One of the oldest and most strangely moving sights known to man is the long, undulant thread of white foam that marks the passage of a ship across the surface of the sea. One of the newest images to catch man's roving eye is the wind-bent vapor trail of a jetliner breathing in the cold, upper distances of the sky. One image mirrors the other; each marks the advances man has made in transporting himself and his goods.
Most of us know what has happened at the front of the vapor trail, for developments in jet flight have been dramatic and swift. Already the far whistle of giant aircraft has become an aural commonplace the world around. However, few men know the full story of what has been happening at the front of the white threads of foam that mark the intercontinental sea lanes.
One of the most interesting developments along these sea lanes since the end of World War II has been the appearance of a growing fleet of oil tankships that challenge the greatest passenger liners in both size and speed. They have been for the most part unheralded by the pomp and glamor that attends the maiden voyages of the sea queens of the Atlantic passenger runs. But some of them are so large that only a few deep-water terminals around the world can berth them. Naval architecture has developed these superships to carry the tremendous cargoes demanded by greatly increased worldwide oil consumption.
Today, a man who wistfully follows a line of white foam as it bends below the horizon may well be watching the wake of a supertanker with more than 35 million gallons of liquid in its hold. If the same volume of water were used to form a shallow artificial lake, Columbus' ship Santa Maria could easily sail back and forth upon it. "The Admiral of the ocean sea" would marvel at the size of today's largest petroleum carriers, and he might equally be seized by their beauty of line.
Not long ago the Manhattan—the third largest supertanker then on the seas—made an historic call at Ras Tanura, the marine terminal of the Arabian American Oil Company on the Persian Gulf in eastern Saudi Arabia. The berthing of the Manhattan at Ras Tanura pointed up the enormous changes that have taken place in tankship design in recent decades. These changes can best be appreciated through the perspective of history.
On May 1, 1939 the tanker D. G. Scofield arrived at Ras Tanura to take on the first cargo of crude oil ever shipped out of Saudi Arabia. To celebrate the event, the late King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud paid his first visit to Aramco's operations. Several thousand people joined in the three-day festivities that marked the pioneer loading.
The historic significance of the arrival and loading of the Manhattan in late August this year lay largely in the successful solution of technical problems. Actually, the giant vessel's arrival and departure was pretty much a workaday affair which was carried off without fanfare. When the Manhattan weighed anchor on a Sunday morning at high tide, it carried in its hold 718,597 barrels of crude oil and 68,018 barrels of fuel oil, or bunker oil as it is called. It was the largest cargo carried away from the port of Ras Tanura up to that time.
In contrast, the D. G. Scofield was designed to carry 81,224 barrels of crude oil cargo and 10,676 barrels of fuel. In other words, the Manhattan can transport about ten times as much crude oil today as the D. G. Scofield could in 1933. The older tanker was 457 feet long and 58 feet wide. The Manhattan, which went into service just this year, is 940 feet long and 130 feet wide. It is about 90 feet shorter, but 12 feet wider, than the Queen Elizabeth.
When fully loaded, the Manhattan lies 49 feet, 4 inches deep in the water. This deep draft poses severe berthing and loading problems. When the new ship completed its maiden voyage at the port of New York earlier this year, it could not dock at any of the city's famous piers. The crude oil it carried had to be transferred offshore to smaller tankers for dockside unloading.
In mid-March the Manhattan passed through the Suez Canal. However, it was traveling light. When loaded, it cannot negotiate the Suez Canal. It cannot use the Panama Canal at any time because of its breadth of beam.
The arrival of the Manhattan at Ras Tanura required careful planning. The depth of the water at Aramco's Berth 8 ranges from 46 feet at low tide to 54 feet at high tide. Fully loaded, the Manhattan would rest on the bottom at low tide. Therefore, the loading of the supertanker was suspended as the tide dropped until the next incoming tide provided a safe depth.
The Manhattan is rated at 106,568 deadweight tons—the weight of the ship itself. At the close of World War II, the largest tanker afloat was about 24,000 tons. The more than four-fold increase in tanker size represented by the Manhattan is a reflection of the tremendous increase in world oil consumption since the end of the war.
In the not too distant future the Queen Elizabeth may have to yield her rank as the largest ship ever built. Plans for two 130,000-ton supertankers have been announced. The growing fleet of giant petroleum carriers weighing more than 100,000 tons is bringing to a close the long reign of passenger ships. The oil tanker has become the new monarch of the seaways.