America's Biggest Claw Game Plucks Oil Rigs from the Briny Deep

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Though they weigh as much as 60,000 tons, the massive semi-submersible oil rigs dotting the Gulf of Mexico can still sink when faced with a hurricane's onslaught. And there's only one way to pull the rigs' 7,500 ton decks off the seafloor after such a catastrophe—with America's heaviest-lifting ship, the VB 10,000.

Designed by the Versabar corporation (based off the company's previous heavy lifter, the Bottom Feeder) and constructed by Gulf Marine Fabricators in Ingleside, Texas, the $100-million VB 10,000 is a heavy-lift catamaran that mounts a pair of massive lift gantries atop a pair of barges. Perhaps massive is a bit of an understatement.

Each gantry measures 240-feet tall and weighs 3,400 tons—or about as much as the Ben Franklin Bridge in Pennsylvania. The barges both measure 300 feet by 72 feet and each is powered by a quartet of 1,000HP thrusters which also allow it to remain stationary over the job site. And to prevent the motion of the ocean from affecting the the lift, the VB 10,000 utilizes a set of articulated pins to connect the gantries to the barges. To perform the actual lift, four 2000-ton lifting blocks are attached to the oil rig deck by divers, who also cut off the rig's legs, and are then pulled to the surface by the vessel's quad 400-ton winches and deposited on the back of a waiting barge for transport back to port.


Launched in October of 2010, the VB 10,000 has already logged over 40 lifts—everything from underwater debris retrieval, to topside decommissioning, to jacket removal and reefing. And with the vessel's new grasping devices, the VB 10,000 will be able to pick up the some 1,800 rigs US regulators have deemed necessary for removal in the next decade.

Aptly named "The Claws", these underwater lift devices are exactly what they sound like, gigantor pincers like what you'd find in a carnival game or a Gizmodo Gallery. Each independently-operated claw measures 122-feet tall, 112-feet wide, and weighs 1,000 tons. They can also be used in conjunction with a set of cradles which are sunk to the seafloor ahead of a claw lift. The debris is first loaded into the cradle then the the cradle itself is raised. This prevents the claws accidentally crimping a a multi-million dollar rig deck as it's recovered. [Versabar - Offshore Magazine - gCaptain - PopSci - Images: Versabar]

How the VB 10,000 was built


The VB 10,000 sans the Claws