The climax of one of the biggest oil industry stories of the year occurred in the late evening of Sunday, Sept. 14.
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Background: The climax of one of the biggest oil industry stories of the year occurred in the late evening of Sunday, Sept. 14. It was then that the SS Manhattan broke through the fog and ice of Prince of Wales Strait into the Amundsen Gulf, becoming the first commercial ship in history to traverse the famed Northwest Passage.
On Wednesday of this week (Nov. 12), the giant ship will arrive at the Port of New York, completing one of the most adventurous and expensive voyages in history.
Motivation for the venture was born in 1968 when Humble Oil & Refining Company and Atlantic Richfield Company, in partnership, discovered on Alaska's North Slope what is probably the world's most inaccessible oil field.
As subsequent wells more clearly defined the reservoir and its great potential, the inevitable question arose:
How best can this petroleum be moved to market, particularly to the East Coast of the U.S. and its population centers?
From a study of transportation alternatives--including various potential pipeline and shipping routes--came the reconsideration of a 500-year dream: Using modern technology, could the famed Northwest Passage be opened as a commercial year-round trade route? Was it possible for a giant tankers to move oil from the Prudhoe Bay area of Alaska through the Arctic ice to the Atlantic?
After the examining all available information, Humble felt it was feasible to think in terms of a large, powerful ship operating in the Arctic on a year-round basis. Humble subsequently decided to launch the approximately $40 million tanker test. Atlantic Richfield and BP Oil Corp. agreed to contribute $2 million each in return for access to the test results.
The first step was to find a suitable ship. Humble surveyed the world tanker fleet and selected the SS Manhattan as the best equipped Arctic test vehicle available.
Built in 1962, the Manhattan is the largest merchant ship ever to fly the American flag. Her 43,000 shaft horsepower plant is nearly one and a half times more powerful than those on ships twice her size. The Manhattan also has twin propellers, making her more maneuverable and safer. Because of these and other design features, Humble chartered the ship from Seatrain Lines, Inc., for refitting as the world's largest icebreaking tanker.
No single shipyard in the country could complete all of the modifications in time for a 1969 sailing, so the Manhattan was sent to a yard in Chester, Pa., and sliced neatly into four segments. The stern and bow remained in Pennsylvania, the midship section-which includes the navigating bridge--was towed to Mobile, Ala., and the forward section moved to Newport News, Va. Construction also began on an entirely new icebreaking bow at Bath, Maine. Some Humble task force members pointed out that the Manhattan was the longest ship in the world--stretching from maine to Alabama.
Modifications proved extensive, resulting in a shipbuilding effort that had not been seen since World War II. More than 4,000 shipyard personnel strengthened the ship internally with steel braces and added a second "insurance" hull around the engine room. They toughened the outside of the vessel with an ice belt and added extra strong propellers and propeller shafts and ice deflectors for the twin rudders.
Designers utilized model test data in developing the new icebreaking bow. It operates on the downbreaking principle, moving the ship onto the ice at an 18-degree angle and increasing to a maximum of 30 degrees. The weight of the ship finally forces the ice down until it breaks.
To overcome the notorious Arctic radio blackouts, a communications network was installed that is effectively 500 times more powerful than that normally found on commercial ships. The Manhattan's navigation system uses radio signals from four earth satellites placed in polar orbit as part of the U.S. Navy's Navigation Satellite System program. When a satellite drops below the horizon, sonar takes over.
As segments of the Manhattan returned to the Pennsylvania shipyard, Humble's marine staff began assembling supplies.
The Manhattan's fuel order of 184,000 barrels of bunker oil went into the record books as the largest in commercial marine history.
A partial list of provisions for the voyage included 5,600 quarts of fresh milk, 51,000 pounds of meat, 70,000 pounds of canned and dried food, 40,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetable, and 51,000 fresh eggs. They even loaded 300 watermelons on board. Stores include 4,800 bars of soap, 1,500 light bulbs, jogging machines, a putting green, a portable X-ray machine, 100 full length movies, and three ice makers. All told, 8,000 different store items were loaded.
As the Manhattan steamed down the Delaware River, through Chesapeake Bay, and into the Atlantic on Aug. 26, her voyage plan was clear. At a maximum speed of 16 knots, Captain Roger Steward set course toward Newfoundland with a schedule stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Aug. 28.
After a few hours visit, the Manhattan weighed anchor, steamed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and through the Strait of Belle Isle into the frigid Labrador Sea.
Moving along the west coast of Greenland, lookouts kept watchful eye, for this was iceberg country.
As the Manhattan continued north, she was joined by the U.S. and Canadian icebreakers, Northwind and Sir John A. MacDonald. The MacDonald accompanied the Manhattan on all of her voyage, doing research work of its own.
The world's largest icebreaker began the job she was designed for as she pointed he bow into an extensive ice pack in Baffin Bay. At Thule, Greenland, the Manhattan dropped anchor, completing the first leg of her planned 8,800-mile, round-trip voyage.
In Lancaster Sound, historic entrance to the Northwest Passage, the going was easy, and crew members watched schools of Belusa whales frolicking in the icy waters.
The huge tanker stopped in the ice in Viscount Melville Sound to allow research parties to go out on the frozen waterway to bore for ice samples and take depth soundings. The most difficult part of the voyage lay ahead in McClurre Strait where the Manhattan moved through nearly solid coverage of extremely hard 0 to 14 thick ice.
After becoming stock several times in a huge ice floe, the project leaders decided to turn back into Viscount Melville Sound, and take the more southerly route through the passage via Prince of Wales Strait.
On the night of Sept. 14, the Manhattan slipped quietly into the frigid waters of Amundsen Gulf. From there, it was easy sailing to Pt. Barrow, Alaska, final destination on the east-to-west segment of the two and one-half month round-trip.
Although the great dream of a new trade route has moved closer to reality with the return of the Manhattan, the $40 million gamble has yet to prove itself. The voyage showed that moving commerce through the Northwest Passage is possible, but the economic feasibility of doing it--the dollar and cents practicality--will not be known until after the mass of technical data obtained during the voyage is analyzed. This will be done sometime in early 1970.
Should the Manhattan prove the practicality of this Arctic trade route, the ultimate effects may be almost unlimited. Humble hopes to be able to use the passage to open up the East coast market of the United States for Arctic oil.
Not at least of the beneficiaries from such a development would be the U.S. shipbuilding industry. If the passage is opened, larger and more sophisticated ships will be built using data gathered on this project. Ships of about the 250,000 deadweight ton class could make the round trip approximately 35 days. The industry would need one ship for every 50,000 barrels per day it decided to transport to the East Coast by way of the Northwest Passage.
Turning to the broader implications of Arctic oil, one essential fact is that the Alaskan finds will have a beneficial impact on the national security of the United States, because it could provided a greater independence from foreign oil if this became necessary.
But there is more to the project than oil. An open Northwest Passage means not merely an oil route, but an international trade route that would have a profound influence on the rate of Arctic development and the patterns of worldwide trade. It would mean the fulfilment of the need felt centuries ago for a shorter and more direct route from Europe to the Far East.
There is a point on the north shore of Banks Island, some 500 miles cast of Prudhoe Bay, which is roughly equidistant from the cities of New York, London and Tokyo. With this central position, the Northwest Passage could become the catalyst which opens up the resources of far northern Alaska and Canada to the world.
The mining industries of the Arctic are still in the infancy stage, primarily due to the transportation problems. But there is great mineral wealth there--so great that it is called the "waiting wealth." It awaits--so to speak--the breaking of the ice.
Seldom has the initiative and enterprise of the petroleum industry been more clearly defined than in this great plan to overcome a bitterly hostile Arctic environment, travel across the top of the world and create a new trade route between East and West. The risky scientific venture is yet another example of why oil is referred to as one of America's great risk industries.
Much analysis still needs to be done before it can be determined if this risk will resolve itself successfully--if indeed the Northwest Passage is feasible as a year-round trade route.
"Whatever the consequence of her voyage," a Humble spokesman said, "the Manhattan's findings will add immeasurably to our knowledge of the world in which we live."