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Globe-trotting South African tackles Italy salvage feat

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 yet off an idyllic Mediterranean island.

The 52-year-old says the attempt to float the Costa Concordia cruise ship, 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 in 2012 from New Zealand, where he was working on a spill from the MV Rena oil tanker, to tackle the biggest ever salvage operation of a passenger ship.

He has led an international operation with hundreds of 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.

Sloane’s team successfully raised the keel upright last year in an operation that some thought impossible.

Starting on Monday, they are planning to re-float it to be towed away for scrapping later this month in Genoa.

“By the end of July, the Costa Concordia is gone from Giglio,” Sloane said in one of his video updates for the operation’s website — theparbucklingproject.com.

When the refloating of the 114,500-tonne ship gets under way using giant sponsons welded to its sides for buoyancy, Sloane will be the one giving the commands.

The ruddy salvage master hit a snag in 2012 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 is now concern that the ship may fall apart or fail to float, which would likely condemn it to the sea bed.

– A seafaring ‘Russell Crowe’? –

Sloane is no stranger to spectacular accidents at sea.

CNN has described him as “a cross between Russell Crowe and Prince Harry” and he has a master mariner certificate, which allows him to sail any type of ship anywhere in the world.

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.