What Is Scuttling?

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  • Written By: Lori Kilchermann
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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Scuttling is the act of intentionally sinking a ship. Commonly accomplished by removing or opening water seals or plugs, scuttling allows the operator or crew of a ship to sink the vessel in a rapid manner. A common method of sinking warships before they could be captured, scuttling became very common as a way to prevent submarines and other technologically-advanced vessels from falling into enemy hands, which would allow strategic design systems to be used by the enemy. Some modern uses of the intentional sinking practice include reef building and preventing pirates from capturing a vessel containing valuables or weapons.

Modern scuttling practices are very commonly used in creating artificial reef systems. Retired warships are routinely stripped of all munitions, weapons and electronics and towed offshore where scuttling takes place. Explosives are commonly used in place of opening water caps and seals, and these strategically-placed charges are detonated in such a manner that will allow the ship to rest on the bottom in an upright position. This provides a home for many aquatic animals, fish and a place for recreational scuba divers to practice their craft. Many scholars also dive the site to monitor the effects on the environment and marine population.


The practice of scuttling is not only a defensive military operation, it was first used as a offensive method of blocking harbors and containing an enemy's naval forces. Wooden sailing ships were commonly involved in scuttling as their commanders ordered the sinking of the ship in the mouth of a harbor. This created an obstacle that prevented the enemy from exiting the harbor and battling against an often weaker force. In early exploration, many colonies were established through the practice of scuttling. Captains would commonly sink their ship to eliminate the possibility of leaving an area, thereby forcing the settlers to fight to survive in an often unfriendly area or climate.

Occasionally, an insurance agency will be required to examine a sunken ship and look for signs of scuttling. This is a rare occurrence, however, it continues to happen in tough economic times as pleasure and recreational craft are suspiciously sunk and large insurance claims are made by the owners. It is common, in many of these suspected fraudulent claims, for the insurance company to hire independent dive teams. The use of robotic cameras or mini-submarines is employed in some instances if a vessel supposedly went down in extremely deep waters.


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