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.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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