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

Geof Kirby/Alamy
Geof Kirby/Alamy

We’ve all heard of the Titanic and the Exxon Valdez. The story of the tanker that 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.

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

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