Saving the Cougar Ace: Lessons for Lean Start-ups and Adventurers

This is an inspiring tale for both adventurers and lean-start-up fans: a small, ingeniuos, fast-acting, improvising and enterprising team — each providing their unique talents — to solve a VERY dangerous problem that very few people know how to do, let alone are willing to do.  Not only do they able to salvage massive ships from their fates at the bottom of the ocean, they do it with a team that on the surface looks almost too small for the task.  However, just as those who know their lean start-up stuff, you can see just how great these small teams can be.

Let me set the stage: a cargo ship called the “Cougar Ace,” which was loaded with 4,000 Mazdas from Japan, has a major system failure at sea when the water tanks they use for ballast only fill up on the port side of the ship. Before the crew is aware of what happened, they unintentionally test Newton’s Third Law where “every action has an equal an opposite reaction” and the ship tips over and “rests,” listing at 60-degrees in the cold Alaskan waters.  Remarkably, the US Coast Guard manages to rescue the entire crew.

With the crew safe and sound, end of story, right? The Coast Guard has done their work and leaves this 56,000 ton ship to its fate, which means eventually taking in enough water to sink and providing the lucky inhabitants at the bottom of the sea with 4,000 brand new cars.  A new playground for the Alaskan marine-life awates.

Unfortunately, for the crustaceans at the bottom of the sea, the insurance companies who cover such accidents are not quite as willing to throw up their hands and watch $300 million dollars sink to the bottom of the ocean. Kind of like the A-Team “if no one else can help–and you can find them, maybe you should hire” Titan Salvage. Titan Salvage is small group of some of the toughest, ballsiest, brilliant and enterprising people this side of the 21st Century. They are hired to come in and rescue these ships, putting their lives on the line, betting the whole time that not only will they refuse allow a ship to sink, they’ll save as much of it as they possibly can.  In the Wired story that I link to, you’ll see how Director Richard Habib and a handful of other men risk their lives to save the Cougar Ace, in hopes of gaining a payout at the end that ranges anywhere from 10-20% of the value of the ship and its cargo.

This is just a mind-blowing story. These innovative and gutsy men use everything from exotic, state-of-the art computer modeling on-the-fly and operating massive hydraulic pumps, to using even their own fingers to plug leaks, in order to bring the ship back upright.   This unique and lean-approach contrasts the rest of the ship salvage industry which has come to rely too much on sophisticated equipment and machinery. Titan Salvage, on the other hand, base their strategy on “the idea that ships could be saved by human ingenuity, not horsepower…the company’s unconventional approach worked.” If these men fail at their task, they not only do not get paid, they also risk killing themselves. Failure is not an option.

Read the whole thing and check the video:

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