by Trevor Boult
The Wallsend shipyard of E Swan Hunter was given a monumental challenge in 1968, build the supertanker Esso Northumbria. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen on the Tyne, or on the stocks of any shipbuilder's yard in western Europe.
The ‘Big Geordie’, as she became known, seemed to black out half the sky for the Wallsend locals who lived within her shadow. At the time of her eventual launch she was the biggest vessel to ever come from a UK yard and was to be the first of eight such vessels built at Wallsend.
Her exceptional size pushed back the parameters of design knowledge into areas of uncertainty. Neither the owners, designers, nor the regulatory authorities fully understood the structural problems involved. Having to rely heavily on the extrapolation of existing class construction rules, it was later found, for instance, that the racking and shear stresses were significantly under-calculated. A
later observation was revealing: ‘She was certainly very flexible’.
Esso Northumbria was built on a ?xed price contract, during a period of raging inflation. Swan Hunter lost some 20% of he sale price building her. To accommodate the length, she was built on a diagonal across two existing berths. Work on the stern would have had to cease at high water but for a watertight shield built out into the river. At the ‘sharp end’, the bulbous bow had to take shape resting on a bridge specially built to carry it over a service road.
All welded in construction, she had a raked stem and a modified cruiser stern of the ‘clearwater' type. Propulsion was by geared turbines to a single screw, giving a service speed of 16 knots. Four turbine driven centrifugal main cargo pumps delivered an overall hourly discharge rate of 10,000 tons.
To facilitate the launch, a considerable portion of the opposite bank had to be cut away. Although there was little backwash, a 2 ft swell of water surged ashore opposite the launching point, wetting many feet. Rats from the drains were also reported as making a surprise appearance. Controlled by some 1,800 tons of drag chains and seven drag anchors bedded into the river, to bring her to a stop and effect the necessary swing, the huge vessel swept within 20ft of the Hebburn bank.
Esso Northumbria was launched by the 18-yeare old Princess Anne, and crowds at vantage points along the river were estimated at a quarter of a million.
Under the command of Captain Agnew of North Shields, the vessel was too big to ever return to the Tyne. Following trials, she
was received at Europe's largest repair dock in Lisbon for final inspection before entering service. On the retum leg of her maiden voyage from Kuwait, she used the modified and strengthened berth at the Esso refinery at Fawley. On each voyage from the
Persian Gulf to the UK she carried 70m gallons of oil.
A world slump in oil prices cut short her career after only 13 years. She was broken up at Kaohsiung in Taiwan in 1983.