Re-visiting the historic 1969 voyage of the SS Manhattan
Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage, by Ross Coen, 2012, University of Alaska Press, 215 pps, U.S. $24.95
Reviewed by JOE E. LaROCCA
A University of Alaska scholar at Fairbanks has plucked a rare gem from the dust bin of Alaska’s relatively brief but colorful petroleum history and endowed it with a fresh voice that speaks to a new generation of adherents largely unaware of its historic genesis.
In his new book, Ross Coen, a university professor, revisits the legendary ice-breaking supership’s remarkable experimental journey more than 40 years ago from New York Harbor through the ice-choked waters of the Canadian arctic archipelago’s mythic Northwest Passage: Its destination, Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s then-newly discovered North Slope oilfields.
(Full disclosure: As one of the few survivors who sailed aboard the Manhattan during part of her spectacular trip in 1969 through the dazzling labryrinth of arctic ice, Professor Coen interviewed me online during research on his book and has favorably cited some of my Alaska writings).
The story of the SS Manhattan has been told in various contexts over the years, most notably in a book published in 1970 by New York Times Reporter William D. Smith, “Northwest Passage: The Historic Voyage of the SS Manhattan.” Smith, flaunting the Times’ prestigious clout, was the only reporter allowed to cover the ship’s entire voyage round trip. I was there covering for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Prof. Coen and Smith have penned powerful and nuanced descriptions of the supership’s tumultuous east and west voyages through the Passage from totally different perspectives: Prof. Coen, from exhaustive research into the ship’s voluminous paper wake and insightful interviews of some of the surviving crew members and officers, an exemplar of investigative inquiry; Reporter Smith, from his perceptive, often emotional/aesthetic personal observations aboard ship during his unprecedented experience. Both deserve a full reading.
Prof. Coen readily acknowledges that “Bill Smith’s book is a superb contemporary account of the voyage,” but notes that his own “has the advantage of coming 40 years later when I could place these events in an historical context.”
That’s an understatement. Prof. Coen’s book is arguably the most important book written by an Alaska author on any subject. It’s a must read for anyone dealing with or engaged in the far-reaching implications of the overarching state, national and international issues it explores. These include conflicting claims of governance of the Northwest passage waters and their disputed status, and growing concerns over the creeping pollution of global oceans by petroleum products.
Prof. Coen’s meticulously researched book ventures well beyond the adventurous Manhattan narrative to explore in depth many of the geopolitical public and corporate policy issues it aroused which broadened the context immeasurably.
He observes, for example, that as part of its legacy, the Manhattan’s voyage “provoked intense reaction in Canada with regard to environmental protection, economic security, maritime safety regulation, and ultimately the very question of who owns the Northwest Passage.” These are wrenching geopolitical issues which the passage of time and complicated emerging national and international legalities have intensified.
Prof. Coen notes that “Humble Oil did not request advance permission from the Canadian government before sending its tanker north. Neither did the U.S. Coast Guard in the case of its (cutter) Northwind (to escort the tanker)…nor the U.S State Department.”
For the U.S. “To formally ask for permission,” Prof Coen writes, “would be to acknowledge that the waters of the Northwest Passage indeed fell under Canadian jurisdiction.” While conceding that the scores of archipelagic islands scattered throughout the Canadian portion of the Passage belong to Canada, Prof. Coen notes, “American officials instead believed the route qualified as an international waterway” open to all nations.
According to Prof. Coen, the U.S. has based its position in part on a ruling by the International Court of Justice in 1949 which held that a strait qualifies as “international” when it connects two high seas (i.e., the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans), and which falls outside the jurisdiction of adjacent states, although Canada disputes this claim.
When the prospective voyage was first announced in 1968, then-Canada Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau “stated his intent to assert ‘stewardship, if not sovereignty’ over the passage.” His “soft language” Prof. Coen writes, angered some Canadians “who desired a firm stance on the issue and possibly a showdown with what they perceived as the arrogant neighbor to the south.”
But, according to Prof. Coen, Trudeau’s secretary of external affairs, Mitchell Sharp, “advised restraint.” ‘This is not a time for wide-ranging assertions of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic made without regard to the international political and legal considerations (and) there is no necessity for us to make sweeping assertions to reinforce our position,’ Sharp declaimed. ‘That might satisfy our ego but would not add a whit to the international acceptability of our position’.”
Nevertheless, Prof. Coen writes, these comments “belied a firm resolve to assert functional authority over the Canadian Arctic by assuming environmental stewardship of its waters.”
By unilaterally assigning Canada’s Coast Guard ship, the John H. MacDonald to escort the Manhattan, a move the Manhattan’s officers heartily welcomed, Canada “signalled its intent to pursue an overall strategy of cooperation designed to avoid direct confrontation with the U.S.,” Prof. Coen writes, “and allow time to develop an internationally defensible plan for achieving de facto control” over the Northwest Passage within her sovereign sphere.
“While the John A. MacDonald had been assigned to the expedition in part to wave the Canadian flag,” Prof Coen writes, she steadfastly “would guide the supertanker through the passage, repeatedly rescue her from brutal ice conditions and generally prove indispensible to the entire mission” at times even at her own peril.
The Manhattan’s voyage was launched in August, 1969 to test the operational and economic feasibility of shipping North Slope crude oil from Alaska’s Arctic Ocean shore eastward to refineries and markets on the U.S. East Coast and beyond. Another alternative: pumping it through the proposed trans Alaska oil pipeline, if and when completed, to the port city of Valdez on Alaska’s south coast for transshipment by ocean tankers to U.S. refineries on the West Coast, Gulf of Mexico coast and the Bahamas.
At the outset, proponents of the ocean-only option prefigured by the Manhattan voyage claimed the oil could be delivered by tankers larger and more powerful than the Manhattan much more cheaply to markets on the East Coast, where it would be needed, than to the West Coast, where it wouldn’t - where, indeed, there would be a projected half-millon barrel per day glut of oil once North Slope crude came onstream.
While that calculation may have been valid at the time it was rendered, the economics of both alternatives changed drastically by the time both projects were completed, even reversing the logistics in favor of the pipeline, whose completion was ultimately delayed nearly a decade after the Manhattan’s voyage.
The $52 million Manhattan project was the brainchild of a Humble Oil/Standard Oil of New Jersey transport executive, Stanley B. Haas, now deceased. Humble was concurrently one of three ranking proponents of the proposed trans Alaska oil pipeline. Haas sold the maritime project to his company’s Board, contending that Humble’s share of the then-estimated ten billion barrels-plus of recoverable oil which underlay the Prudhoe Bay oilfields would justify two divergent transport streams serving discrete market venues.
After an extended period of corporate gestation through the 1960s, the decision was taken in late 1968 to proceed with plans for a voyage shove-off by mid-1969. Prof. Coen’s incisive account of the convoluted decisional process is just one of numerous fascinating aspects of his book, remarkable for the vivid color and quality of his writing, as well as the depth, detail and precision of his research.
Haas’ first chore was to find or have built a suitable ship with configurations which would enable her to sail through the Northwest Passage year-round.
Humble, Prof. Coen writes, initially “proposed to build an ice-breaking tanker weighing 250,000 deadweight tons with an engine room capable of 100,000 horsepower…the largest commercial ship of its kind in history. If this test vessel of an arctic transportation system demonstrated both technical and economic feasibility, Humble would follow with an entire fleet of tankers of comparable size and power,” he writes.
Then reality intruded with the realization that no such ship could possibly be built in time for the scheduled voyage date the following summer, timed to coincide with the first prospective flow of oil from Alaska’s new world-class North Slope oilfields, and a couple years before the then-expected completion of the alternative transport system, the trans Alaska oil pipeline.
The search began for an existing ship “that resembled (the hypothetical ship’s design and could be quickly renovated for the journey.” That led to the Manhattan, constructed in 1962. “Straight off the rack, “ Prof. Coen writes, “the Manhattan already possessed many characteristics of a good icebreaker” - extreme size (longer than three football fields; tonnage (115,000 deadweight tons) and power (100,000 horsepower ahead, 40,000 hp astern).
He tells a fascinating tale of how the Manhattan came to be financed and built - a highly unlikely ship owner’s investment - too lengthy to relate here. The owner, Seatrain, leased her for two years to Humble, which began a unique and all-encompassing whirlwind six-month modification program no single U.S. shipbuilder could handle alone.
Humble docked the ship at Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pa, where she was cut into four sections, with the bow and the stern remaining in Chester; a new ice-breaking bow to be constructed in Maine; the after- bow towed to Newport News in Virginia, and the midship section towed to a Mobile, Alabama shipyard. “Haas joked at the time that the Manhattan was truly the longest ship in the world, stretching from Pennsylvania to Alabama,” Prof. Coen writes.
“The most innovative and visually distinctive renovation to the tanker,” he notes, “was its brand new ice-breaking bow.” Constructed at the Bath, Maine Iron Works, “the bow was made of steel capable of withstanding nine hundred pounds of pressure per square inch, and featured a sharp 18-degree curve calculated to allow the hull to ride atop the ice…the sheer bulk of the vessel” would cause a “tensile failure and a clean split in the ice sheet” and toss small-house-sized chunks of ice cavalierly aside.
Inevitable delays in shipwork led to postponement of completion dates from early June, 1969 to July 15, then end of the month, then August 2, when the ship was at last ready for sea trials. One goal forfeited by the delays was to sail the ship into the arctic ice pack at its peak strength in late Spring and early summer to challenge the Manhattan’s ultimate toughness and her officers’ resolve. But that could be compensated for by running more tests through the ice pack the following Spring of 1970, which ultimately ensued.
Despite serious performance deficiencies at sea trials, the Manhattan was set to begin her illustrious voyage from the Sun Shipworks at Chester, PA on August 26 , with brief celebratory stops at New York and Halifax, Canada.
Eleven weeks later, in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, Humble issued a press release stating that “The most talked-about ship in the world today, the SS Manhattan, slipped quietly into the frigid waters of Amundsen Gulf late last night and became the first commercial vessel in history ever to traverse the Northwest Passage.”
Humble “stated its belief,” Prof, Coen wrote, “that the Manhattan had proven the feasibility of using such tankers in the Arctic, yet the Alaska pipeline now appeared to have an economic edge.” On Oct. 21, 1970, Humble announced “that it was suspending its icebreaking tanker project, Prof. Coen writes. “From this point forward, Humble would focus its efforts only on the design and construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline.”
It’s unlikely anyone under the age of 60 other than historians, select professionals and mariners has ever heard of the Manhattan. But during her arctic voyage in 1969, she was the most famous and largest non-military ship operating in the world. Newspapers, magazines and electronic media around the globe heralded her name on an almost daily basis, endowing her with household familiarity.
Now, some four decades later, the Manhattan has ignominiously ended her checkered existence, far from her glory days, on a scrap heap somewhere near Hong Kong. “What is certain,” Prof. Coen regretfully notes, “is that no part of the first commercial vessel to complete the Northwest Passage was saved for its historical value.
“The ship that had survived the arctic ice pack and was once the most famous vessel in the world finally went the way of countless others that sailed the Northwest Passage - crushed and dismantled and ultimately lost to history.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Originally from North Dakota, Prof. Coen came to Alaska in 1995 where he earned degrees in English and Northern Studies from The University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and where he now teaches Sociology and Political Science as an adjunct professor. He‘s a rural Energy Specialist the the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at UAF, and served as climate change policy analyst for the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens and the Senate Commerce Commitee. He is president of the Alaska Historical Society. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Joe LaRocca resided and worked as a newsman in Alaska for 20 years during the 1960s, 70s and 80s and continues to follow closely and write about Alaska affairs. He currently resides in his hometown of North East (Erie County), PA. He’s the author of Alaska Agonistes, the Age of Petroleum - How Big Oil Bought Alaska published in 2004. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.