5s and RX-8s could go racing.
But those suggestions might have eventually put some of the Mazdas back out on public roads with their potential defects and potential for liability. Davis remembers that the fate of all the cars was sealed after a meeting that lasted just 10 minutes. Except for about a dozen drivetrain components sent to trade schools, not a single part would escape destruction.
Portland turned out to be a fortuitous choice for Mazda in an unexpectedly important way. “Oregon is one of the few states that allows airbags to be deployed,” explains Turbett. Most other states require airbags to be removed one at a time and disposed of in an environmentally sensitive manner. “And some of these cars have six airbags,” he adds, rolling his eyes.
Blowing the airbags was the first step along Mazda’s “disassembly line.” Two employees of the Auto Warehousing Company (AWC) roamed the storage lot wearing ventilation masks, ear protection, and gauze coveralls and hauling around a cart made from wheels and grating found at Harbor Freight. On that cart were a few upside-down plastic tubs, and under the tubs, a couple of car batteries, modified versions of the electronic control module for each car type, and a trigger box built by Mazda engineers in Japan. On a Mazda 3, for example, the AWC guys pull the center-console cup holders, access a connector, hook up the cart contraption, and call out, without any urgency whatsoever, “Fire in the hole.” Then pap-pap-pap-pap-pap-pap, the bags fire in quick succession, the side windows bow out slightly, and a wisp of airbag propellant seeps out.
Up until the moment the airbags deployed, the Mazdas smelled like new cars inside. After the bags had gone off, what was left was the stale smell of airbag propellants—nitrates, silica, and metallic oxides, the musty smell of car death.
By April, the guys from AWC had been blowing bags for more than two months. But according to Turbett, Mazda didn’t want us talking to the employees doing this work, a kind of automotive slaughterhouse. He also told us to not photograph any damaged vehicles, including those with distinct lines running across their length indicating how deeply they had been submerged in water.
There we were anyhow, opening the battery acid had corroded the metal around its strut towers—a perfect illustration of what Mazda feared. But Turbett came over, closed the hood, and told us to not to photograph that, either. Then, just as our frustration was about to produce an ugly journalistic hissy fit, a black semi came through the gate in the chain-link fence surrounding the lot. The trailer behind it was tall, flat-black, battered, and disreputable.
“That’s the ‘Titanic,’ ” Turbett tells us. “Our ship of doom.”