They’re the monsters of the sea, vessels so large that even the biblical Leviathan would cower before them. Bulk carriers today make up over 15 per cent of all merchant fleets, hauling invaluable cargo many thousands of miles across the world’s oceans. Like supertankers (also featured here), they’re vital to the global economy, a mass-employment industry that braves pirates, brutal storms and wind-lashed seas to connect distant corners of the globe.
In decades past, some of the largest combination bulk carriers proved alarmingly vulnerable. Between 1990 and 1997 alone, some 99 bulkers sank to the murky depths, often taking their crews with them. More than 650 mariners were lost during that period. Safety has improved considerably since that time, though many bulk carrier wrecks still haunt the seafloor; great, rusting hulks, they serve as reminders of the untamed and unpredictable nature of the oceans.
Stricken oil tankers, too, have at times succumbed to the forces of nature and the unforgiving shallows of coastal waters. With that in mind, this article examines some of the largest vessels ever to have foundered, from shipwrecked bulk freighters (some of them lost amid mysterious and tragic circumstances) to the giant forms of broken, abandoned supertankers.
Shipwrecked Bulk Carrier MV Selendang Ayu
(Image: US Coast Guard)
In late November 2004, the Malaysian bulk carrier Selendang Ayu set off from Seattle bound for Xiamen, China. It was a freezing cold winter and winds were harsh. The enormous cargo ship was due to reach Asia before the new year. It never made it.
Instead, a cracked liner on one of the engine’s cylinders left the ship helplessly adrift off the coast of Alaska’s remote, wind-lashed outer islands. As engineers desperately tried to restart the engine, the giant ship began to drift. Buffeted by winds and swept by waves, it resisted all efforts to tug or tow it. On December 8th 2004, at 19:15, the Selendang Ayu ran aground and split in two. What followed was a catastrophic oil spill and a terrible loss of life.
As the waves pounded the ship, helicopters were charted in to save the crew. Unfortunately, one wave crested too high, sending a helicopter spinning into the sea below. Six men lost their lives, a terrible end to that fateful day.
SS Torrey Canyon
The name Torrey Canyon still evokes chilling memories in the minds of a generation. On March 18, 1967, the supertanker ran aground between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. It was on its way from Kuwait, and had a hold containing thousands of tons of crude oil. As the stricken vessel began to break up, that oil flooded out into the waters surrounding Cornwall. The efforts to contain the environmental disaster that followed were some of the most-dramatic in British history.
The government elected to burn the oil, turning the wreck into a flaming ruin. To do this, jets were scrambled, and an airstrike was launched on the abandoned wreck of the Torrey Canyon. The RAF pounded the shipwrecked supertanker with bombs, but high tides kept putting the fire out, letting the oil flow free. By the time the slick was finally burned, the UK government had hit the ship with 161 bombs, 16 rockets, and 1,500 tons of napalm. The resulting blaze could be seen from the English coast.
Wrecked Supertanker Amoco Cadiz
When the vast crude-carrying supertanker Amoco Cadiz hit Portsall Rocks on March 16, 1978, she began the process that would lead to one of the largest oil spills in recorded history. The ill-fated ship was carrying some 1,604,500 barrels of crude from Saudi Arabia and Iran, and beached only three miles off the French coast of Brittany. When high winds and pounding waves caused the supertanker to fracture into three huge pieces, the stage was set for a then-unprecedented environmental disaster.
Around 220,000 tons of oil escaped into the ocean, poisoning marine life and rendering the local ecosystem hideously toxic. While the Amoco Cadiz spill has since been overtaken in magnitude, it nevertheless remains one of the 10 worst spills of all time. For comparison, the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, which decimated the Gulf of Mexico and set records, was only around twice the size of the Amoco Cadiz spill. The notorious Exxon Valdez spill wasn’t even half as big. The Amoco Cadiz disaster remains perhaps the largest in living French memory.
(Image: steviej 007)
Some 4 km beneath the surface of the Sea of Japan lies a small bronze plaque commemorating a tragic event. Fixed to the broken wreckage of a sunken bulk carrier cargo ship in 1994, it marks the final resting place of the British-built MV Derbyshire (originally named Liverpool Bridge) and her crew. Launched in 1975, the proud ship last set sail on a cargo run between Canada and Japan in 1980. Some 230 miles from Okinawa, she ran into the devastating Typhoon Orchid. The bulk carrier Derbyshire was sunk so quickly her crew didn’t even have time to send out a Mayday call.
The sinking of the Derbyshire tragically killed 42 crewmen, along with two of their wives. In sheer weight, it remains the largest British ship ever to be lost at sea. The incident and the fate of the giant vessel were shrouded mystery, with no trace of the Derbyshire uncovered for 14 years. Six weeks after the wrecked bulk carrier went under, a single empty lifeboat was spotted by a Japanese tanker, bobbing in the ocean. The final hours of those who managed to launch that one desperate craft are also eerily uncertain. Like the rest of MV Derbyshire’s crew, they remain forever lost at sea.
MV Kowloon Bridge
(Images; Merseyside Maritime Museum)
If the sinking of the Derbyshire was a sudden, shocking event, the wrecking of MV Kowloon Bridge was like a slow, drawn-out disaster unfolding in real time. Things began to go wrong on November 20, 1986, when the ore-bulk-oil combination carrier anchored in Bantry Bay, Ireland. The frame had started to crack during an Atlantic crossing, and the crew were desperate to save her. Instead, things quickly went from bad to worse.
While in harbour, the Kowloon Bridge’s anchor snapped, sending the massive ship drifting into the path of an oil tanker. The crew were forced to run her around to avoid collision, destroying the steering in the process. Unfortunately, the bulk carrier then drifted free, heading out into the ocean. The crew evacuated, leaving her for dead, only for the wind to turn and the ship to nearly crash headlong into Baltimore Bay. Finally, the abandoned bulk carrier washed up on a nearby reef, where she broke into three pieces and sank beneath the churning waves.
Loullia Wreck off Tiran Island
(Image: Red Sea Adventurer)
Between the sun-bleached shores of Egypt and the endless desert plains of Saudi Arabia lies one of the most-haunting wrecks yet discovered. A smashed and rusted supertanker lying on the edges of Tiran Island, the remains of the Louilla have quietly decayed there since 1981. Now ravaged by time, burned by the harsh Arabian sun, and corroded by generations of saltwater waves smashing up against its hull, the wrecked Louilla has become an awesome sight.
The history of the abandoned supertanker is less-dramatic than the wreck itself. Launched in 1952, the Louilla was on a cargo run from Aqaba, Jordan to Suez when she hit the reef off Tiran Island. No-one was hurt, and the crew actually stayed onboard for some time, trying to figure out how to refloat her. However, this proved impossible, and the Louilla was eventually abandoned. Now she lives on as a grand, photogenic wreck, visited often by divers and photographers eager to catch some of this bygone ship’s magic.
MS Berge Istra
(Image: Auke Visser)
The fate of the ore-bulk-oil carrier Berge Istra long presented something of a mystery in nautical circles. After leaving Brazil for Japan in December 1975, the Berge Istra suffered a terrible calamity in the wild emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean. As if out of nowhere, three vast explosions shook the enormous ship, causing the deck to split wide open. As the crew panicked, the bulk carrier broke in two and sank, dragging down nearly everyone on board. Only Imeldo Barreto León and Epifanio López survived, and only then after spending 20 days adrift on a tiny life raft.
It wasn’t until many years later that investigators managed to figure out what had happened. The Berge Istra was carrying non-explosive iron ore at the time, but on the previous voyage had been transporting oil. After unloading, the containers had not been cleaned properly, leaving a deadly cloud of combustible gas trapped in the hold. When the nearest generator was started, the gas ignited, sending the Berge Istra spiralling to her doom. At the time, the wrecked bulk carrier was the largest ship of any country to ever be lost at sea.
MS Berge Vanga
(Image: Auke Visser)
The total destruction of the Berge Istra should have acted as a warning to those wanting to transport oil and iron ore together. Sadly, no-one had figured out the cause by the time the Berge Vanga launched. Like her sister ship, she was bound from Brazil to Japan. Like her sister ship, she was carrying iron ore. And like her sister ship, her hold was heavy with trapped, flammable gas.
On 29 October 1979, the Berge Vanga abruptly vanished. No crew members or wreckage were ever found. Today, it’s suspected that a tremendous explosion was triggered by the starting of a generator, blowing the entire ship into broken, twisted pieces of metal. The explosion and subsequent sinking of the vast bulk carrier claimed 40 lives, with no trace of those killed recovered. As a result of the Berge Istra and Berge Vanga going under, combination ships for transporting oil and iron ore were discontinued, lest more lives be lost in such a sudden, horrific manner.
Abandoned Supertanker River Princess
(Images: Jonathan Hodd)
Not every wrecked supertanker comes complete with a tragic backstory. Some are simply awesome to behold. Such is the case with the River Princess. On a rainy June night in 2000, the ship ran aground off the coast of Goa, India. Lashed by the ferocious power of early monsoon storms, the River Princess had completely lost her way. When the storm finally cleared, the crew discovered to their astonishment that they were less than 100 metres from the shore.
The result was one of the most-spectacular shipwrecks anywhere on Earth. Within easy swimming distance of Goa’s beaches, the abandoned supertanker was left to rust away, drawing tourists and locals to gawp at this monumental landmark. The local government was less-impressed, claiming the wrecked supertanker had become a haven for drug-dealers. The hulk of the abandoned River Princess was finally cleared by 2015, and despite the controversy, there’s no denying the raw visual power of the photos seen above.
MV Smart (Wrecked Bulk Carrier)
(Image: Dave Savides/Zululand Observer)
One of the most-recent entries on this list, the MV Smart only ran aground five short years ago, in 2011. At the time, the tanker was destined for China, where the crew intended to offload nearly 150,000 tons of coal. They never even got close. Only shortly after loading, the ill-fated bulk carrier set off into crashing waves and 10 metre swells. Less than an hour after leaving port, it had grounded on a sandbank off the coast of South Africa. Its journey barely begun, the ship was already sunk.
The resulting wreck split in half, leaving two huge hulks of rusting iron drifting in the waves. While the cargo was largely salvaged, the dramatic grounding left an equally dramatic shipwreck that could be seen from shore. It took two whole years for the salvage to be completed and the remains of the abandoned MV Smart to be removed from the sandbar, with work only finally wrapping up in September 2015.
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