The Epic Story Of The Seawise Giant, The Longest Ship Ever Built

Published January 28, 2024
Updated January 29, 2024

Just over 1,500 feet long and with a gross tonnage of 260,941 tons, the Seawise Giant — later renamed the Happy Giant, Jahre Viking, and Knock Nevis — was the biggest ship in the world.

Seawise Giant

Geof Kirby/Alamy Stock PhotoThe Seawise Giant, once the biggest ship in the world, was so massive that it couldn’t navigate the English Channel.

In the 1980s, a massive supertanker called the Seawise Giant took to the seas. The biggest ship in the world, it measured more than 1,500 feet in length — making it even longer than the Empire State Building is tall.

But the vessel, which changed names and owners several times over the course of its lifetime, wasn’t famous only for its enormous size. Its history is an epic story rivaling that of more well-known ships like the Titanic.

From its impressive construction to being sunk by Saddam Hussein’s missiles to its subsequent retrieval and revival, the Seawise Giant certainly earned its place among history’s great ships.

Creating The Seawise Giant, The Biggest Ship In The World

The initial idea for the Seawise Giant came from a Greek business mogul, who contracted Japan’s Sumitomo Heavy Industries to create a gigantic supertanker. However, the South China Morning Post reports that the mogul wound up not buying the completed ship. Accounts vary, but it’s likely that they either went bankrupt or simply changed their mind about the purchase.

This naturally presented a problem for Sumitomo Heavy Industries, who now had one of the largest ships ever constructed just waiting around in the shipyard without a prospective buyer. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for another interested party to come along.

In 1981, two years after construction was finished, a man by the name of Tung Chao-yung signed a deal to purchase the vessel. But Tung, the founder of Hong Kong’s Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL), wasn’t satisfied with the ship’s impressive size. He wanted it to be even larger.

Tung oversaw the addition of several feet to the ship’s length, which also increased its capacity by more than 140,000 tons. In total, the mammoth ship soon measured 1,504 feet in length by 225 feet in width. It would be the biggest and longest ship in the world.

Size Of Seawise Giant

Public DomainA diagram comparing the Seawise Giant (in red at the bottom) with other ships, buildings, and large structures, including the Empire State Building (gray) and the Pentagon (blue).

Naturally, the Seawise Giant wasn’t a ship meant for tight passages. Its turning circle had a diameter of 1.86 miles, and if the captain wanted to slow the ship to a complete stop from its maximum speed of 16.5 knots, it would take a full 5.6 miles to slow down.

That was fine, because the Seawise Giant wasn’t meant for speed. It mostly transported crude oil between the United States and the Middle East. Unfortunately, it was doing so at a time when Iraq and Iran were at war — and it soon became an unwitting victim of that conflict.

The Sinking Of The Seawise Giant

Disaster struck the Seawise Giant in May 1988, when it was moored off of Larak Island in Iran. Per the Telegraph the ship was loaded with Iranian oil when it was bombed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces.

Fire and oil are a notoriously bad combination, and the Seawise Giant immediately went up in flames. It didn’t take long for the vessel to become completely engulfed and, ultimately, sink into the shallow water.

Seawise Giant Largest Ship Of All Time

Collection Nils KochThe Seawise Giant on fire after being bombed in 1988.

For most ships, this would have been the end. But the Seawise Giant, the largest ship in the world, wasn’t like most other ships.

There were those who still saw value in the wreckage of the world’s largest vessels. One such party was a Norwegian group called Norman International. When the Iran-Iraq War came to an end shortly after the Seawise Giant‘s sinking, Normal International lifted the massive vessel from the seabed and had it towed to Singapore for repairs.

By October 1991, more than 3,700 tons of new steel had been used to repair the Seawise Giant, which was once again seaworthy. It also had a new name: Happy Giant.

The Seawise Giant‘s Second Life

The Happy Giant was eventually purchased by another Norwegian shipping magnate, Jørgen Jahre, for $30 million (roughly $45 million today). Once again, the colossal ship was given a new name, Jahre Viking.

The Jahre Viking was manned by a small crew of just 40 people, but it managed to operate for another 10 years. Once again, the ship carried oil across the seas.

That said, the Jahre Viking had some major issues that became more and more apparent as time went on. For starters, it required a tremendous amount of fuel to operate such a large vessel. Beyond that, the ship’s size was proving to be a problem. It was simply far too big to enter many important ports across the world, including the English Channel, the Suez Canal, and the Panama Canal.

Eventually, the Jahre Viking was sold again, this time to Norway’s First Olsen Tankers. But First Olsen wasn’t interested in sending their newly acquired ship, renamed now to the Knock Nevis, out to sea. Instead, they used it as a stationary storage facility for tanks at the Al Shaheen oil field in Qatar.

Seawise Giant Biggest Ship In The World

Geof Kirby/Alamy Stock PhotoThe deck of the Seawise Giant, the world’s biggest ship, in 1991.

“I have been attached with this giant vessel for the last ten years and if I may, in all modesty add, my team and I have contributed substantially towards the vessel, establishing a very good name and reputation in the tanker market and with major oil companies,” the Jahre Viking’s captain, Surrinder Kumar Mohan, told Turbine Tanker at the time.

“To my great regret, I do not think another vessel of the size of Jahre Viking will ever be built, as it is not financially viable considering the current new building cost, legislation of double hulls, and the demand of the crude oil.”

The Demise Of The Largest Ship Ever Built

The newly renamed Knock Nevis remained in Qatar for another six years, before ultimately being sold for scrap to a breaking yard in Gujarat, India. There, it took tens of thousands of workers more than a year to completely break the former Seawise Giant down and sell off its parts.

And thus, the tale of the world’s largest ship reached its conclusion. The Seawise Giant may be gone, but at least one part of its impressive heft remains: the vessel’s 36-ton anchor was put on display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, a testament to the astonishing size of what was once the biggest ship in the world.

After reading about the Seawise Giant, discover the stories of nine famous shipwrecks. Or, learn about the Andrea Gail, the doomed ship that inspired the 1991 film “The Perfect Storm.”

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Harvey, Austin. "The Epic Story Of The Seawise Giant, The Longest Ship Ever Built.", January 28, 2024, Accessed June 13, 2024.