These are no rust-buckets or clunkers from another era. Cut down in their prime, the relics of five former glistening ships make a pitiful sight in their final port of call.
The death throes are heartbreaking. In the wheelhouse, frantic commands are hollered in polyglot tongues as the man at the helm points the bow towards a narrow channel at the Aliaga ship breakers yard. The ships are driven at five knots – about 5 miles per hour – onto the beach where they shudder to a halt, their steel frames groaning and grinding in futile protest. The engines are shut down and the anchor is dropped to make the ship steadfast in its last resting place.
Cruise ships normally have a lifespan of 40 years, but as the pandemic engulfed the globe, the cruise industry became paralysed. Putting a whole new meaning to “throwaway culture”, ships still in their heyday have been consigned to the knackers’ yard; and as recent drone images show they are fast becoming scrap metal skeletons as the dismantling proceeds at full tilt – in the manner of the sorrowful angle the ships have now assumed.
Carnival Cruise Line took swift action during the summer and sold three ships. These were: Carnival Fantasy (built in 1990); Carnival Imagination (1995); and Carnival Inspiration (1996). Pullmantur Cruises, forced into insolvency by the coronavirus, also sold Sovereign (1988) and Monarch (1991). These ships have now come to an untimely end – but they will certainly not be the last.
With cruise lines curtailing their losses and downsizing fleets, it’s been boom time for international brokers dealing in scrap metal – nowhere more so than in Turkey. Here ship recycling is carried out in an industrial zone that is state-owned and leased out to private companies. The yards are located in Aliaga, around 50km (31 miles) north of Izmir on the Aegean coast, in an area teeming with heavy industries.
Ocean-going vessels are not meant to be taken apart. These seaborne palaces are created not just for pleasure; they’re designed to withstand extreme forces in some of the planet’s most challenging environments.
The first task for the 2,500 scrappers, who work in teams, is to locate useful items that include plumbing, machinery, electrical wiring and electronics. All these effects are reused or sold on to local brokers. Even non-metallic fittings don’t go to waste as hotel operators come to the yard to buy useful materials. It’s a scene reminiscent of vultures eying up carrion.
Then the actual dismantling starts, labourers armed with a variety of acetylene torches, sledgehammers and pneumatic drills – not to mention ample elbow grease, deconstruct the anatomy of the ship. The steel is sliced into sections and hauled off the carcass before being taken away to a nearby facility where it gets melted down and repurposed. The period of transmogrification from sleek ship to subverted shell usually lasts around six months.
Such is this unexpected windfall for the Aliaga yard, which traditionally handled cargo and container ships, in January the volume of disassembled steel was 700,000 metric tonnes, by December this is estimated to rise to 1.1 million metric tonnes, with business up by 30 per cent.
This bonanza for Aliaga may well continue. Creditors of the Brit-popular cruise line Cruise & Maritime Voyages, which went into liquidation in July, recently petitioned the High Court. The judgement has ordered the sale of five of CMV’s vessels by sealed-bid auction to settle debts. The ships – Astor, Columbus, Magellan, Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama – are all older than the five vessels currently being broken up along the Aegean coast and would generally struggle to find a new operator.
But confounding such speculation, it’s just been announced that the first of the ships to be auctioned – Vasco da Gama – has been bought by Portugal-based Mystic Cruises for an undisclosed sum. Mário Ferreira, chairman of Mystic Invest, parent company of Mystic Cruises, called the acquisition an “opportunity to grow the company’s fleet and to better position it for the expected uptake of the market after the Covid-19 pandemic.”
However it’s likely that other successful bidders at this month’s auction will be agents for ship breakers, and the negotiations may well be in Turkish.