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The Seawise Giant: The Middle Eastern Oil Tanker That Refused to Die

Over the last 150 years, the size of the ships plying our oceans has exploded. We all know about the Titanic and its recording-breaking size, but compared to the ship that was famously too big to safely navigate the English Channel, Suez Canal and the Panama Canal, it pales in comparison. This is the story of a ship that shattered countless records for size, weight and tonnage – and one that had five different names throughout its turbulent thirty-one-year life.

The Seawise Giant remains to this day the longest and heaviest ship ever to set sail. Its 458 metres (1,503ft) length was higher than the Empire State Building, while its colossal deadweight tonnage (how much weight it could carry) of 564,000 tons was equal to that of 40 Brooklyn Bridges. 

However, the most striking piece of information regarding the Seawise Giant was that it was once attacked and sunk, making it not only the biggest ship in history but also the largest shipwreck. But that wasn’t the end – far from it. Like some mythical sea monster, the Seawise Giant rose from the depths and lived to fight another day.  

Construction 

The Seawise Giant was ordered by a Greek company in 1974 from Sumitomo Heavy Industries. Construction of the mighty ship took place at the company’s Oppama shipyard in Yokosuka, Kanagawa in Japan and was completed in 1979. 

It was perhaps foreboding that the Seawise Giant ran into problems almost as soon as she was ready. During early sea trials, the ship experienced severe vibration whenever it was going astern (in reverse). The vibrations baffled many and it led to the Greek company refusing to take possession of the ship – which by the way did not officially have a name at this point and was simply known as 1016. 

A lengthy legal proceeding took place, which eventually resulted in the ship being sold to Hong Kong shipping magnate C. Y. Tung, founder of Hong Kong Orient Overseas Container Line, which at its peak had over 150 vessels in its fleet. Not satisfied with its already extraordinary size, Tung ordered that it be enlarged through a process known as jumboisation. I’m well aware that that word sounds completely made up, but jumboisation is when a ship is enlarged by adding an entire section to it. With large ships, like 1016, this is often done by effectively cutting the ship in half and adding a new central section to increase its size.

What finally emerged, after a mammoth two-year operation which added around 100,000 tons of extra tonnage, was the Seawise Giant – now the longest ship in history and twice as long as the Titanic. The name Seawise is a play on words of the owner’s name C.Y Tung and it became common for many of his ships to carry the same first name. The RMS Queen Elizabeth, which first set sail in 1939, was later sold to Tung and ended its life as the Seawise University before a fire almost completely destroyed the vessel in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor in 1972. 

The Giant Emerges 

The ship was now an oil tanker of monstrous proportions, with 46 oil tanks onboard and a deck measuring 31,451 sq meters (338,535 sq ft) – which is almost exactly the same as the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington D.C. 

Its draft (the length from the waterline to the keel at the bottom of the ship), which is roughly the minimum depth that the ship can operate in, was 24.6 metres (80.74 ft) – making it a constant headache for its crew onboard. To give you a good comparison here, that’s over twice the size of the draft of the USS Nimitz, the American supercarrier. 

But everything about this ship involved colossal sizes. Its rudder weighed 230 tons, about the same as two blue whales, while its sole propeller weighed 50 tons and measured a huge 9.1 metres (30 ft) in diameter. Its fully loaded water displacement – essentially how much water the ship replaces when at sea – was an extraordinary 646,642 tons, well over six times that of the USS Nimitz. 

It was powered by two Mitsubishi V2M8 boilers producing a combined 50,000 horsepower which pushed the ship along at a maximum speed of 16.5 knots (30.6 km/h – 19.0 mph). She certainly wasn’t the fastest ship around, but she took some stopping. And I mean that quite literally. When the Seawise Giant was motoring along at full speed, it would take her around 9km 5 miles to come to a complete stop, while a full turning circle in clear weather required 3km (2 miles). 

The Seawise Giant spent the early years of her youth transporting oil, primarily between the Middle East and the United States. In all intents and purposes, it was a fairly serene seven years, but that came to a catastrophic end on 14th May 1988. 

The Sinking of a Giant

By May 1988, the Iran-Iraq war in its eighth year. What had begun with the Iranian invasion of Iraq on 20th September 1980 developed into a harrowing, bloody stalemate that would claim the lives of over one million soldiers, and 100,000 civilians. 

On 14th May, the Seawise Giant was anchored off the coast of Iran and while transferring oil to another supertanker, the Spanish ship Barcelona, when Iraqi planes began attacking a nearby Iranian oil platform in the Strait of Hormuz, no doubt in the hope of stemming Iran’s steady supply of oil. Whether Iraqi pilots were ordered to attack other vessels in the vicinity, it’s not immediately clear, but suddenly the five oil tankers nearby were the new targets. 

CBU bombs illustrations attack on seawise giant
CBU bombs illustrations

Parachute bombs began raining down from the sky and with the Seawise Giant’s phenomenal size, she was an easy target. Quickly the ship was ablaze, her vast deck a series of smouldering infernos. 

There are conflicting reports of the chaos that ensued that day. It’s believed that 14 of the Seawise Giant crew died, while the remaining were successfully evacuated. A nearby U.S warship approached the area but was warned off by Iranian authorities who instead sent in salvage tugs to fight the fires. With giant oil tankers on fire, this was like trying to put out a house fire with a water pistol.  

The situation had already reached a critical stage. The Barcelona was in a terrible state and soon began listing heavily, with two of her crew unaccounted for. It would take two further days for the Spanish giant to finally creep below the waves. None of the five ships anchored off the coast that day escaped the attack. The British-flag vessel Burmah Endeavour, Iranian tanker Khark and the Cypriot ship Argosy had all been badly damaged, but would all stay afloat. The same could not be said for the largest ship in the world. 

With fires burning out of control and Iranian authorities powerless to help, it was only a matter of time for the Seawise Giant. With news of the mighty tanker’s perilous situation now reaching around the world, the vast juggernaut slowly began listing, her compartments filling water. Later that day she could stay afloat no longer and began slipping below the surface. She remains the largest ship ever to sink.   

The Second Coming

Unsurprisingly, the ship’s owners wrote off the Seawise Giant completely. It was thought that the hellish destruction it had received would have rendered her entirely inoperable, even if the ship had remained afloat. But not everybody shared their pessimism. 

The Iran-Iraq war continued for a further three months before coming to an uncomfortable stalemate – a shaky peace began in the area. Almost a year of her sinking, the wreck of the Seawise Giant was purchased by Norweigan company called Norman International who soon after embarked on the largest salvage operation in history. 

Norman International managed to not only successfully refloat the Seawise Giant but get it all the way back to Singapore. Exact details of this operation are vague, so we can only presume how it went. Large ships like this in relatively shallow areas are typically raised using airbags or inner tubes that are placed either around the ship or within it, then filled with oxygen which in theory brings the ship to the surface. Sometimes cranes are used, but with Seawise Giant’s size, this seems unlikely. If the ship had substantial structural damage that would have prevented it being towed, it would likely have been patched up enough to get it back to port by salvage specialists on site. As I said, there are few details about this specific operation and unfortunately, that’s best that we can surmise. 

In Singapore, it underwent significant repairs and re-emerged in 1991, under the new name, Happy Giant. That same year it was purchased by Norwegian shipowner Jørgen Jahre for $39 million ($74.5 million) and renamed yet again, now known as the Jahre Viking.

The Final Act   

This vast floating ship had defied the odds and once again began transporting cargo around the world, but now under the Norwegian flag. We don’t know a whole lot about the Jahre Viking over the subsequent years, which for a ship we can only assume is a good thing. After the carnage off the coast of Iran, no doubt this was a ship perfectly happy to stay well clear of the limelight. 

In 2004 it was again sold, this time to First Olsen Tankers who again chose to rename it – now becoming the Knock Nevis. However, the ship’s ocean-going days were now behind her. The vast operating cost of the Knock Nevis meant that the ship often operated at a loss. The beast had become a costly burden and First Olsen Tankers had purchased the ship with the express desire of turning it into a stationary storage ship to be moored near to the Persian Gulf’s Qatar Al Shaheen oil field.

And there she remained until 2009 when the decision was taken that the largest ship the world had ever seen would be scrapped. The ship was given its last name, Mont, which it would only have for the duration of its final journey. 

The Mont arrived off the coast of India in December 2009, but if it was hoped that such a colossal piece of engineering might have some kind fanfare for its glorious send-off, it was not to be. The shipyard chosen to scrap the Mont was Port Alang, the largest ship dismantling site anywhere in the world, where roughly 50% of the world’s vessels come to be broken down. 

But the Mont did not dock gracefully, instead, like almost every other vessel that arrived at Port Alang, the Mont sailed directly towards the beach, running itself aground on the Indian sand. It was the last movement the Mont would ever make. 

Salvage & Legacy  

Seawise giant comparison
Seawise giant comparison by Delphine Ménard  is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Even in death, this ship made an extraordinary impression. An estimated 18,000 labourers took the better part of a year to fully strip the Mont down. In the end, all that was left was the gigantic 36-ton anchor which was returned to Hong Kong and placed on display at the Maritime Museum. The last remnant of the mighty beast who once ruled the seas. 

So, are we going to see something like this anytime soon? Almost certainly not. While skyscrapers are still getting higher, aircraft are still getting faster and microchips are still getting smaller, we have probably reached the tipping point with supertankers. The vast costs and highly volatile oil market has meant that it’s been a difficult period for oil tanker owners. There have even been instances of tankers moving slower than necessary in the hope the prices may have risen by the time they dock. 

The world is slowly moving away from oil, which means something comparable to the Seawise Giant seems unlikely. The longest supertankers currently in operation are the T1 Class ships, measuring 380 metres (1,246ft) in length – a full 78 metres shorter than the Seawise Giant. Cruise ships, on the other hand, are getting considerably bigger and the proposed $6 billion floating city called ‘Freedom’ will likely displace around 2.7 million tons of water – over four times that over the Seawise Giant. But let’s save that for another Megaproject video. 

The story of this giant ship has a somewhat cinematic quality to it. Its record-breaking statistics, its fiery demise and its improbable return to the global stage is a barely believable story arc and it may well be that we never see another ship quite like the Seawise Monster – the largest self-propelled man-made object humans have ever created. 

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