The boat that you built to withstand all that could be thrown at it has just hit a rock. Which doors should be closed? Which should be opened? Which area is most important to reinforce? How much time do you have left to get everyone out?

This isn’t the Titanic. This is now. Around 100 ships are lost every year.

Also unlike the Titanic, damage usually happens gradually – take the case of the Prestige, an oil tanker ruptured in a storm.  Because it was leaking oil, it was denied harbor access. As the storm continued over the next days it sustained more damage until it finally broke in half; releasing the biggest environmental disaster ever to hit that coast.

That is the danger, and that is how damage spreads. Small initial failures weaken the overall structure, which puts stress on parts of the ship not designed to take it.  It may twist where it was meant to be straight – may tilt in ways that it couldn’t when intact. If the ship is taking on water, this sloshing around inside the boat will add extra loads. A damaged ship is not just an intact ship with a bit missing, it’s much more complex. Assuming that a damaged ship will have the same resilience as an intact one is not just wrong – it’s dangerous.

One can’t punch holes in actual ships to find out what they can take, so naval architects at UCL use scale models of damaged ships. Exposing them to waves from different directions and of different strengths, they can get the detailed information they need to start predicting how a damaged ship will behave. Not only can this information be used to design ships that will take damage without failing catastrophically, but it can inform life-saving decisions made in the event of an accident.

Many ship owners are starting to keep the data provided by UCL and others as reference, so that in the case of an accident their captains can call for the best advice available – preserving lives, investments and the environment.

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