'Supership' Author's Prophecy: Still More Oil on Troubled Waters

In the summer of 1971, Noël Mostert boarded the 214,000-ton British supertanker Ardshiel. It was a ship as wide as a football field, nearly a quarter-mile long, and capable of carrying enough crude oil in her tanks to supply the total energy needs of a city of 40,000 for an entire year. A native South African now living in Paris and Tangier, journalist Mostert planned to write a simple narrative of his journey on this new kind of vessel from Europe to the Persian Gulf and back again, a journey of more than 20,000 miles around the treacherous Cape of Good Hope. The Ardshiel was a model ship of its kind, but Mostert soon became uneasily aware that he had stumbled on a more disturbing and difficult story. To meet the apparently insatiable thirst of the world’s great industrial nations, oil companies and ship owners had entrusted vast cargoes of crude oil to what Mostert believes are ships of hasty design, flimsy construction, and ever-lowering standards of safety. With accidental oil spills occurring more frequently, polluting even the most remote corners of the once-pristine oceans, Mostert saw an insidious new threat to the life of the seas. This month, as if to confirm his direst predictions, the 237,000-ton Japanese supertanker Showa Maru ran aground in the Malacca Strait near Singapore, staining the seas with a million gallons of oil. Recently, as Mostert’s book Supership was rising on U.S. bestseller lists, the author spoke of the dangers of the huge carriers with Carl Mydans and Ross Drake of PEOPLE.

How hard is it to control a ship of supertanker size in a narrow, congested sea-lane like the Malacca Strait?

Well, you can’t just put on the brakes. Even in open water, it takes at least three miles and 21 to 22 minutes to stop a 250,000-tonner doing 16 knots. At very low speeds, such a ship might be unable to maneuver at all. And putting down anchors to stop a ship this size would simply mean having them wrenched from the deck.

Did your knowledge of ships and the sea come only from your research?

Not quite. I grew up in Cape Town, which in its prime was one of the few true maritime cities of the world, a deep-sea sailor’s port.

And when did you go to sea?

I didn’t. It was one of the greatest disappointments of my life. When I was 16 I had a chance to sail on a three-masted square-rigger. But when the captain said, “All right, up the mast,” I couldn’t face it. I have an overwhelming abhorrence of heights. She sailed without me. I had the same phobia climbing down into empty oil tanks on tankers for my book. It was torture to go down those 90 feet, but I did it. Otherwise there would have been a gap in the book that would have plagued me.

You have referred to supertankers as “floating balloons. “Are they really that fragile?

Considering the size of the ships, the steel is immensely thin. If one of them runs aground, it just tears itself open.

Many supertankers now in operation were built with only one boiler, to save money. What happens if it fails?

The ship is in a desperate state. Without steam all electrical power goes. As the propeller stops, the lights fail, and so do radar, echo sounders and all other modern navigating paraphernalia, including those marvelous computers that are supposed to prevent collisions. All that is left is a useless, drifting shell.

You mention the Ardshiel as an unusually well-run ship. Aren’t other tankers carefully cared for as well?

Sometimes not. To a disconcerting degree, oil cargoes are being delivered by improperly trained officers on board ships with defective equipment. After the Liberian tanker Arrow, owned by Aristotle Onassis, ran aground off Nova Scotia in 1970, an inquiry found that its radar had ceased to function, the echo sounder hadn’t been in working condition for two months, and the gyrocompass had a permanent error of three degrees west. Moreover, the officer on watch at the time of the accident had no license.

Isn’t there a lot we don’t know about the effect of oil spills on marine life?

What we do know is bad enough. Oil poisons, smothers and burns. It can start carcinogenic processes in sea animals, affect reproduction and cause genetic change. When it doesn’t kill altogether, it consumes large quantities of dissolved oxygen, which is vital to life in the sea.

Would it be feasible for the U.S. to refuse to allow such ships to come near its coastline?

Not really. I mean, we can’t be silly about it. The oil is needed. But we want some consideration from those who profit bringing it. And that we have scarcely had. They built inadequate ships when they were making millions, and they have resisted every single protective measure. Yet they pretend to be concerned. For example, they make a show about crying for international measures to fight pollution. That makes good public relations copy. But we all know that such measures not only take years to come into effect, but there is no real way of enforcing them.

How can the dangers be minimized?

The only way to control these ships is for individual governments to do it—to say “If they’re coming to our ports, they must conform to certain standards.” In America, the U.S. Coast Guard could set the standards, just as it does for passenger ships.

How do you feel about the future of the supertanker and the prospects for a million-ton ship?

I don’t think the million-tonner is going to happen. One of the problems of my book was that the subject was constantly changing. The Middle East war of October 1973, for example, brought tremendous changes.

What are these changes?

Broadly speaking, the shipping and oil industries are finally aware of their miscalculation in putting their fortunes in giant ships. One of the biggest tanker brokers in London told me the other day, “The ship of the future is a 60,000-ton tanker carrying refined products, because the Arabs are going to build their own refineries where the oil is.” Small ships are in demand these days. They get the highest rates, and they can get into ports—especially American ports—where the big ones can’t go.

Do you mean that the age of the supertanker is already over?

Not on your life. It’s more massively before us than ever before. Let me explain. Toward the end of 1973, the world’s tanker fleet was roughly 200 million tons. But under construction or on order was another 200 million tons—a doubling of the existing fleets. Practically all these new ships were giants, more than half of them over 200,000 tons. It was the most staggering ship-building program in history, and it also represented, I believe, the single biggest industrial miscalculation of all time.

How so?

Virtually all these ships were ordered in 1973, when the U.S. oil crisis truly began. There was a great demand for tankers, and profits were sky-high. The people involved thought the prospects were limitless. But the October War and its aftermath confounded all these tidy assumptions. A combination of reduced oil demand, an open and functioning Suez Canal, and the establishment of Arab refineries would make the small ship more economical. But now the tanker owners are stuck with their big ships. And remember, each of these costs upward of $60 million. Which means that we will continue to get our oil in them and that oil will probably cost more because of them.

Some critics have called Supership a doomsday book. Are you pessimistically predicting that the oceans will not survive these supertankers?

No, not at all. I think what has happened in the Middle East has been tremendously beneficial inasmuch as it has put on the brakes that would never have been put on otherwise. The world required something really shattering to stop this reckless expansion—this reckless consumption of oil. If we can prevent these ships from doing any colossal damage over the next decade, when they will be actively in use, I think we will manage.

You have been called the Ralph Nader of the sea for your criticism of the supertankers. Is this valid?

I do hope not. I admire Mr. Nader, but I am a writer, not a crusader. Frankly, I don’t give a damn how many millions those tanker men make. Who cares? Let them have their yachts and palaces and dinners at Maxim’s—if that’s what they value. I care about the sea, and I wrote my book because I don’t think they care.

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