Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

By Jim Shaw 

The World's Biggest Ships


A look at the world's largest ship, the 403,342-gt Pioneering Spirit, just after it has clipped off and hoisted the 13,500-ton topsides of the decommissioned Yme oil platform in the North Sea this past August. Photo courtesy of Allseas.

Considered the world's largest ship by displacement, beam and volume, the 1,253-foot by 407-foot topsides removal/installation vessel Pioneering Spirit (see Pacific Maritime Magazine, March 2016) completed its first job earlier this year by lifting the 13,500-ton topsides of the decommissioned Yme oil platform in the North Sea. Next year the 403,342-gt vessel will tackle the 23,000-ton topsides of Shell's Brent Delta platform, which will be a world-record single lift of an offshore structure.

The South Korean-built vessel, which has cost more than $2.8 billion to construct and outfit, is able to single lift topsides of up to 48,000 tons and jackets up to 25,000 tons. It is operated by Swiss-based engineering contractor Allseas, which is already planning to build an even larger ship that will be capable of lifting topsides of up to 72,000 tons.

Looking back, the title of "World's Largest Ship" has always captivated the general public, which has recently seen the largest container ships and largest cruise vessels delivered, and a look back into history discloses how the size of ships has continued to grow over the years.

The Largest Ships Through Time

Closure of the Suez Canal in 1956, and again in 1967, prompted the construction of very large tankers to carry crude oil from the Middle East around the Cape of Good Hope to Europe and America. Prior to the mid-1960s it was usually a passenger liner that could claim title as World's Largest Ship. The title itself was first widely publicized for the 18,914-gt Great Eastern in 1858, truly a vessel ahead of its time, measuring 692 feet (211m) by 120 feet (36.6m) and already "post-panamax" because of its wide paddle wheels.

The next ship to make a mark on the minds of the public as World's Largest was White Star's ill-fated 46,329-gt Titanic of 1912, which measured 883 feet (269m) by 92.5 feet (28.2m). Just prior to World War II the 83,673-gt Queen Elizabeth was launched. Measuring 1,029 feet (313.5m) by 118.4 feet (36.1m) she was too long and too wide to transit the Panama Canal. The great Cunarder held the record as world's largest ship for many years, but the post-war oil boom, and a continual increase in the size of tankers ordered by such owners as Aristotelis Onassis, Stavros Niarchos, and Daniel K. Ludwig, finally produced vessels that were wider, longer and of greater hull volume than the aging Queen. In 1966 the 206,106-dwt Idemitsu Maru, built in Japan, ushered in the age of the Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC). With a hull volume of 107,957 gt, a length of 1,128.5 feet (344m) and a beam of 164 feet (50m) it easily took on the title of world's largest ship.

The "Golden Years"

Over the next decade, with the Suez Canal closed, tanker owners enjoyed their golden years and continued to build larger ships to reap greater income. Annual profits hauling crude around the Cape often exceed operating expenses by more than 800 percent and a large tanker could sometimes be paid for in less than ten voyages. By the time the 28-year-old Queen Elizabeth was retired in 1968 the 326,585-dwt Universe Ireland had arrived on the scene, the first tanker to exceed 320,000 tons deadweight, and the first of the Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCC). Forecasting a continuing troubled future for the Suez Canal, which had already been shut twice, Société Maritime Shell and Cie Nationale de Navigation of France decided to build four huge crude carriers for the Cape trade that would break the 500,000-dwt barrier. By this time two 400,000-dwt plus ships, the 483,662-dwt Globtik Tokyo and 483,960-dwt Globtik London, were already under construction in Japan.

The Largest Cargo Ships Ever Built

The contract for the French behemoths was awarded to Chantiers de l'Atlantique at St. Nazaire in 1971. By March 1976 the first vessel, the 553,662-dwt Batillus, was ready to be floated out of its graving dock. The ship measured 1,359 feet (414m) by 206.7 feet (63m) and was designed to sail on a loaded draft of 93.5 feet (28.5M). Cargo and ballast were accommodated in 10 center tanks and 15 wing tanks.

Four Stal Laval steam turbines of 64,800 HP, driving twin screws ahead of twin canted rudders, produced a loaded service speed of 16.5 knots while 19 knots could be accomplished in ballast. Fuel consumption at the service speed was well more than 320 tons per day. Three sisters followed, the 553,662-dwt Bellamya, also in 1976; the 555,051-dwt Pierre Guillaumat in 1977 and the 554,974-dwt Prairial in 1979. By virtue of a few centimeters in length and beam, Pierre Guillaumat, named after the founder of French oil company Elf Aquitaine, became the largest ship ever built, even though several Asian yards were already working on tanker designs approaching 800,000-dwt.

The "Dark Years"

The stumbling block to further tanker growth came on October 6th, 1973, the start of the Yom Kippur War, after which OPEC imposed an oil embargo that increased world oil prices by 70 percent. The demand for petroleum nose-dived and tanker owners, including Shell, found themselves increasingly unable to find employment for their massive vessels. To keep the ships active, steaming speeds were reduced from 16 to 6 knots, lengthening the journey time between the Middle East and Europe to over three months. Despite the speed reductions, large-scale lay-ups soon began and many tankers were sold early for demolition, including the Pierre Guillaumat. The world's biggest-built ship was sold to South Korean breakers in 1983 after only six years of service. Batillus was placed in lay-up at Vestnes, Norway in that same year, and was joined by sister Bellamya within a few months. When scrapping prices rose again, both tankers were moved to South Korea for breaking in 1985/86.

By good fortune, the last of the quartet, Prairial, managed to escape the blast furnaces and was not broken up until late 2003. The massive tanker had managed to find employment under the names Sea Brilliance and Hellas Fos before arriving off Pakistan's Gadani Beach as Sea Giant, a fitting name for the final survivor.

C.Y. Tung's Tankers

During the buildup of the great tanker fleets one Asian owner was almost overlooked. China's C. Y. Tung (Tung Chao-Yung), who had formed Island Navigation in 1940, took delivery of the 70,000-dwt Oriental Giant from Japan's Sasebo Shipyard in 1959. Although somewhat smaller than the 'Universal' series of crude carriers then being built for American Daniel K. Ludwig, the ship's construction introduced Tung to the world's tanker business.

Tung was becoming one of Asia's more successful shipowners at the time and quickly developed a penchant for passenger liners. He formed Orient Overseas Line shortly after taking delivery of the Oriental Giant and began amassing a collection of elderly passenger ships, including Queen Elizabeth.

In the early 1970s, like many other owners, Tung was caught with a number of tanker construction contracts signed with shipyards just as charter rates for the big vessels began to plummet. He was forced to leave two of these in the graving dock at South Korea's Hyundai Shipyard, the yard then having to complete the vessels to its own account as Korea Star and Korea Banner.

Seawise Giant

Several years later, with his balance books much improved, Tung found a similar tanker abandoned by the company that had ordered it, Greece's Atlantian Shipping, at Sumitomo Heavy Industries' facility at Oppama, Japan. Sumitomo had been forced to complete the 418,610-dwt ship to its own account after which it was given the yard name "Oppama" and placed in lay-up. Recognizing a good deal, and with a specific idea in mind, Tung purchased the 1,237-foot (377m) vessel in 1979 and had it re-christened Seawise Giant. Although he originally intended to have the ship lengthened in Taiwan, where he made his residence, Tung instead sent the vessel to Japan's Nippon Kokkan K.K.'s yard for the insertion of a 265.5-foot (81.45m) mid-section. The already massive tanker emerged in 1980 with a length of 1,504 feet (458.45m), a beam of 226 feet (68.8m) a loaded displacement of 647,955 tons and a light displacement of 83,192 tons: the largest ship the world had ever seen. By comparison, the US Navy's Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, not counting the width of its the flight deck, measures 1,092 feet (332.8m) by 134 feet (40.8m) and has a loaded displacement of 98,335 tons and a light displacement of 77,600 tons. In hull volume, the Seawise Giant's 238,558 gt easily exceeded the largest passenger ship built to that date, the 148,528-gt Queen Mary 2.

Jahre Viking

There were two small drawbacks to the rebuilt Seawise Giant. Its increased capacity, incorporating 12 center tanks and 30 wing tanks, produced a loaded draft of more than 80 feet (24.6m) and the ship's original two steam turbines, geared to a single shaft, produced a service speed of only 13 knots. It made Tung the owner of the world's largest ship but it seldom made Tung a profit. After several seasons of unemployment Seawise Giant was chartered to Pemex in 1983 for use as an FSO (Floating Storage and Offloading) unit off Galveston, Texas. After three years it was moved to the Persian Gulf in 1986 for similar work. Unfortunately, over the next two years it increasingly became a target for Iraqi aircraft during the Iran-Iraq war and was severely damaged off Larak Island, near the Strait of Hormuz, on May 14, 1988. Declared a constructive total loss, the ship could not be salvaged until after the war when it was re-floated and towed to Brunei Bay for indefinite lay-up.

In 1990 the burnt-out hulk was acquired by Norman International of Norway, sent to Singapore's Keppel Shipyard for reconstruction and renamed Happy Giant. Over 3,200 tons of steel and 32 kilometers of piping had to be replaced while a completely new deckhouse was fabricated and installed. Before re-delivery the rebuilt ship was sold to Norwegian shipowner Jörgen Jahre and rechristened Jahre Viking.

Ignoble End

The next decade was to see Jahre Viking gainfully employed lifting cargoes of crude in the Middle East for discharge in either northern Europe or the United States. As the world's largest ship, it was capable of loading 4,240,865 barrels of oil, the value of its cargo changing with every voyage. When oil was selling for $50 a barrel the cargo was valued at more than $210 million. Operating expenses for the vessel, sailing with a crew of 40, amounted to about $10,500 per day, exclusive of Shipyard maintenance, while it's fuel consumption exceeded 200 tons daily. On the spot market its charter price varied widely but the vessel reported an income of $34,500 per day in 1998, falling to about $22,000 per day by 2002.

Because of its single hull, the Jahre Viking's trading days as an ocean-going tanker hit a dead-end but in 2003 it was selected for use as a Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) unit by Maersk Oil Qatar.

Under the ownership of First Olsen Tankers, Jahre Viking moved around the Cape of Good Hope to Dubai Shipyards for conversion. This involved extensive steel replacement and pipework as well as the installation of a new mooring system and the construction of a helicopter landing platform. The 30-year-old tanker then entered service at the Al Shasheen oil field off Oman under the name Knock Nevis until retired in 2009 and demolished in India the following year.

Larger Ships?

Will a larger cargo ship ever be built? Although Allseas may indeed build a larger companion to Pioneering Spirit, which has already been given the tentative name Amazing Grace, tankers appear to have reached their zenith. Currently, the largest tankers in service are Euronav's 441,9893-dwt TI Oceania and TI Europe, which measure 1,247 feet by 223 feet and have a capacity of 509,484 long tons. Two sister ships have been converted for oil storage use and TI Oceania and TI Europe may join them.

The largest ship ever built, and still retaining that crown when cargo capacity is considered, was the short-lived 555,051-dwt Pierre Guillaumat, completed in 1977 and broken up only six years later. Although the third of four sisters, the vessel was built to slightly larger measurements than her sisters, 414.23-meters (1,359 feet) by 63.05-meters (206 feet 10 inches), perhaps to honor her namesake, Pierre Guillaumat, founder of the French oil company Elf Aquitaine. Photo courtesy of Compagnie Nationale de Navigation.

Among dry bulk carriers three dozen Valemax ore carriers have been completed for the Brazil - China trade and three dozen more are being built. The largest of these vessels, which were not allowed into Chinese ports when first introduced and had to transship their cargoes, measure 1,188 feet (363m) by 213 feet (65m) and have a deadweight of over 400,000 tons.

In the container sector several companies have now ordered vessels that will be capable of handling over 20,000 TEUs. These ships, being built in Japan and South Korea, will measure 1,312.5 feet (400m) by 192.9 feet (58.8m) and will be too large for the new Panama Canal locks as well as most US ports. In the cruise sector Royal Caribbean's 226,963-gt Harmony of the Seas is currently the world's largest passenger ship, measuring 1,188 feet (362m) by 217 feet (66m), but could be eclipsed by a sister as she has already done to siblings Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas.

It can be remembered that Norway's Kloster Group once envisioned a "World City Phoenix" vessel that would measure 1,247 feet (380m) by 252 feet (77m) while an even larger ocean-going residence for 50,000 people and 10,000 guests was once planned by Florida-based Freedom Ship International that would have displaced an estimated 2.7 million tons but the size of these leviathans could never be matched with a financing package of equal proportion.


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