World progress at Chittagong

I was inspecting the Science Museum’s shipping collections at our Blythe House store a few months ago, and came across this model of the oil tanker World Progress, built in 1973.

Model of 'World Progress' oil tanker (Science Museum / Science & Society)

She was classed a ‘Very Large Crude Carrier’, and with a carrying capacity of nearly quarter of a million tonnes, she was certainly well described. But she carries oil no more. According to the website of supertanker enthusiast Auke Visser, she was scrapped on the beaches of Chittagong back in 1996.

Chittagong has been in the news recently as the venue for the Bangladesh-England first test in the cricket. But in the transport world, Chittagong is well-known for its coastline of very shallow, muddy beaches which has become a worldwide centre for shipbreaking (as is Alang in the Gujarat state of neighbouring India).

This isn’t high-tech shipbreaking. That takes place elsewhere in the world, and costs far more. On the beaches of Bangladesh, huge oil tankers are torn apart by hand, using hammers, chisels, cutting torches, rudimentary diesel winches and a great deal of brute force and ingenuity.

One absorbing book I’ve read recently, Breaking Ships by BBC South Asia correspondent Roland Buerk, highlights some of the stark realities of the Chittagong industry, and what the alternatives might be. I certainly don’t know enough about this complex matter to pass any judgement myself.

Google Maps gives us the fascinating opportunity to look down on the beaches of Chittagong. The scale of the industry can be clearly seen. Zoom right in - the detail’s remarkable…

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