Alang: Where Old Ships Go to Die
Somewhere off the coast of India tonight, a small flotilla of doomed ships waits for high tide. From the shore, their forms are silhouetted on the horizon by the moonlight: a supertanker, a war ship, a car ferry -- nearly 20 in all. They have come from every corner of the world to this spot. In the morning light, they will fire their engines for the last time, and hurl themselves onto the beach.
Welcome to Alang, where old ships go to die.
I spend a lot of time talking about new ships, but today I thought you might be interested to know about this odd little corner of the world where so many ships end up, the granddaddy of all ship-breaking yards.
Alang is first and foremost a beach with an eccentric tidal system -- high tide happens once every 2 weeks. Every high tide brings a new delivery of old ships, beaching themselves like wayward whales. When the tide recedes, the workers descend, and the dismantling begins.
First, everything that can be detached is removed -- beds, tables, ovens, carpets. Then the engines are dismantled and removed, piece by piece. Then the hull and body slowly unravel, one section at a time, under the blow torches of 300 workers.
Ships are built from the bottom up, hull first, but they are chewed up starting at one end, as taller and taller cross sections are removed. Everything is salvaged -- steel, pipes, ducts -- everything. Much of what is removed is trucked directly to customers, and the rest ends up in a string of roadside warehouses near the beach.
Alang is one of the most dangerous places on Earth to work, with 13 deaths in the past 3 months. Workers are exposed to hazardous wastes and toxic gases from the ships they harvest, but the poor and desperate still flock there for jobs. As many as 40,000 workers dismantle more than 350 ships per year.
I have searched in vain for a list of cruise ships that ended up at Alang, but official records of the work going on there are in short supply.
The shipyard discourages visitors, and photography is forbidden, most likely due to international concerns about working conditions. But I've read accounts from eyewitnesses who said the sight of one massive ship after another missing one half, insides hanging out, is both sad and awe-inspiring.
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