this week's review
January 16, 2001

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click to try to find supership SUPERSHIP
by Noel Mostert

Seagoing hubris did not end with Titanic...

Why Giant Tankers Are Anything but Super

Originally serialized in the New Yorker in the wake of the early 1970's energy crisis, this book is an in-depth history and analysis of the biggest moving objects ever built: oil supertankers.

A quarter mile long, half a football field wide, and with several cavernous tanks each the size of a cathedral, these behemoths carry enough crude oil to meet the energy needs of a small city for a year. Their small crews and giant payloads maximize shipping company profits, but their sheer size is no guarantee against the elements and mismanagement, two factors which, when coupled with fundamental structural instability, have caused scores of sinkings and spills since the first supertankers were built in response to the temporary closing of the Suez Canal in 1956.

Written over a decade before the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, the author already had plenty of disasters to cite as examples of these ships' inherent unreliabilty and inevitable environmental impacts. But worse than the headline-grabbing collisions, explosions, and slicks is the day-to-day trickle of deadly pollution these monster ships leave in their wakes—over a million tons annually casually released into oceans during routine cleaning, bilge pumping, and emergency dumping in stormy seas. Leaking, cracking, colliding, exploding, sinking, these VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers) are apt symbols for the wasteful societies whose heedless practices first made supertankers a "necessity."

Mostert takes as his frame of reference a voyage he took aboard the 220,000 ton Ardshiel in 1973 and his appraisal of his ship and the supertanker fleet is objective and even-handed, delivered in a gripping style that avoids sensationalism. The maritime history is fascinating, the statistics startling, and the litany of mishap appalling. But more than an eyewitness account of these outsized ships and the overworked and underqualified crews that run them, Supership is a stunning expose of the oil business and the naked greed which drives it without moral compass.

This book is due an updated edition. In the meantime, here's a list of spills of 10M gallons or more as of 1997. Things are not getting better.

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