Globe-trotting South African behind Italy ship salvage

After rescuing a burning ship from pirate-infested waters off Yemen and a sinking oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, South African salvage master Nick Sloane faces his biggest test off an idyllic Mediterranean island.

The 52-year-old says the attempt to raise the Costa Concordia cruise ship from its watery grave, due to begin on Monday, is his "most challenging" yet in a career that has taken him to six continents and two warzones.

The Zambia-born Sloane was flown to the Italian island of Giglio last year from New Zealand, where he was working on a spill from the MV Rena oil tanker, for the biggest ever salvage operation of a passenger ship.

He has led an international operation with 500 salvage workers including divers, welders and engineers operating 24 hours a day around the rusting 290-metre (951-foot) hulk, which is bigger than the Titanic.

When the lifting of the 114,500-tonne ship gets under way, Sloane will be the one giving the commands from a control room on the shore and monitoring the unprecedented operation through eight monitors.

The ruddy salvage master hit a low point last year when storms hampered the operation and there were serious difficulties drilling into the granite seabed to install a metal platform to hold the ship stable.

"There was a lot of questioning. 'Are you sure it's going to work?' 'This is crazy!'" he remembers.

Work has sped up since then and Sloane has said he is confident of success, while remaining realistic

The most serious risk is buckling in the hull as the luxury liner is dragged upright, which Sloane has compared to a "banana" effect -- the extent of which will only become clear as the operation is underway.

"There's a lot of unknown factors about the ship. We've made a lot of assumptions," he admits.

Sloane has warned that the hull is slowly compressing in on itself and that now is the last chance to lift the Costa Concordia before it collapses too much.

"You can't afford to wait. Time is your worst enemy," he says, warning about the large swells expected once winds known as the sirocco hit the island in autumn.

Sloane, who had initially hoped to right the ship in time to float it in time for US Independence Day on July 4 with a big fireworks display, said he had a celebratory cigar at the ready.

"I'm going to stand on deck and smoke this as she's finally towed away," he told AFP during one recent visit, pulling the cigar out of his pocket at a port-side bar.

Sloane is no stranger to spectacular accidents at sea.

He began his career in 1980 working on the tugs of Safmarine, a South African salvage company.

His first major job was the salvage of the Castillo de Bellver, a burning Spanish tanker filled with 252,000 tonnes of crude stranded off the coast of South Africa.

He worked his way up the ranks in the industry and was promoted to the position of salvage master in 1991.

He was part of a team that went in with the US Navy's salvage division to repair damaged pipelines and oil infrastructure in Afghanistan and Iraq immediately after the US-led invasions and has worked in Russia to build a giant oil pipeline for Kazakh crude.

He has dealt with accidents that caused some of the worst oil spills in the world in recent years.

In 2011, he was involved in a risky operation when he helped secure the Brillante Virtuoso tanker, which was attacked by pirates off Yemen and set on fire.

Sloane is a consummate raconteur and is fond of showing off pictures on his mobile phone immortalising moments of bravado in far-flung parts of the world.

The Costa Concordia project appears mild in comparison but there has been pressure from environmentalists over the potential for toxic spillage as the ship is being raised in what is a pristine marine sanctuary.

While there are no golf courses to keep up his favourite hobby, there is at least some solace for the work hard, play hard South African: the location is Tuscany, homeland of his favourite Chianti wine.