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Calulating Submerged Weight

Calulating Submerged Weight

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Published by Doug Gould

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Published by: Doug Gould on Mar 11, 2009
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Calculating Submerged Weight

© 2008 Douglas Gould Toss a solid brick of steel into the water and it sinks, but pound that steel brick into the shape of a salad bowl, and it will float. That is because a steel salad bowl will displace an amount of water that is equal to the actual weight of the bowl itself. By changing the steel brick to a steel bowl, we didn’t make it buoyant, all we did was take advantage of the buoyant force of water to make the steel float. The buoyant force was always there, acting on brick and bowl alike. Archimedes of Syracuse became so famous for his enduring ideas that today he needs only one name: Archimedes (like Cher, I guess). If he were alive today, he would be much to smart to become a marine salvor. But almost two-thousand five-hundred years ago he did discover an interesting phenonemon when he descibed what happens when a solid gets immersed in a fluid. Expressed mathimatically, Archimedes’ Principal looks like someone spilled a Scrabble board:

mb = mobject * (1 –



/ pobject)

Expressed in plain English, it says: ‘a body immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid’. Notice that the buoyant force pushing the object ‘up’ is not based on the weight of the object, but rather the weight of the fluid. The buoyant force is created because the object has pushed, or displaced, some of the fluid. This makes the fluid really angry, and it tries with all its might to push that object back up to the surface. And it is simple to measure the force; just weigh the fluid that gets displaced. Think about this for a minute….liquids create a force that pushes solid objects back toward the surface. That could come in handy, huh? A cubic foot of sea water weighs 64 lbs. According to Archimedes’ Principal, for every cubic foot of sea water that a solid displaces, it will be buoyed up by 64 lbs of force. A cubic foot is a measurement of volume, not weight. A cubic foot of cast iron weighs more than a cubic foot of aluminum, but they both displace the exact same volume of water, and each would receive the same 64 lbs of buoyancy if submerged. This is where the plot thickens. On the surface, a cubic foot of cast iron weighs 442 lbs. But underwater, it is being pushed to the surface by 64 lbs of force. The practical effect of the buoyant force creates a submerged weight of 378 lbs. With one cubic foot, it is simple math: 442 lbs down, 64 lbs up equals 378 lbs left over. That means that we can make 442 lbs of cast iron neutrally buoyant by adding only 378 lbs of lift. A cubic foot of aluminum, on the other hand, weighs 170lbs, and it displaces the exact same amount of water, so the submerged weight of the aluminum is 170 – 64 = 106lbs. (think 170 lbs. down, 64 lbs. up).

Finally, a cubic foot of balsa wood only weighs 10 lbs, and yet again displaces the same cubic foot of water. This time, 10 lbs down, and 64 lbs. up, equals -54. Minus 54 lbs of submerged weight is 54 lbs. of lift! But boats aren’t built in tidy shapes like cubes, and figuring out exactly how many cubic feet of each submerged material would be impractical. Fortunately, its easy to establish a ratio of dry weight to submerged weight by dividing one into the other – i.e. a cubic foot of aluminum retains 62% of its dry weight when submerged (106 ⁄ 170 = .62), and a cubic foot of iron retains 85% of its dry weight (378 / 442 = .85). Remember, even stuff that floats receives that same 64 lbs/cu.ft of buoyant force when it is submerged. A cubic foot of balsa wood weighs 10 lbs dry. Submerge that balsa and what do you get? 10 lbs down, 64 lbs up, which leaves us with a minus 54 lbs of submerged weight, or 54 lbs of lift. The formula to solve the ratio is the same, but we have to deal with negative dry weight number. (– 54 ⁄ 10 = – 5.4) I don’t know about you, but my head hurts already, and I haven’t put on my wet suit yet. Figure 1 illustrates how this all works.

Submerged weight = 106 lbs

Submerged weight = 378 lbs

Submerged weight = - 54 lbs


Conversion ratio



1 cu.ft. of Aluminum Dry = 170lbs

1 cu.ft. of Cast Iron Dry = 442lbs

1 cu.ft. of Balsa Wood Dry = 10lbs

1 cu.ft of Buoyant Force = 64lbs

1 cu.ft of Buoyant Force = 64 lbs

1 cu.ft of Buoyant Force = 64 lbs

Figure 1. All solids are buoyed up by the same force, and the resultant submerged weight depends on the density of the material. The ability to calculate submerged weight helps salvors know how much lift will be needed to raise a sunken vessel.

Rather than waste you time figuring the conversion factor for each material, the nice folks over at the USCG publish a table called “Factors for Converting Various Boat Materials from Dry Weight to Submerged Weight.” [you can find a copy on the web here: http://www.uscgboating.org/safety/boatbuilder/flotation/table4-1.htm]. I have reprinted a portion of the chart here. Material Lead Steel Cast Iron Aluminum Ferro cement Fiberglass laminate Sea Water Distilled (fresh) Water Teak Oak (White) Diesel Fuel Gasoline Mahogany (Honduras) Plywood (Fir) Spruce (wood masts) Specific Gravity 11.38 7.85 7.08 2.73 2.40 1.50 1.03 1.00 0.99 0.85 0.85 0.73 0.56 0.55 0.45 Conversion Pounds Per Factor cubic ft 0.91 710 0.88 490 0.86 442 0.63 170 0.58 150 0.33 94 n/a 64 0.00 62.4 -0.01 62 -0.18 53 -0.18 53 -0.37 45 -0.78 35 -0.81 34 -1.22 28

Chart 1. Factors for Converting Various Boat Materials from Dry Weight to Submerged Weight in Fresh Water. Other sources may refer to conversion number as the “K Factor”. To calculate the submerged weight of a material, just multiply the known dry weight by the Conversion Factor. With the minus factors, remember that your answer will be a minus number, which means that the material is creating lift when it is submerged. Does all this have a practical application? Well, Ham Gale and I had a perfect opportunity to prove out the theory last October up in Annapolis. A Soling sailboat sank in about 30 feet of water. Solings have short cables attached to the keel bolts that are designed to allow easy lifting of the boat on to a trailer (how handy for us salvage divers, huh?). So, I was able to access the lifting cables down there in 30 feet of cloudy Chesapeake Bay, and attach some lift. According to the spec sheet a Soling displaces 2277 lbs. constructed with a solid fiberglass hull, with aluminum spars and cast iron keel weighing 1278 lbs, plus some SS rigging; nothing that would naturally float. Would you be tempted to send your diver down with at least 2500 lbs. of lift bags? Would a 2000 lb. lift bag be enough to bring this 2277 lb. boat to the surface?

Here it is, after the initial lift, hanging by one single 2000 lb. Bag. Notice that the lift bag is well out of the water, which means that at this point it is generating significantly less than 2000 lbs. of lift. Chart 2 shows how it all adds up for the Soling. The final calculated submerged weight was 1514 lbs. Judging by how much lift bag is out of the water, I would say that estimate was conservative, because it looks like that bag is about one third out of the water, meaning it is only holding up about 1300 1400 lbs. Perhaps there was some air trapped in 1300-1400 the transom? Further research also revealed that some Solings are built with cored cockpit floors. So there could b another 50-60 lbs. of lift right there. Also, we removed be 60 the aluminum boom before the lift, which isn’t figured in the estimates on the chart. Equals Submerged Weight Fiberglass Hull 827 lbs .32 265 lbs Cast Iron Keel 1278 lbs .85 1086 lbs Alum Spars 100 lbs Not applied 100 lbs Misc. Fittings 72 lbs .88 63 lbs Total 2277 lbs 1514 lbs Chart 2. Estimating the submerged weight of a Soling class sailboat. Notice that the aluminum spars are listed as “not applied”. This is because they would be lifted completely out of the water, and therefore we would be lifting their dry weight, not a submerged weight. Material Dry weight Multiplied by the Factor

Perhaps you noticed that the conversion factors on my Soling example are slightly different from those shown in the Chart 1. That is because the USCG does their calculations based on fresh water, and salt water is denser than fresh water, so it weighs more and therefore creates more buoyancy. I adjusted the Factors in Chart 2 for salt water at 64 lbs./cu.ft. In general, I recommend that you always use the fresh water factors. When working in salt water, you will just get a little extra lift. I should stress that the utility of these calculations is limited to bringing materials just to the surface, barely awash. Getting the gunnels of a sunken boat high enough to accomplish dewatering will require more lift, usually approaching or even exceeding the vessel’s total displacement. But knowing how much you need to get to the surface will mean you won’t deploy more lift bags than necessary on the initial lifting evolution, leaving more of your lifting capacity readily available for the final dewatering.

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