Were this to be a big-budget fiction movie, critics would declare the plot to be absurd: the story of a ship – the largest ever built – being bombed, sunk and then hauled from the seabed and patched up to serve another 21 years.
Strange then, that so few people know the history – and strong link with Hong Kong – behind this gargantuan sea vessel: all 564,000 tonnes of her, 50 feet longer than New York’s Empire State Building is high, with a hold that could swallow London’s St Paul’s Cathedral four times over.
She was the largest self-propelled man-made object on the planet.
The ship, which aptly came to be called the Seawise Giant, was an ultra-large supertanker built by Sumitomo Heavy Industries in Japan for a Greek business mogul. By the time she was ready, in 1979, the tycoon had either changed his mind or had gone bankrupt (reports vary) and refused to take delivery.
After languishing in the shipyard, a deal was struck and the vessel was sold in 1981 to the founder of Hong Kong’s Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL), Tung Chao-yung, father of the city’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. (Seawise was a play on the initials of the founder’s given name.)
Not content with her already stonking size, Tung senior had the ship’s length extended a few more feet by way of ‘jumboization’ – a technique which involves bolting on another section – increasing the capacity by more than 140,000 tonnes.
Seawise Giant was now 1,504 feet in length and 225 feet in beam, record-breakingly large to this day, but not the most nimble of ships. She had a turning circle of about 3km, and it took her 9km to stop from her full speed of 16.5 knots, and that was in good weather.
The tanker’s purpose was to transport crude oil between the United States and the Middle East, which she did for seven years before she found herself an unexpected target during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s.
In May of 1988, while moored off Iran’s Larak Island and loaded with Iranian oil, Seawise Giant was parachute-bombed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces. Unsurprisingly given the flammable nature of her cargo, the tanker raged with fire and sank in shallow water.
Despite being declared a total write-off, Seawise Giant was rescued by a Norwegian company a year later, at the end of the war. She was refloated and towed to Singapore for major repairs, with 3,700 tonnes of new steel being replaced in the process.
Her optimistic new owners, Norman International, renamed her Happy Giant and by October 1991, she was back in operation. Shipping magnate Jørgen Jahre purchased her for US$39 million and once again renamed her, this time Jahre Viking. The mighty tanker resumed her duty ferrying oil for the next 10 years, sailing under the Norwegian flag under the command of a surprisingly small 40-man crew.
There came a point, however, when her size was proving more of a burden than a triumph, as the world has seen with models of aircraft, too. The Airbus A380, for example, which launched as the world’s largest passenger plane in 2005, has been not nearly as popular as hoped, with many airlines today opting instead for smaller, more efficient models. Bigger, it would seem, is not always better when it comes to transport.
Aside from her enormous fuel consumption, another major problem was that Jahre Viking was simply too long and cumbersome to enter many of the world’s key ports, as well as the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal. Fully loaded, she would sit 25 metres beneath the ocean’s surface.
In 2004, her seafaring days were over when she was sold to Norway’s First Olsen Tankers. This time, she was renamed Knock Nevis and operated as a stationary storage facility for tanks at Qatar’s Al Shaheen oil field.
Six years later, in 2010, after a stellar 30-year career, the world’s largest ship was sold for scrap to an Indian breaking yard in Gujarat state, where it took tens of thousands of workers more than a year to strip her down and sell the parts. Captain Surrinder Kumar Mohan, who had helmed the tanker when she was called Jahre Viking, said at the time: “I’ve been attached with this giant vessel for the last 10 years. To my great regret, I do not think another vessel of the size of Jahre Viking will ever be built.”
Today, all that remains of the Seawise Giant is, somewhat poetically, the vessel’s 36-tonne anchor. This massive keepsake from the ocean-going leviathan is on permanent display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, in Central.
Still afloat – Four of the world’s mega-ships you can see or board today
The OOCL Hong Kong Currently the world’s largest container ship, with a deadweight tonnage of 197,317, the OOCL Hong Kong was built in 2017 by Orient Overseas Container Line, and is capable of holding 21,413 20-foot containers. At more than 1,300 feet long and nearly 200 wide, it’s basically four football pitches of boat.
The SS United States Still the fastest cruise liner ever built, this ship crossed the Atlantic on its 1951 maiden voyage in just three days, 12 hours and 12 minutes. That’s an average speed of 34.51 knots. By comparison, most of today’s cruise ships have top speeds of about 20 knots. She retired in 1969 and was towed to her current location at Pier 84 in South Philadelphia. Her ultimate fate hangs in the balance.
Harmony of the Seas Currently the largest cruise ship in the world, with a maximum capacity of 6,687 passengers, Harmony of the Seas is operated by Royal Caribbean International and has a record gross tonnage of 226,953 and a length of 1,118 feet, not to mention 18 decks and 23 swimming pools. Come April 2018, however, Royal Caribbean will beat its own record with the launch of Symphony of the Seas, with a gross tonnage of 230,000 and passenger capacity of 5,500.
Oasis of the Seas The most expensive cruise ship ever built, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas cost US$1.4 billion to build and was launched in 2009. It has room for 6,318 guests and boasts 37 bars, 24 restaurants and more than 900 sq metres of retail space.
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2018