Five years ago in the summer of 2014 I was alerted to the video for the popular song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and more importantly to his associate Emily Ratajkowski. Realising that we had a shared interest in model cars, I whipped out my device and gave Emily a thorough Googling…It turns out that Emily O’Hara Ratajkowski was born on 7 June 1991 and spent some of her childhood in Sandwich Street, just south of London’s King’s Cross station. This was a time when InterCity 125 trains were beginning to yield to InterCity 225 sets – powered by Class 91 electric locomotives – on the East Coast Main Line
More importantly for the purposes of this talk though, both her grandmothers were Irish and it seems that animal loving Emily spent many happy holidays at the Irish Republic’s Bantry Bay. Which is where I found a connection to giant oil tankers. As Gulf Oil itself will now explain:
To pick up some points from the video, the six strong Universe Ireland class of supertankers all had a deadweight of 300 000 tons and a length of 345.3 metres, or 1 133 feet. The UNIVERSE IRELAND itself was built in Yokohama, Japan and commissioned on 1 September 1968 carrying the IMO number 6815940. With a beam of 53.4 and a draft of 32.01 metres, the Liberian registered ultra large crude carrier was sold on by National Bulk Carriers in 1980 and eventually scrapped in 1984. At the time of its first voyage though, it was the largest ship in the World.
To put the 345 metre UNIVERSE IRELAND into some kind of context, an Inter City 125 train with eight carriages is 220 metres long overall, the Saturn V rocket which took men to the Moon was 110 metres tall and Gloucester station platform measures 602.69 metres
But why were such giant vessels needed? During the 1960s, developments in the pattern of oil transportation indicated that it would soon become most economical to move oil between the Middle East and Europe using Ultra Large Crude Carrier vessels.
These ULCCs were so large that they would not be able to enter most of the older ports on the Atlantic Ocean. Accordingly, a new oil terminal in Europe capable of handling the new vessels was planned. The intention was that oil coming from the Middle East would be off-loaded at this terminal and then stored for trans shipment to European refineries using smaller vessels.
The closure of the Suez Canal in 1967 as a result of the Arab Israeli Six Day War reinforced the economic viability of this scheme. Oil shipments had to come round the Cape of Good Hope and this route also avoided the vessel size constraints previously imposed by the canal.
But as early as 1966, the Gulf Oil Corporation had identified Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay, Ireland, as being the most suitable site for the new terminal. Whiddy Island offered a long, sheltered, deep-water anchorage. Furthermore, it was well away from any major population centres and shipping lanes. Construction started in 1967 and the terminal was completed in 1969.
The onshore facility included a tank farm capable of holding about 1.3 million tonnes of oil. The offshore facility comprised a jetty 488 m (1,601 ft) in length and around 396 m (1,299 ft) from the shore. It was claimed that the jetty was capable of accommodating vessels up to 500,000 tonnes deadweight although the first vessels of this size were not built until 1976.
The terminal was very successful for the first five years of operation, but then events began to move against it. The Suez Canal reopened in 1975 and the economics of ULCCs began to appear less satisfactory than had originally been anticipated. Shipping goods in the form of infrequent but very large loads involves engaging more idle capital in the form of stored oil than the alternatives. Also, the jetty and tank farms were under used and the process of trans-shipment proved costly.
The whole economic basis of the Whiddy terminal was incompatible with the just in time approach to industrial management which was being widely adopted at the time. That apart, the late 1970s saw a levelling-off in demand for oil as the result of both economic recession and a rise in the price of oil.
Then, on Monday 8 January 1979, the 121 432 ton deadweight Total SA tanker BETELGEUSE (IMO 681954) caught fire and exploded while unloading a full cargo of crude oil at Whiddy Island. After much loss of life in the disaster, Gulf never reopened the terminal. A feasibility study in 1985 showed that it no longer had any potential use in international oil trade and in 1986, Gulf surrendered its lease on the site to the Irish government
To recap what we have learned so far, very large ships have the disadvantage of needing special construction spaces, large seaways to move in – ideally without the restrictions of narrow canals – and suitably large port facilities. In turn, such large and complex infrastructure with all its supporting supply and distribution chains needs to be frequently used to be economically viable.
In turn again, giant ships ideally need to be built and used in fleets rather as than one-offs. For this reason, commercial transport ships themselves need to be flexible enough to be able to constantly deliver the right amount of goods – or passengers – to the right place at the right time. Alternatively, mega ships have to be justified in size by other necessities.
In contrast to Gulf Oil’s UNIVERSE IRELAND, Noah’s Ark was built as an amateur project by previously inexperienced and unskilled workers, drifted rather than navigated and used haphazard loading and unloading facilities. On the other hand, the World’s first Mega Ship was built in the face of a global emergency to house two of every animal on Earth. Despite this, the Biblical book of Genesis tells us that the length of Noah’s Ark was 300 cubits, its width 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits With a cubit being a variable measurement but around 520mm, this made the Ark around 26 metres wide and 156 metres long – well less than the 220 metre length of an InterCity 125 – to house all the animals.
Genesis also states that Noah’s Ark was made of Gopher Wood, although biblical scholars still cannot agree whether this refers to a species of tree or a type of timber preparation. By 1869 however, the legendary tea clipper CUTTY SARK was being built on an iron frame covered in East India teak, American rock elm and English oak. However, the Keel was replaced in the 1920s with one made from pitch pine.
As built CUTTY SARK was 67.74 metres long with a 6.40 metre draught and a deadweight of only 921 tons. Or put another way, UNIVERSE IRELAND would make more than 325 CUTTY SARKS. More importantly though, at just over 67 metres, CUTTY SARK was approaching the 92 metre maximum length of a wooden hull in terms of structural strength. Beyond 92 metres long a wooden hull becomes prone to dangerous flexing – or “hogging” – as waves pass beneath it. Indeed, even the 69 metre long all-wooden HMS VICTORY of 110 years earlier suffered from warping of the keel.
Although not a mega ship in the modern sense, CUTTY SARK survived into preservation by being constantly adaptable. Built initially to bring China’s tea crop back to Britain faster than her rival clipper THERMOPYLAE, CUTTY SARK was launched in the same year that the Suez Canal opened. Despite having to regularly stop for expensive coal, steamships were soon highly competitive on a much shorter route through the Mediterranean. CUTTY SARK then switched to carrying wool to Britain from Australia.
In fact CUTTY SARK was the fastest ship between Britain and Australia for ten years and after sale to a Portuguese company in 1895 continued to transport cargo until 1922. She then served as a training ship in Falmouth before moving to the Thames Nautical Training College in 1938 and permanently entering dry dock in 1954.
The first steam ship to exceed what would eventually be the length of CUTTY SARK was Brunel’s SS GREAT WESTERN. The 1837 vintage paddle steamer was originally 71.6 metres long with 1 340 grt although by 1840 the oak hulled vessel had been rebuilt with a length of 76.8 metres and a grt of 1 700. SS GREAT WESTERN was also the first steamship to be specifically built to cross the Atlantic and was the largest ship in the World up to 1839.
SS GREAT WESTERN arrived in New York on 22 April 1838 only just behind the rival British and American line paddle steamer SIRIUS and after a much faster voyage and with coal to spare on board. Before being scrapped in 1856, SS GREAT WESTERN served as a troopship in the Crimean War and more importantly paved the way for larger and more advanced ships to come.
The first transatlantic paddle wheeler to be lost at sea with all hands was British and American’s SS PRESIDENT. The wooden hulled steamship completed her maiden voyage in August 1840 as the largest passenger ship in the World but was top heavy and under powered. Measuring 74 metres long, the 2 350 grt PRESIDENT was last seen on 12 March 1841, struggling in a gale en route to Liverpool.
The loss of the PRESIDENT was doubtlessly in the mind of Isambard Kingdom Brunel when he designed his second entry into the biggest ship in the World club: the SS GREAT BRITAIN. While earlier ships had been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, SS GREAT BRITAIN was the first to combine these features in a large ocean-going ship. She was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, which she did in 1845, in the time of 14 days.
The 98 metre long 3 672 grt GREAT BRITAIN was the longest and largest ship in the World when first floated out in 1843 and took advantage of iron growing cheaper and more plentiful as timber became more expensive as well as being able to be made into larger, stronger and lighter hulls.
Brunel also realised that a screw propeller – rather than the paddle wheels of the GREAT WESTERN – would require smaller, lighter, cheaper engines which in turn would make the iron hulled ship more efficient to run. These engines could also be placed lower in the hull, lowering the ship’s centre of gravity and making it more stable in heavy seas. Smaller engines would also free more internal space for passengers and cargo and a screw propeller would be constantly submerged – unlike paddle wheels which also made a ship less agile in confined waterways.
However, reporting on the ship’s arrival in New York, in its first issue, the Scientific American magazine opined, “If there is any thing objectionable in the construction or machinery of this noble ship, it is the mode of propelling her by the screw propeller; and we should not be surprised if it should be, ere long, superseded by paddle wheels at the sides.“
In fact SS GREAT BRITAIN spent most of her working life plying between Britain and Australia after being refitted with a propeller which could be raised from the water during long voyages purely under sail power. In fact during 1882 she was converted to a pure sailing ship before taking refuge at Port Stanley in 1886, only to return to Bristol for restoration in 1970. Before then however, SS GREAT BRITAIN joined SS GREAT WESTERN as a Crimean War troopship and performed a similar role in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. On a happier voyage in 1861 though, she took the first English cricket team to tour Australia.
If SS GREAT BRITAIN had united technology to become the World’s first modern ocean liner, Brunel’s third mega ship pushed the envelope of scale. Launched at Millwall on the Thames in 1858, SS GREAT EASTERN was designed to carry 4 000 passengers from England to Australia without refuelling. This iteration of the biggest ship in the World was 211 metres long and weighed 18 900 grt. Remember, an InterCity 125 is 220 metres, SS GREAT BRITAIN measured 98 metres long and 3 672 grt while just 20 years earlier SS GREAT WESTERN had measured 71.6 metres long with 1 340 grt
Looking into the future, Brunel’s GREAT EASTERN would only be surpassed in length by the 215 metre RMS Oceanic, seen here, in 1899 and her gross tonnage would not be surpassed until 1901 with the 21 035 grt RMS CELTIC. But GREAT EASTERN suffered from being 40 years ahead of her time, despite being the first ship in the World to be fitted with a now-compulsory double skinned hull. Although the Suez Canal was only at the planning stages in 1858, it was realised that the new SS GREAT EASTERN was unlikely to have a shallow enough draught to use it.
On 25 March 1852, Brunel made a sketch of a steamship in his diary and wrote beneath it: “Say 600 ft x 65 ft x 30 ft” (180 m x 20 m x 9.1 m). These measurements were six times larger by volume than any ship afloat; but such a large vessel would benefit from economies of scale and would be both fast and economical, requiring fewer crew than the equivalent tonnage made up of smaller ships. Brunel realised that the ship would need more than one propulsion system; since twin screws were still experimental, he settled on a combination of a single screw and paddle wheels with auxiliary sail power. Using paddle wheels meant that the ship would be able to reach Calcutta, where the Hooghly River was too shallow for screws.
Although designed to sail non-stop to Australia, SS GREAT EASTERN was only used as a passenger and cargo ship on the North Atlantic where she was slower than existing vessels. However, on 25 June 1861, GREAT EASTERN left Liverpool on a government charter to Quebec with 2,144 army officers and men, 473 women and children, and 200 horses along with 40 paying passengers. The ship went at full speed throughout most of the trip and arrived in 8 days and 6 hours.
Perhaps GREAT EASTERN’s greatest achievement was laying the first trans Atlantic telegraph cable between 1866 and 1870. She was the only ship afloat that could carry the length of cable necessary and by the end of her career had lain over 48 000 kilometres of submarine cable around the World. But despite this ability GREAT EASTERN had proved hugely problematic to build and launch into the Thames and for hull damage to be repaired in foreign ports. After an attempt to turn Brunel’s ship into a floating music hall, she was broken up on Merseyside in 1889.
As we have seen, by the start of the 20th Century ships were beginning to equal the size of the SS GREAT EASTERN as demand for trade, ports and shipyards grew. But the true measure of the progress in those four decades can be summed up by the four funnelled Cunarders LUSITANIA and MAURETANIA (pictured), which first set sail for the United States in 1907.
Although still fuelled by coal rather than oil, LUSITANIA was powered by steam turbines rather than reciprocating engines. These had been invented in 1884 by the Honourable Charles Parsons. Doing away with pistons, the steam turbine worked by a jet of steam turning a series of windmill like turbine blades which could then turn a propeller. Compared to reciprocating engines, steam turbines could be smaller, lighter, theoretically yield less vibration and require less maintenance. Like the 7 400 ton SS SERVIA of 1881 but unlike the GREAT EASTERN, LUSITANIA was also made of steel
In fact LUSITANIA was made of high tensile steel, as opposed to the more conventional mild steel. This allowed a reduction in plate thickness, reducing weight but still providing 26 per cent greater strength than otherwise. This was another vital factor in making LUSITANIA a fast and capacious ship to uphold British prestige in the face of strong American and German competition. Both LUSITANIA and MAURETANIA were built with British government loans and designed in consultation with the Admiralty so that they could be easily converted into a light merchant cruiser in the event of war.
Impressive though these technical features were, the most impressive thing about the new Cunarders was their size. LUSITANIA weighed in at 31 550 grt and was 239.9 metres long while MAURETANIA was recorded at 31 940 grt and was 240.8 metres long, almost twice the gross tonnage of GREAT BRITAIN and noticeably longer than an InterCity 125. These pictures come from the 1909 Hudson Fulton Celebration week and show first LUSITANIA dwarfing other vessels in New York harbour and then a stereoscope card of Wilbur Wright about to fly his flimsy looking aeroplane over the steel behemouth. What a difference the next 50 years would make!
And talking of reversals of fortune, possibly the most well known mega ship in history, White Star’s RMS TITANIC was the biggest in the World when it sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912. With a gross registered tonnage of 46 330 and a 269 metre length it was larger than its 45 330 ton sister OLYMPIC which went on to have a distinguished 24 year transatlantic career. Although built as rivals to Cunard’s LUSITANIA and MAURETANIA, the Olympic class liners were slower, with two reciprocating engines with the exhaust steam driving a central turbine. White Star would later add BRITANNIC to its fleet, but such was the size of these vessels that Harland and Wolff’s Belfast shipyard could only built two of them at a time.
1913 meanwhile saw Blohm und Voss launch the 54 280 grt 289 metre long SS VATERLAND which spent much of the First World War holed up in Hoboken New Jersey until it was seized when America joined hostilities and became the USS LEVIATHAN. By the time of the 11 November 1918 Armistice, she had transported 119 000 fighting men to Europe with a crew that included future film star Humphrey Bogart.
Also seized by the Americans – in 1941 – was the SS NORMANDIE – which had entered service in 1935 as the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat. Even today, NORMANDIE is still the most powerful steam turbo electric passenger ship ever built. As well as having electric rather than mechanical transmission between the prime movers and propellers, NORMANDIE also had a revolutionary hull with a slanting clipper type bow and a bulbous forefoot beneath the waterline. She was 313.6 metres long with a gross registered tonnage of 79 280 and an engine output of 160 000 bhp. Or more than 38 InterCity 125s.
NORMANDIE had been one of a new breed of ship catering largely for rich travellers rather than masses of emigrants that once boarded MAURETANIA and TITANIC but were barred from America in the early 1920s. From 1920 to 1933, many Americans also boarded liners to Europe to avoid Prohibition. After acquisition by the United States, preparations were under way to convert NORMANDIE into a troopship named USS LAFAYETTE when a fire broke out and the weight of water being pumped aboard to quench it caused the liner to capsize in New York Harbour.
Had this tragedy not occurred, USS LAFAYETTE could have joined her British buddy RMS QUEEN ELIZABETH in transporting thousands of American troops and tons of war material across the Atlantic and may even have shortened the war in Europe. As it was, what started out as John Brown’s Hull 552 on Clydebank in 1932 became the largest passenger liner built for 56 years, with a gross registered tonnage of 83 673 and a length of 314 metres. Once demobbed from troopship use and refitted as a luxury liner, QUEEN ELIZABETH (IMO 5287902) enjoyed a golden age of transatlantic voyages before more people began flying to America on jet aircraft from 1958.
During the 1960s, Cunard did refit QUEEN ELIZABETH with the intention of alternating transatlantic voyages with tropical cruises but the liner proved to be too thirsty to be economical, her deep draught prevented her from visiting many island ports and her 36 metre beam prevented any transit of the Panama Canal. In fact, until new locks were completed in 2016, the Panama Canal could only take vessels less than 289 metres long, 33 metres wide and 12 metres deep.
In 1968 QUEEN ELIZABETH actually became a tourist attraction in Florida but such was the debilitating effect of the hot moist climate that she was repurposed as a floating university in Hong Kong. Where, in 1972, she sadly caught fire, listed and sank before being scrapped. The mantle of biggest passenger ship in the World then passed to CGT line’s 1961 vintage FRANCE, measuring 316 metres but with a grt of only 66 340.
With the high speed transport of passengers and good over long distances left to jet aircraft, ships turned to freight and also cruise tourism. And the first passenger ship over 100 00 grt was the 101 350 grt CARNIVAL DESTINY (IMO 9070058) which set sail on its maiden voyage in 1996. The propulsion system consists of six thruster units, three forward and three aft, each with variable-pitch propellers and 1760 kW motors. The electricity for the motors is provided by diesel generators. CARNIVAL DESTINY, since renamed CARNIVAL SUNSHINE, is 272 metres long with a beam of 35.5 metres and an 8.3 metre draught: still too wide for the old locks on the Panama Canal.
The difference between an ocean liner and a cruise liner is that an ocean liner specifically goes from one port to another across oceans while a cruise liner tends to stay in more sheltered waters, often returning to the same port. This means that an ocean liner has to be built with a deeper draught for stability and long tapered bows to cut through waves. It also has to be fast to make transits between ports in a reasonable time. The largest ocean liner in service today is Cunard’s QUEEN MARY 2 (pictured above) with a length of 345 metres, 148 528 grt and IMO 9241061.
Twenty two years after CARNIVAL DESTINY came the current largest passenger ship in the World, Royal Caribbean International’s SYMPHONY OF THE SEAS. Registered with the IMO 9744001, this 228 021 grt floating resort went into service in 2018 and is 361 metres long with a maximum beam of 66 metres, waterline beam of 47.448 metres and draught of 9.322 metres. So that is considerably longer than the 316 metres of SS FRANCE and the 345.3 metres of the UNIVERSE IRELAND. And wider than the UNIVERSE IRELAND as well.
SYMPHONY OF THE SEAS would thus be a tight fit at best for the new locks on the Panama Canal opened in 2016 which can accommodate an overall vessel length of 366 metres, 49 metres beam and 15.2 metres draught. However, the main purpose of these new locks is to accommodate merchant ships, which move over 90% of the World’s transported goods. However, it should be noted that in 2008 shipping produced almost 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the Earth’s environment, or nearly 6% of all CO2 emissions in that year – twice that of air transport.
However, like the UNIVERSE IRELAND, many of the very largest ships do not use the Panama Canal and can be above New Panamax size. Christened on 8 January 2015, the Mediterranean Shipping Company’s OSCAR is currently the biggest container ship in the World. Registered with the IMO 9703291, MSC OSCAR has a deadweight of 197 362 tonnes and is 395.4 metres long, 59 metres beam and a draught of 16 metres. The maximum TEU of MSC OSCAR is 19,224 TEU, including the capacity for 1,800 refrigerated containers, but she can only carry a full load of containers if each has a mean weight not exceeding 10.2 tonnes. With average 14-tonne containers, the capacity is around 14,000 TEU
In 2010 ISO shipping containers accounted for 60% of the world’s seaborne trade and by 2012 there were over 20 million of them in varying twenty foot equivalent units. Although the concept of containerised freight dates back at least as far as wooden boxes that could be craned from Liverpool and Manchester Railway wagons to horse drawn carts, modern metal shipping containers came of age in the Korean War of 1950-1953 and were officially defined their modern form from 1968. Crucially, they can carry almost any solid objects that will fit their length, height and width – rather like the holds of the CUTTY SARK and GREAT BRITAIN but unlike more specialised vessels whose relevance to World trade comes and goes.
With electric and hybrid cars beginning to supplant pure petrol and diesel models, the Western World is increasingly turning away from hydrocarbon fuels and has certainly decreased its appetite from the heady days before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But despite increasing prices, often due to extracting oil from increasingly hostile terrain, the petrochemical industry has produced some ships engineered on an heroic scale.
The TI Class of Ultra Large Crude Carriers are currently the largest in the World, each with a 234,006 gross registered tonnage and 441 893 deadweight. Dimensions are 380m overall, 68 metres beam and 24.5 metres draught. As well as being too wide for Panama Canal, the TI Class also cannot travel through the Suez Canal unless on an empty ballast voyage. The four strong class were originally built for the Greek Hellespont Group from 2002 but were later sold on and renamed. HELLESPONT ALHAMBRA, seen here, has the IMO 9224752 and went on become TI ASIA and then the FSO ASIA. FSO in this case stands for Floating Storage and Offloading and the former ALHAMBRA is now moored in Qatar’s Al Shaheen oilfield.
This was also the final destination of the largest moving man made object ever built. Allocated the IMO number 7381154, the 260,941 grt 564,763 deadweight ULCC was originally named SEAWISE GIANT and measured 458.45 metres long with a 24.611 metre draught. Or put another way, two InterCity 125 trains nose to nose would measure 440 metres and SEAWISE GIANT was too deep to navigate the English Channel, let alone either Suez or Panama Canal. In 1988 SEAWISE GIANT was sunk off Larak Island, Iran but later salvaged and ultimately renamed HAPPY GIANT, JAHRE VIKING, KNOCK NEVIS and MONT before being scrapped in 2009.
Of course, the flip side of moving large quantities of anything is that when things go wrong, they can go spectacularly wrong. On 18 March 1967 Barracuda Tanker Corporation’s very large crude carrier TORREY CANYON ( 61 263 grt IMO 5365352) ran aground off the Scilly Isles spilling as many as 36 million gallons of crude oil into the sea. This remains the worst oil spill in UK history and affected hundreds of miles of coastline as far as Spain.
In terms of ships without engines, Royal Dutch Shell’s Floating Liquified Natural Gas Platform PRELUDE was developed as a natural gas collecting rig and a natural gas liquefaction facility. This means that for the first time ever, natural gas could be collected and basically refined, at sea. Natural gas collected from sea is generally piped directly to land to be liquefied and refined, but the PRELUDE allows for this whole step to be bypassed. Her measurements are 488 metres long with a beam of 74 metres, 300 000 tons grt and her IMO is 9648714.
And talking of natural gas, Nakilat is the Qatari gas transport company that owns the fourteen strong fleet of Q-Max fleet of membrane type liquified natural gas carriers, so called because they are the largest ships that can dock at the LNG terminals in Qatar. Each has a gross tonnage of 162 400 and are 345 metres long.
Also part of the longer process of oil extraction is the semi submersible ship BOKA VANGUARD. Built as the DOCKWISE VANGUARD in 2013, the 116,173 deadweight heavy lift vessel carries the IMO 9618783 and measures 275 metres long with a 79 metre beam. By sinking herself and then rising up under another large ship or structure, BOKA VANGUARD is able to both transport 110 000 deadweight tons of cargo and act as a mobile floating dock. As well as oil rigs, similar semi submersibles have transported stricken naval vessels back to their home ports.
And talking of naval vessels, the Royal Navy moved on from broadside sailing ships like Nelson’s HMS VICTORY to HMS WARRIOR – the first iron hulled armour plated steam driven ocean going warship. Built in 1860, WARRIOR (pictured) allowed Britain to regain the technological upper hand at sea from France. She displaced 9 284 tonnes and measured 128 metres long
Then, from 1873, HMS DEVASTATION – as featured on the England’s Glory match box – became the first ocean going capital warship to dispense with sails for propulsion and to have its main armament in turrets on top of the hull rather than within it. During its service life up to 1908, HMS DEVASTATION was also upgraded from muzzle to breech loading canon and fitted with triple expansion reciprocating steam engines. As built, HMS DEVASTATION had an installed horsepower of 5 600, 9 330 tonnes displacement and was 94 metres long.
In 1906 meanwhile, HMS DREADNOUGHT eclipsed the warships of every major Naval Power. She was not only the largest and most powerfully armed British battleship of her day, but the first to have steam turbines. HMS DREADNOUGHT had a length of 160.6 metres, beam of 25 metres and displaced 14 910 tonnes tons.
Until 2017, the record for the longest Royal Navy vessel was held by HMS HOOD, the 1920 vintage battle cruiser lost in the Battle of the Denmark Strait in 1941. HOOD measured 262.3 metres in length with a 31.8 metre beam and a displacement of 47 430 tonnes. However, HMS VANGUARD – in service from 1946 to 1960 – was the last battleship to be launched anywhere in the World and although shorter at 248.2 metres was wider at 32.9 metres and heavier at a 52 250 tonnes displacement. In fact VANGUARD was the only ship of the planned LION class to be completed as she was fitted with pairs of available 15” guns rather than 16” guns in more problematic triple turrets.
Armed with triple turrets of 18.1” guns however was the Imperial Japanese Navy battleship YAMATO, which although not as long as the 270.3 metres of the United States Navy IOWA class was the heaviest ever built at 65 027 metric tonnes displacement and the widest at 38.9 metres beam. In fact the only time YAMATO fired her main guns at enemy surface targets was in October 1944, when she was sent to engage American forces invading the Philippines during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In April 1945 YAMATO was spotted by American submarines heading for Okinawa and later sunk by American aircraft
By 1945 aircraft carriers had become the capital ships of the World’s navies and were set to grow in size to accommodate increasingly large aircraft. Commissioned in 1938 as the third Royal Navy ship to carry the name, HMS ARK ROYAL – pennant number 91 – was the first to have flight and hangar decks integrated into the hull rather than added on top and featured a compressed steam catapult for launching aircraft. She was 240 metres long with a 29 metre beam and a displacement of 28 160 metric tonnes displacement
The fourth HMS ARK ROYAL of the Royal Navy – pennant number R09 – meanwhile took naval aviation into the jet age as the first ship to be constructed with an angled flight deck and live steam catapults, as opposed to having them added after launching. Her length was 245 metres, beam 52 metres and a final displacement 53 950 tons.
In commission from 1955 to 1979, HMS ARK ROYAL would eventually host Blackburn Buccaneer and McDonnell Douglas Phantom aircraft far larger and therefore fewer in number than the De Havilland Sea Venoms and Armstrong Whitworth Sea Hawks first embarked on R09. Indeed, by the time that this picture was taken in 1978, HMS ARK ROYAL was still only just over half the displacement of the 101 600 ton USS NIMITZ moored beside her at Norfolk Virginia.
Although the NIMITZ class carriers were for many decades the largest in the World, this mantle has now passed to the class heralded by the USS GERALD R. FORD. Formally commissioned on 22 July 2017, CVN-78 is also nuclear powered and measures 337 metres long with a 41 metre waterline beam and a displacement of over 100 000 tons. The flight deck measures 333 metres by 78 metres, capable of handling more than 75 aircraft with enough room left over to walk and chew gum at the same time.
For comparison, the new HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH (IMO 4907892, 65 000 tons displacement) is 284 metres long with a 39 metre beam at the waterline. The power for the Royal Navy’s largest ever warship comes from gas turbines and diesel engines. And she is designed without catapults or arrester wires for use with helicopters and the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II short take off and vertical landing aircraft.
While aircraft carriers have traditionally been defined by the size, type and number of aircraft that they are designed to operate, submarines have always been limited by their propulsion and hull technology, degree of weapons automation and need for stealth. Early diesel electric submarines could only move slowly under relatively shallow water and often used deck guns as much as precious torpedoes. An extreme example of this trend were the Royal Navy midget submarines seen here which badly damaged the German battleship Tirpitz with explosive charges dropped under her keel.
Stretching in the other direction though were the three members of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s I-400 class of diesel electrics, the largest such submarines ever built. Each designed to carry three floatplanes, they measured 122 metres long, 12 metres beam and displaced 6 670 tonnes. Although they were to be used in a planned surprise attack on the Panama Canal, these submarines never flew their aircraft in anger.
In contrast, no diesel electric submarine will ever match the endurance of a silent nuclear boat which also makes it ideal for hunting and killing other submarines. In fact with its unlimited fuel, water and oxygen supplies, the only limit to a nuclear submersible patrol is the food supply for the crew.
In fact the Royal Navy had been researching ideas for nuclear submarine propulsion since 1946 but American co-operation was only forthcoming under the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958. By this time the USS NAUTILUS – seen here – had become the World’s first nuclear submarine in 1955 and thanks to the efforts of The First Sea Lord Admiral The Earl Mountbatten of Burma a fifth generation pressurized water reactor from a Skipjack Class submarine and its associated machinery was obtained for Britain’s first Ship Submersible Nuclear, or SSN.
HMS DREADNOUGHT – pennant number S101 – was commissioned as Britain’s first nuclear submarine on 17 April 1963 and also became the first British submarine to surface at the North Pole. Measuring 81 metres long with a 9.5 metre beam, she displaced 6 404 tonnes submerged but paved the way for later British boats, culminating in the Vanguard class carrying the Trident nuclear deterrent. These carry 16 ballistic missiles each and are 149.9 metres long, 12.8 metres across the beam and displace 15 900 tonnes submerged.
The title of biggest submarine in the World however goes to the Soviet built Typhoon class, another Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear with its 20 RSM-52 missiles ahead of the fin rather than behind. Each boat has a displacement of 48 000 tonnes submerged and measures 175 metres long with a beam of 23 metres. Unlike a bomber aircraft, an SSBN can hide in more than 70% of the Earth’s surface ready to launch its unstoppable missiles.
And finally, as Emily would doubtlessly concur, if you’ve got it, flaunt it! The title of largest and longest private yacht in the World goes to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s AZZAM (IMO 9693367 13 136 grt) which measures 180 metres long with a 20.8 metre beam but a draught of only 4.3 metres making the US$ 600 million vessel ideal for high speed cruising in warm shallow waters. Carrying a submarine and her own missile defense system, AZZAM will still travel in excess of 32 knots powered by a combination of two gas turbines and two diesel engines with a total power output of 70 MW (94,000 hp).
Or more than British Rail’s entire fleet of Deltic diesel locomotives, which used to work in and out of King’s Cross before Emily Ratajkowski was even born.