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.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.