Where Ships Go to Die: Business Boom Amid Recession

When times were good, shipping companies ordered huge numbers of new steel behemoths to ply the oceans. Now though, many of those same container lines are eager to get rid of their ships. The scrapping business in South Asia is booming.

The sandy beaches north of Chittagong in Bangladesh look like giant steel graveyards. Ships line the banks ready for dismantling. Others are so far disassembled that their hulls are all that is left protuding morosely from the water, according to shipping industry journal Lloyd's List. All kinds of vessels get broken down here: bulk carriers, container ships, vehicle transporters and oil tankers.

The wrecks are remnants of a disappearing world. Once they sailed the oceans as flagships of globalization. Now they're symbols of an order that threatens to sink with them.

The global economic and trade crisis is so severe that a growing number of ships, some larger than the Titanic, are being pulled from their routes and sent to scrap yards to be sold for parts. Freight and charter rates have fallen and regularly scheduled passenger lines are being cancelled. Those container ships that are still sailing can barely cover their costs. Over-capacity created in recent boom times has accelerated the trend toward scrapping ships.

Yet one boom replaces another. With shipping down, shipbreaking is the business of the hour. The shift began late last year and initially targeted ships with a combined load-carrying capacity of 10 million tons. Now the heavy rigs are being lined up too as they sit idly anchored in harbors around the world. Much of the scrapping happens in South Asia and with little regulation in place.

Running Ashore

As the economy worsens the shipbreaking business improves. The best place to beach large ships is near Alang, in the southern part of the Indian state of Gujarat. Tides are high here, allowing the ships to run ashore under their own power. Once the tide is low and the hulls are out of the water, work begins of gutting and cutting up the ships.

It's a "non-stop boom," the Hindustan Times writes. Blowtorches hiss, steel windlasses screech, and sledgehammers pound along the 11 kilometer beach. Cranes remove the superstructures from the deck. A bulk freighter that until recently might have carried bauxite or grain disappears within 40 days.

A few years ago, when globalization was in full swing, few ships came near Alang. Many of the slots -- as the dismantling sites are now known -- were closed due to a lack of demand. Now millions of dollars are being earned from the scrap metal.

Nobody knows this better than Indian-born Anil Sharma, a cash-buyer who promotes the bizarre boom all the way from Maryland in the US. In the jargon of the industry, a cash-buyer acquires ships from the shipping companies who want to get rid of their burdensome vessels. He then sells them to the scrappers. The scrap metal lands in small mills in places such as Chittagong or Karatchi to be turned into steel for the construction industry. Some parts may reemerge as hinges for shipping containers whose own demand is falling in the global downturn.

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