Hull of a job: Life in the underwater graveyard

Where do ships go to die? Are they given a funeral? A big celebratory send off from the crew and captain? Not quite.

They end up in one of the many ship graveyards scattered across Asia and Africa, either abandoned to sink to the bottom of the ocean or repurposed into new steel products, such as construction steel, mild steel or steel plates of varying grades.

One location, Nouadhibou, a small peninsula shared by Mauritania and Western Sahara, is the final resting place for 300 ships and climbing. Nouadhibou was originally called Port-Etienne by French merchants who settled there prior to World War I. The calm waters surrounding the peninsula offered protection for ships, compared to the harsh Atlantic waters, and soon became a place for shipping trade.

Like many frontier towns, lawlessness and money drove the way things were operated, and eventually shipping merchants discovered the governing parties were willing to overlook ecological hazards of dumping unusable ships and forgive the appropriate dismantling process for a tidy fee.

While many proposals have been bought forward to clean up the ships, to this day nothing has been achieved. The one good thing? The collection of sunken vessels has created artificial reefs for fish and other wildlife, stimulating a local fishing industry which had previously been decimated due to over-fishing.

Ships looking for a new life prove dangerous business

Demand for global shipping has ramped up over the last 20 years, increasing the number of ships in the water. The problem is, after 25 – 30 years the cost of insurance and upkeep of aging vessels is no longer profitable for companies. Many of the ships end up on the shores of the poorest countries in the world, where workers are cheap and environmental standards are low.

Bangladesh is one of the largest ship breaking countries in the world, dismantling steel and vessel components before sending the parts off to a factory to be recycled into new steel products. In Bangladesh they break 150 – 200 ships per year.

This is dangerous work, however. For a remuneration far below the average income, ship breakers work for 16 hours a day in extremely hazardous conditions with toxic materials such as asbestos, fumes and gases with no safety equipment or training.

As a ship breaker, you are in one of three job categories: wire carrier, steel carrier or steel cutter. The steel cutters have the most dangerous job of the three, cutting the ship from the inside. As many companies ignore protocol to remove dangerous flammable substances from their ship, the steel cutting tools react with the substance generating an explosion. This is not uncommon, and around 15 workers die on these ships every year.

Human rights and environmental professionals are working to improve the conditions for shipbreakers with two clear goals in mind: to remove all toxic materials before the ships arrival into Bangladesh and for the actual breaking to be conducted at a facility rather than the beach, in attempt to limit the oceans exposure to unforgiving chemicals.

If you’ve enjoyed this insightful article on steel and shipbreaking, we have many more articles on the relationship between marine and the steel industry:

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Image source: Bunkerist