There are some engineering wonders of the world that you inevitably know; structures like the Sydney Opera House, The Empire State Building, the Channel Tunnel and the Suez Canal. But how well do you know the super tanker, one of the most impressive examples of maritime engineering the world has ever seen?

Designed to carry oil all over the world, the idea of fleets of tankers traversing the seas gained prominence at the turn of 20th Century. The boldest child of this new wave of engineering ambition was the Thomas W. Lawson; a seven-masted, steel-hulled schooner intended to haul 60,000 barrels of oil across the Pacific Ocean – an impressive feat for the time but a far cry from today’s goliaths.

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that you start running into what people would recognise as modern tankers. Furthermore, it wasn’t until the Six-Day War and the subsequent closure of the Suez Canal that you start seeing the truly humongous super tankers. You see, the Suez Canal, being the main route from Asia to Europe for trade, had placed certain restrictions on the size of oil tankers. Its temporary closure resulted in the need for companies to send the relatively small tankers down and around South African Cape of Good Hope, which proved incredibly inefficient. This led to the need for a change. Enter the super tankers.

Separated into two categories, the ultra-large crude carrier (ULCC) and the very-large crude carrier (VLCC), these leviathan started popping up in the late 1970’s. The largest was the 458 metre Seawise Giant, which weighed 657,019 tonnes when carrying its 6, million barrels of oil; a load so large it could cover the United Kingdom’s oil consumption for over three days. So large was the Seawise Giant that its manoeuvrability made navigating the English Channel, Suez Canal and Panama Canal impossible. But despite serving the world for 30 years, in 2009 it finally joined the rest of the 70’s super tankers and was decommissioned.

However, the era of the super tanker is far from over. Leading the way now is TI Asia, TI Africa, TI Europe and TI Oceania, a group of 380m long ships built in 2001. Despite not being as long as the 70’s super tankers, it is worth remembering these ships are the size of the Empire State Building.

Whilst the TI Asia and TI Africa are currently being used as Floating, Storage and Offloading vessels, their sisters TI Europe and TI Oceania are still working away.

You may be wondering how it is possible such huge, heavy structures travel the ocean blue? Well, in order to reach their maximum speed of 16.5 knots with a full capacity of 3.16 million barrels of oil, the TI Oceania – the biggest of the group- has a huge engine.

At the core of the ship lies the 50,220 BHP Sulzer RTA84-D; one of the largest engines ever and an engineering masterpiece in itself. Specifically tailored for large tankers, it runs at a rate 20 times slower than a 2.0 liter car engine to match the optimum propeller speeds of the ship, which is the key to a super tanker’s extraordinary fuel economy. On top of the main engine, the ship also has three auxiliary engines with a 2051 BHP output. In terms of total power, the ship has the equivalent of 232 Volkswagen Golf GTI engines!

On top of what is already an extremely impressive boat is a feature which may be just as important in many people’s eyes: a double hull. In layman’s terms this means the ships has an inner and outer layer of watertight hulls, a design adopted to significantly reduce the risk of oil pollution incidents from collisions and grounding.

So not only are these ocean-trotters champions of industry and engineering, it’s clear they have also evolved from the disaster-prone vessels of the past.

Whilst super tankers and the jobs they do draw different responses from different people, it’s very difficult to criticize the effort behind them. They truly are giants of human engineering history and it’s likely they will be remembered for decades to come.

– Connor Pound

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