Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

By Jim Shaw 

Getting Rid of Old Ships – The World of Shipbreaking

 

March 1, 2018

Breaking yards established at Kaohsiung, Taiwan in the 1960s made use of staggered berths equipped with derricks taken off previously scrapped vessels to speed the demolition process. Photo courtesy of How Zwe Shu.

The shipbreaking industry has been around as long as there have been ships but over the past half-century it has gravitated to regions offering both inexpensive land and cheap labor. Prior to World War II, yards in Europe, the US and Japan handled most shipbreaking, with the well known Ward yard in the United Kingdom gaining public attention by breaking up some of Britain's best known ocean liners and naval vessels.

After the end of the war, and with many worn-out ships to dispose of, Taiwan became a major destination for vessels approaching the end of their economic lifespans. This saw the Port of Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan, become a major base for the industry where vessels could be brought alongside makeshift berths and cut down using semi-skilled labor and oxy/acetylene torches. However, once the land supporting these waterfront businesses became too valuable for demolition in the 1980s the mudflats of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh rose to prominence by offering even cheaper labor as well as lax environmental regulations and low taxes.

In Europe, what remained of the shipbreaking industry gravitated from the north to less expensive locations in Spain and Turkey, with the latter nation still continuing to compete with Asian breakers for smaller ships. In the United States most shipbreaking has been consolidated along the 17-mile shipping channel leading to the Port of Brownsville,Texas, near Mexico, where much of the resulting scrap is processed, while a small yard at Port Colborne, Ontario handles some Canadian and Great Lakes ships.

Kaohsiung – Once the Shipbreaking Leader

The process of breaking up a ship is both dangerous and labor-intensive. In 1979 this writer was sent to Kaohsiung, Taiwan to report on the demolition of P&O Line's Arcadia, which had helped pioneer the Alaska cruise industry in the early 1970s.

At the time Kaohsiung was the largest ship breaking center in the world, with Hong Kong's Junk Bay a close second and South Korea closing rapidly. Arcadia, built by Great Britain's famous John Brown yard at Clydebank in 1953, had been purchased by a Japanese broker in 1978 and resold to a Kaohsiung-based company for demolition. By that time the steam turbine propelled ship, built for the Australian immigrant trade, had steamed more than 2.5 million miles and was ready for retirement.

Through the auspices of the Regional Association of Old Ship Demolition Engineering Industry, a ponderously titled organization that served as an umbrella agency for the shipbreakers of Kaohsiung, I was introduced to Mr. Wang Fu Yin of Keun Hwa Steel who would be my guide though the yards. As an English-speaking staff member of one of the region's larger steel works he was in a good position to answer most of my questions concerning the industry.

Dah Jen and Dah Lin Pu

In the 1970s ship demolition was done at two major facilities located within the southern reaches of Kaohsiung harbor, Dah Jen and Dah Lin Pu, where vessels were brought alongside rather than "beached" as is done today in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This offered a much quicker demolition cycle than beaching as cut sections of ships could be loaded directly onto trucks for transport to regional mills rather than slowly pulled across mudflats for additional cutting.

Our first destination was the enormous Dah Jen complex located only a few miles from the city's airport. On our way through Kaohsiung our car was constantly passed by overburdened trucks transporting huge chunks of metal to the surrounding mills. Once in the yard itself we found ourselves surrounded by what appeared to be an endless wall of obsolete vessels; smoke, dust and powdered rust permeating the air. Around us winches were pulling cables taunt as heavy sections of metal were torn loose from hulls while fans of sparks cascaded down from hulls where workers were cutting ships apart from the inside out.

Shipbreaking 101

In answer to several of my questions, Mr. Wang explained how Kaohsiung's breaking industry worked. Ships were acquired on the world market through either independent brokers or the China Dismantled Vessel Trading Corporation, a purchasing cooperative formed by the breakers themselves. As is the practice today, the price was largely determined by a vessel's Light Displacement Tonnage (LDT). This is the weight of a complete but unloaded, un-fueled and un-provisioned ship. As an example, the world's largest ship of that era, the stretched petroleum tanker Seawise Giant, had a loaded displacement of 647,955 tons but a light displacement of only 83,192 tons.

Mr. Wang noted that the actual price paid per vessel varied according to market conditions, the type of ship, its construction, the quality of its steel and what additional material or equipment it might still be found aboard. This included fuel oil as well as spare propellers and shafts.

Higher prices would normally be paid for vessels having large amounts of flat steel plate, such as tankers and bulk carriers, while lower prices might be offered for passenger liners and refrigerator ships, both having complicated interiors and large amounts of wood and insulation to deal with.

During our tour of Dah Jen it could be seen that there was very little sympathy shown to ships in the actual breaking process. Great liners were torn apart, plundered, and melted down just as rapidly as the rustiest of old general cargo ships. Mr. Wang noted that each breaker maintained his own berthing area, which was sub-leased from the Kaohsiung Harbor Authority.

The docks were staggered in such a manner that they allowed about a third of a ship alongside, the other two-thirds jutting out into the water. This permitted the greatest number of ships to be broken up in the most compact area.

Demolition would usually commence several days, and sometimes several weeks, after a vessel had arrived off port. Paper work would have to be cleared, import duties tabulated, business licenses obtained and various harbor fees paid. When everything was in order a vessel would be allowed to come alongside and its crew released for the long flight home.

Subcontractors

Once a ship was berthed the first of a number of subcontractors would scramble on board. Kaohsiung breakers at the time used various local contractors to "clean the ship," with each group having its own specialty. The first group would normally remove loose items – furnishings, tables, chairs, mattresses, lamps, cutlery, even the galley sink – all of it going over the side and into waiting trucks for delivery to second-hand shops. Next on board would be the wood removers. This group would attack the cabins, holds and decks, stripping timbers, planks, shelving and veneers, anything considered flammable, the wood itself being bundled up for sale ashore.

Once flammables were removed the cutters would come aboard. They were considered the craftsmen of the industry and their speed largely determined the profit to be made on each vessel.

At Kaohsiung the stern of a ship would usually be dismantled first, with large sections of the hull cut and lowered onto waiting trucks. The shoreside machinery used in this process – old derricks, winches and rigging – had been removed from ships long ago melted down.

Cutting would continue down to the engine room where pumps, generators and compressors would be removed for resale while the main engine would be demolished. The propeller shaft would then be removed and the bronze propeller lifted clear, its blades to be cut off by drilling. Work would then continue forward, the ship rising slowly upwards with each ton of metal removed.

Rigging and masts would come down and deck winches cut loose, all to be lowered overboard. In six weeks the average freighter or tanker could be reduced to its double-bottom, which would be towed to a separate beach and pulled ashore for final rendering.

Arcadia

To visit Arcadia we drove around the lower end of Kaohsiung harbor to the Dah Lin Pu facility where the white-hulled ship had been positioned alongside the large tanker Andros Apollon. The scene was bleak as the 100,000-dwt crude carrier, less than a decade old, was already being cut apart while Arcadia had been intentionally listed over so her remaining fuel could be pumped off, the oil going into her once pristine lifeboats for transport ashore.

At the top of the pilot ladder a guard listened patiently to Mr. Wang's excuse for our coming aboard, then waved us on into the ship's dark interior. There was neither electricity nor lights. The only sound came from a motorized pump that was working on the liner's fuel supply far below. With flashlights in hand we proceeded forward along a dark corridor until we came to the main staircase. Here, workers were moving mattresses in bundles up to the outside decks.

As we passed one cabin, its door ajar, I looked in to see the bedding gone but two glasses still standing in their holders at the sink while two white shaving towels still hung on their hooks below. Orange life vests were still visible overflowing from the closets. Nothing had been disturbed.

Moving upward, we entered a lounge where we encountered more workers cutting and rolling up sections of carpet, the furniture having already gone over the side into waiting trucks. On the outside promenade we found yet another crew busily chiseling up the wooden decks, the tropical hardwood going into large bundles.

Nautical Antiques

In a small room forward we came across Mr. Ming H. Wu of Rainbow Enterprises who was busy sorting through light fixtures taken from Arcadia's various public rooms. Mr. Ming was a local antiques dealer and had purchased most of Arcadia's decorative furnishing and brass items. Beyond him were stacked many of the ship's red and white life preservers as well as brass staircase railings, bed lamps and wooden deck chairs. He explained that all of the items would be shipped overseas, largely to antique dealers in United States, Europe and Japan.

Continuing to move forward and upward we came to the navigation bridge. On entering through a staircase we could see that the nearby officer's quarters and Captain's cabin had been ransacked. Debris was strewn everywhere. Furnishings and cabinets taken from the rooms were stacked out on the bridge wing, waiting to be lowered overboard, while the bridge itself, along with the chart room, was bare except for loose wiring where equipment had been torn loose.

The Rolling Mills

After disembarking Arcadia, we drove a short distance beyond the breaking yards to an area where several rolling mills had sprung up, most constructed by the more successful shipbreakers. At these mills, salvaged hull plate was being cut into narrow strips then heated red-hot in furnaces and forced through hydraulic rollers. After several passes the plate emerged as rounded steel reinforcement bar, ready for the market that same day.

More awkward pieces of steel scrap and piping were sent to larger mills nearby, one of which was Mr. Wang's Keun Hwa Steel, to be melted down and re-cast into ingots. The ingots could then be sold "as is" or run through the rolling mills to emerge, like the strips, as reinforcement bar. Smaller items – motors, valves, pumps, even lifeboats, would find their way into shops located along Kaohsiung's back streets where they would be cleaned up and resold to operators of Taiwanese fishing vessels, Hong Kong junks, Thai river craft and Singapore Bum boats.

The Shift to South Asia

The Kaohsiung yards continued to dominate the shipbreaking business into the 1980s, largely because of their high productivity, but containerization and several well-publicized accidents brought about their demise.

A decade after my visit, the Kaohsiung Harbor Bureau, following an explosion at one of the yards that killed 14 workers, ordered breakers not to bid on anymore ships as it wanted to redevelop the remaining berths into container handling facilities. By this time new yards for ship demolition had been established in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and China, leaving only about 40 breakers still active at Kaohsiung, with 243 vessels demolished in 1987, the last full year of operation. Thereafter, the sands of Pakistan's Gadani Beach rose to prominence, followed closely by yards established in India's Gujarat State, at Alang, and in Bangladesh north of Chittagong.

Pakistan's government had noted the value of shipbreaking as an employment provider by the late 1970s and reduced import duties on old ships while declaring Gadani to be a "legal port" for importing purposes. Under this policy employment at the beach grew rapidly, to over 30,000 workers producing an average of one million tons of scrap annually. In 1983 shipbreaking also got underway at Alang, using the same beaching techniques established at Gadani, while similar yards were opened in Bangladesh.

The Modern Era

Today most shipbreaking continues to be handled in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh but the profits of the past are less obtainable than in prior years because China, a shipbreaker itself, has flooded the market with cheap steel. This, and moves by Europe and the United States to curtail environmentally harmful demolition, has seen fewer ships moved to South Asia for breaking.

Nevertheless, of the 933 large vessels broken up worldwide in 2016, nearly 80 percent were demolished in the region, with India taking the larger proportion but Bangladesh the greater deadweight because of the larger-sized ships purchased. Pakistan has seen its share decline following a number of accidents that closed several yards but it still managed to handle 117 ships.

Accidents and pollution continue to bedevil the shipbreaking industry. Although progress has been made, both still continue to take place on a regular basis. In 2009 the UN's International Maritime Organization (IMO) passed the Hong Kong Convention (HKC) with guidelines for safe shipbreaking but it has yet to enter force, although several nations and yards, including over 40 in India, have agreed to meet its requirements.

A ship is first cleared of flammables, including wood and lumber, before breaking commences, the latter normally sold ashore for local construction purposes. Photo by Jim Shaw.

The European Union enacted its own Ship Recycling Regulation for European Ships at the end of 2013 but it is known that most vessels exchange ownership, flag and name before heading off to the breakers. This includes former US-owned ships, such as the Strong/Mariner ATB combination once operated by Foss, which arrived off Gadani Beach last year under the Comoros flag, and the ex-Matson ship Horizon Trader, a 42-year-old box boat that ended up at Alang despite being originally sold to US breakers.

A promising trend is the fact that more shipowners, including Denmark's AP Moller-Maersk and Singapore's China Navigation, are actively engaging with shipbreakers to improve worker safety and decrease yard pollution. This, in combination with expanded adherence to the Hong Kong Convention, may bring about a more sophisticated demolition industry.

 
 

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