Seawise Giant: You Can't Keep a Good Ship Down

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We’ve all heard of the Titanic and the Exxon Valdez. The story of the tanker than was once known as the Seawise Giant is much less familiar, although it’s every bit as memorable. The largest ship ever built—she was nearly twice as long as the Titanic—actually sank, only to rise up from the ocean floor and sail again. This is the story of its odd life and multitude of names.

The tanker didn’t get off to the rosiest of starts. A Greek shipping magnate originally ordered the ship in 1979 when tanker construction was booming following a decade of unrest in the oil market. He ended up not being able to foot the bill when a Yokosuka, Japan, shipyard finished construction, though. The shipyard sold the tanker to Chinese shipping kingpin C.Y. Tung, who ordered a refitting of the tanker to make it the largest ship ever to sail. Tung then named the beast the Seawise Giant.

Just how big was the Seawise Giant?

Her rudder alone weighed 230 tons. She was over 1500 feet long and 226 feet wide. She was basically half again as long and half again as wide as an American aircraft carrier. She had a cargo capacity of 564,763 deadweight tons, which by that measure made her the largest ship on record. (The four French Batillus-class supertankers built during the 1970s had larger gross tonnage, but Seawise Giant had a larger fully loaded displacement.)

When she finally launched in 1981, the Seawise Giant began making relatively uneventful transport runs between the Middle East and the United States. Things bottomed out for the Seawise Giant in May 1988. The literal low point in the supertanker’s history came in 1988, when it became a casualty of the Iran-Iraq War. Iraqi planes attacked an Iranian oil platform in the Strait of Hormuz in the hopes of choking off a crucial part of Iran’s oil pipeline.

In addition to bombing the platform, the Iraqi jets opened fire on five oil tankers anchored in the area. The Spanish tanker Barcelona listed for a few days before sinking after a secondary explosion. The Seawise Giant weathered a similar onslaught of Exocet missiles and also sank. Suddenly, the world’s largest ship was the world’s largest shipwreck. The tanker’s owners wrote her off as a total loss.

Encore

Of course, it seemed like a waste to have such a gigantic ship just sitting and rotting on the sea floor. In 1989, after the Iran-Iraq War ended, a Norwegian consortium bought the Seawise Giant’s wreckage and had her pulled from the shallow water and transported to Singapore for significant repairs. The new owners renamed the tanker the Happy Giant because, hey, who wouldn’t be happy to get a second shot at life?

The sweeping repairs took two years, and at the end of the process Norwegian shipping mogul Jorgen Jahre bought the tanker for $39 million and again renamed her, this time to the Jahre Viking. For the next 13 years the Jahre Viking sailed under the Norwegian flag.

By 2004, it had started to become clear that while the gigantic tanker was certainly an engineering marvel, it wasn’t the most practical vessel for conveying oil in the modern economy. The economics of powering such a huge ship meant that some gargantuan tankers operated at a loss.

Furthermore, the Jahre Viking’s massive size meant that actually sailing the thing was a pain. It couldn’t navigate the English Channel thanks to its lack of maneuverability, and the tanker’s 81-foot draft meant that her crew had to remain vigilant about the very real risk of running aground in waters that were no problem for smaller ships. On top of that, while the tanker could get up to a speed of 16.5 knots in ideal conditions, it wasn’t great at slowing down; it took over five miles for the boat to stop when it was running at that speed.

The Jahre Viking may have outlived its usefulness as a tanker, but it wasn’t totally worthless. In 2004 First Olsen Tankers bought the ship and began converting her into a stationary storage tanker. After another name change to the Knock Nevis, the tanker ended up permanently moored in the Persian Gulf’s Al Shaheen Oil Field off the coast of Qatar as a floating storage and offloading vessel.

This Is the End

The Knock Nevis lasted about five years in this job before her owners decided that the behemoth no longer made sense as a storage vessel, either. It was time for her to meet the same fate as the four aforementioned Batillus class supertankers that rivaled her size. She headed to the scrapyard. The ship’s name was changed to Mont for a final voyage to India’s Alang-Sosiya ship-breaking yards in January 2010. Even dismantling the ship turned out to be an epic task; the Times of India reported that the project would take a year and require as many as 18,000 laborers. In the end, the Seawise Giant could survive a missile attack from Saddam Hussein’s air force, but she couldn’t withstand the pressure of a changing oil market.

June 1, 2011 - 11:12am
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