Where Oil Rigs Go to Die

They lit up the shore with flares on the day the rig came in at Aliaga. This was to acknowledge the end of a three-week journey that had ended up taking three months, and to show a pack of tugboats – now that Winner was off the submerged Hawk and being pulled and pushed towards the beach – just where to put her. The float-off took place at lunchtime on 5 November. Winner had a token crew again: representatives from Transocean and SMIT back aboard for the final tow. Guiding flares on the shore, at least from Winner’s deck, appeared only as spots of fire among hundreds. Aliaga beach was aflame – in the shallows, where carcasses of ships and rigs were disassembled by spark-showering blowtorches, and in the narrow yards beyond, where amputated pieces were further torched. Dense smoke filled the air above the yards.

From the water, it must have appeared to the uninitiated that Aliaga had been freshly, plentifully bombed; perhaps doused and jumbled by tidal waves, too. In fact, this was a normal working day on the beach. At its western edge, a Del Monte fruit boat had been perfectly halved. To the east was a cargo carrier, Modern Express, that had some months earlier been abandoned by her crew while stricken and drifting in the Bay of Biscay. Nearby were two demobbed frigates, recently owned by the Spanish navy. Winner was put in next to the halved Del Monte boat, on a part of the beach owned by a local shipbreaking company called Isiksan.

Isiksan’s foreman, a muscular 30-year-old Istanbulite named Hüsseyin Essen, sailed out to meet the rig. Essen had been the foreman here when Isiksan accepted its first oil rig for demolition, in early 2015. Ocean Concord had shown up 200 metres from the shore, and when Essen and his colleagues sailed out to meet her, they had no idea what to do next. Ever since they started shipbreaking in Aliaga in the 1970s, vessels had been brought ashore using a method known as “beaching”; that is, they were piloted inland and made to mount the beach at speed. (Trembling phone footage from 2013 of a ferry being beached in an explosion of smoke and water has been viewed more than 3m times on YouTube.) With the sterns half-ashore, breakers could then cut in and dismantle the ships laterally, as a snacker might eat through a baguette. But oil rigs were not fast enough or strong enough for beaching. “We didn’t know what the hell we were going to do,” Essen said. There was an idea to work on Concord at sea. In the end, heavy chains were tied around her legs and connected via winches to powerful vehicles on the shore. Concord was hauled through the shallows like a struggling fish. Through many oil rig landings since, this method had proved fine. Winner, towed and carried and storm-propelled on this fantastically harried trip east, would be dragged the last metres by straining bulldozers.

Unlike the colossal breakers’ beaches of south Asia, or the disparate yards scattered around coastal China, Turkish shipbreaking is packed close in one place, concentrated entirely on this government-allotted mile of coast on the outskirts of Aliaga. The beach here has been divided into as many slim, neighbouring yards as will fit – 25 of them. Considering its comparative scale, Aliaga should be a minor consumer of the world’s excess sea-tonnage. But since Ocean Concord arrived 18 months ago, it has established itself, improbably, as the world’s foremost consumer of oil rigs. Something like 300,000 tonnes of unwanted rig had been brought here – Hunter and Yatzy and JW McLean and John Shaw and Southern Cross and Aleutian Key and Amirante and Scarabeo 4 and Arctic I and Arctic III – as well as that pair of young Enscos, the two rigs that were barely a decade old when they were sent by their owners for disposal. The Isiksan yard, its opening on to the Aegean no wider than an average-sized rig, had undertaken most of the demolitions. Petter Heier of Grieg Green, which advised Transocean on these latter stages of the disposal, said Isiksan had been chosen because of this expertise.

It was expertise hard-won. Essen and his colleagues learned over the months that the best way to scrap a rig was to deposit a group of blowtorchers on the upper deck (carrying them there in a crane-hoisted cage) and then to let them burn their way downwards. The process took months, but because more men could get at more vessel on a rig than on a beached ship, and because rigs tended to have cranes that could be co-opted into the effort of self-destruction, Essen’s scrappers were getting faster and faster at their work. With Winner, they targeted the helipad first, weakening it with blowtorches before a crane came in to pick it clean away. Winner’s galley went next, then half her accommodation block. A fortnight into the demolition, the horizontal decks were still in place, but the walls between had been so gnawed at that Winner looked liked one of the cut-away diagrams sketched by Hader Liden at his drawing board decades earlier.

The rig’s sale to Isiksan was formalised and finalised the moment she came off the back of Hawk. In the words of Isiksan’s young chief, a 26-year-old Aliagan named Soner Sari, Winner was a “cooked meal”, in that she had been brought to the yard whole and the workers there only had to digest her. They did this by cutting 50-tonne pieces off her, lifting these pieces into the yard, where the steel could be separated from everything else, then trucking off this valuable metal in one-metre-squared pieces that would be sold to a foundry nearby. Not all vessels in Aliaga were “cooked meals”. Other deals struck by Sari specified that Isiksan must fetch unwanted craft from wherever they had outlasted their use. These agreements, known in the industry as “cash-buyer” deals, could be profitable – but they were also risky. Early in 2016, an old ship called Bannock had been cash-bought by Sari from her owners in Italy. Sailed into the Matapan Sea, bound for Aliaga, Bannock had quickly listed and capsized, ceasing to exist in the old-fashioned way, by sinking to the bottom. “That was a shitty feeling,” Sari said.

We were sitting in his office on the yard, watching the slow destruction of Winner through a picture window. Boyish, dark, smartly dressed, Sari sometimes threw out his hands when he spoke, showing a bracelet on each wrist, one of them decorated with pictures of turtles. He had a Range Rover parked outside, in which we had driven together from central Aliaga, passing various chemical factories, oil refineries and foundries. Closer to the breakers’ beach, an informal flea market of maritime bric-a-brac had been established, where traders sold recovered items from the dismantled ships. Sari continued: “When we buy in a faraway port it’s cheaper, because we’re taking certain risks, and if it works out, we’ll we make money for taking those risks.” On his phone he had photographs of Bannock sinking. “At that point, your company’s $20m – or whatever you’ve paid – is gone. Poof. It hurts.”

Sari did not want to say exactly how much Isiksan had paid Transocean for the right to scrap Winner. Estimating based on local market rates, it could have been as much as $3.5m, though Sari only allowed that it was a seven-figure sum, and that Isiksan expected to turn a profit on the recovered steel. Parts other than a rig’s steel could also be valuable to a breaking firm – for instance, any deck cranes that were in resellable condition. The lifeboats that came stitched to vessels could also be sold on to the bric-a-brac guys beyond the yard. Hundreds waited to be sold there, bordering the road like giant orange crash barriers.

Through Sari’s office window, we looked at a newly removed piece of Winner’s accommodation block, which had just been brought up into the yard. It might once have been a section of corridor, and electric cabling and insulation foam still clung to its steel walls. A hydraulic excavator started tossing and rolling it in the dirt – cartwheeling it over and over to shake away the wire and the foam. By the end of the day, Sari judged, that steel would be on a foundry floor. About $3,000 worth, he said, pricing it by eye.

While we drank strong, tarry coffee, we discussed the environmental consequences of shipbreaking. It was no coincidence, Sari said, that Aliaga’s yards were huddled up beside refineries and foundries. Heavy industry had been moved to Aliaga en masse in the 1970s, “because the government wanted to wrap it up in one area, keep everything else nice”. Sari acknowledged that the local yards had not always upheld the strictest standards when it came to minimising environmental damage, but he was working to change that. Beneath the Isiskan yard he had installed a drainage system to catch and pump off pollutants. Down in the water there were brightly coloured booms, bobbing in a circle around Winner’s legs, there in theory to stop any floating waste from getting out into the Aegean. A confidential 2015 report by the shipping consultancy Litehauz, obtained by journalists from the investigative agency Danwatch last year, detailed the potential impact of ships that were torch-cut on tidal water. The report estimated that for every 10,000 tonnes of vessel torched, about 120 tonnes of molten steel and two tonnes of chipped-away paint escaped into the sea. Sari insisted that the water off Isiksan’s yard was regularly tested for pollutants. When I asked if he would swim out there, he thought for a moment and answered: “Why not?” Petter Heier of Grieg Green said his company had audited the Isiksan yard and found its environmental procedures acceptable. Look, Sari said, it might be distasteful, but somebody had to get rid of shipowners’ garbage. He gestured at the yard through the window. In his view, it was better that it happened out there than on the deadly beaches of Alang or Chittagong. He had applied for European recognition for the Isiksan yard, hoping to see it added to a list of EU-approved shipbreaking sites.