The Indian Express – Graveyard shift

(Written by Adam Halliday)

19 August 2012 - A dying ship is scheduled to beach at the Alang-Sosiya Ship Recycling Yard. Ru drives out to a lonely spot at the northern end of the 10-km yard to find out how the ship on the horizon is holding up. He will also measure wind speed and strength of currents.

It’s not easy to guide an old ship the size of an apartment block to its final resting place in the few hours when high tides cover 11-12 metres of shore. From slack steering equipment to propellers that do not work, ageing ships tend to have all kinds of problems, including missing engines. But Ru, a shore pilot at the Alang-Sosiya Ship Recycling Yard, has guided many of these creaking giants on their last journey. “Call me Ru,” he says. He doesn’t want to reveal his name. “Someone sitting somewhere may file a case against me for working at Alang,” he says.

Unlike other ports, Alang has little navigational aids. After all, it’s a graveyard and all a ship has to do is climb onto the beach and wait to be hacked apart. However, imminent death does not make things easier. The 131 functional recycling plots at the yard always have dead ships at various stages of dismantling. The trick is to beach the new ship without banging it into the dead ones too hard and tearing apart valuable scrap metal.

Ru and the only other shore pilot work with a tool box that has just three things—a pair of binoculars, a walkie-talkie to communicate with the incoming ship’s captain and a good knowledge of the Gulf of Khambat and how it treats ships sailing into it.

Passenger ships are easier to guide as they are slim. Current or wind doesn’t drag them too much. Large oil tankers and carriers are broader and cause a lot of friction. However, both kinds have to be positioned for least resistance, which isn’t always easy because ship captains, who are from all over the world, rarely have any experience of navigating these waters. Besides, few have experience of beaching ships for dismantling.

For the past three months, Ru’s lonely spot, which he calls his outdoor office, has been hosting a six-tower oil rig called Petrobras XXIV—a structure so tall one needs binoculars to spot the bright helmets of workers cutting open its roof with blowtorches. The rig was planted somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico and was later moved to a river in Indonesia. It was towed from there to the Sosiya section of the yard where Ru, standing on the shore with binoculars hanging from his neck and a walkie-talkie in his hand, navigated the two tugs pulling it. “They have cut off the helipad and the two towers underneath. That was quite a view,” he says.

In the past 17 years, Ru has beached a large number of famous and controversial ships, including Exxon Valdez, which spilled oil in Alaska, and the 458-metre-long Seawise Giant, considered the largest ship ever built. Not surprisingly, it took 12 hours to beach and 11 months to dismantle.

Ru earns a fixed amount of Rs 10,000 for each ship he beaches, irrespective of its size, from the Ship Recyclers’ Association. The economic slowdown has been rather good for him. “Ships are like trucks,” he explains. “When there’s cargo to be hauled, they bring good money. But when there’s no trade, they just stand around, and you have to feed the crew, maintain the ship, pay all kinds of fees, including loans. So owners sell them off to scrap, and many of them come here.”

The mainstay of the Alang economy is the annual 400-million-tonne recycled steel. The yard also feeds hundreds of shops on a 10-km stretch of road which sell furniture, antiques, navigation equipment, speed boats, life rafts—almost everything ships carry.

Since tides won’t wait for Ru and his colleague, they have to work hard and sometimes even forgo sleep. Night tides are as valuable as those in the day. Ru does not mind guiding ships past midnight when there are no workers cutting scrap metal on the plots or cranes and trucks shifting material. Just the night, the sea, a ship and silence. Well, sometimes not silence. “I was standing on the shore one cold December night, waiting for the tide to reach its peak. Suddenly, there was this awful noise, jhuk-jhuk-jhuk-jhuk. I pulled my binoculars up and looked out towards the sea, and I saw this ship I was waiting to beach about two nautical miles out, moving in fast towards the shore. Its mast was swaying left and right, like a bottle in water, and making that sound, jhuk-jhuk-jhuk-jhuk. I radioed the captain, and he said two of the four propellers had stopped working, “but no problem”.”

“Sometimes these captains… they don’t say anything. Filipinos are wonderful to deal with, they are masters of the sea. The Greeks think they are masters of the sea. Europeans are okay. Chinese are so particular they will ask a thousand questions. And the Russians, they say, ‘no problem, no problem’, and then bam! boom!”