The Development of Crude Oil Tankers: A Historical Miscellany

Reviewed by Ingo Heidbrink, Ph.D.

Crude oil tankers are not only some of the largest ships that have ever sailed the oceans but are the backbone of international energy trade. At the same time they normally gain little public attention, unless they are at the center of an ecological disaster. Therefore, it should be lauded that Ray Solly brings attention to this unique type of ships with his new book. Having not only worked as an officer in the merchant marine, but on supertankers, he has a unique background for an author on this subject.

The structure of the book basically follows a chronological sequence by being divided into four sections (Early Crude Oil and Product Carriers, The Single-Hulled ‘Supertanker’ VLCC, The ULCC Generation, The Double-Hulled ‘Supertanker’ VLCC) to be followed by a final section describing two journeys of tankers in which the author participated well after his active career as a merchant mariner for the purpose of observation of working and living conditions onboard modern tankers.

The strongest and at the same time the weakest point of the book is its strict focus on the development of crude oil tankers as a ship type. This development is narrated convincingly by using a large range of ships to detail evolutionary technological progress or to illustrate revolutionary changes in technology. For obvious reasons, special emphasis has been placed on cargo tank arrangements and the development of methods and designs to increase longitudinal strength of the vessels beginning with Joseph Isherwoods revolutionary concept of longitudinal framing and continuing to today’s double-hull supertanker construction. While this dense description provides a good ‘inner’ history of technology, the ‘outer’ history of this development has been more or less completely left out by the author. For example, the 1973 oil crisis is mentioned barely in one brief paragraph and the term OPEC shows up just a single time in the index. Even major tanker accidents like the groundings of the Torrey Canyon (1967) or the Amoco Cadiz (1978) are not mentioned at all while the grounding of the Exxon Valdez (1989) is at least mentioned briefly. Information on global production and consumption patterns of crude oil and products are missing as well as the effects of a changing public attitude towards the consumption of oil and/or the introduction of renewable energies. This list of points missing in the book could be easily extended, but as the author by no means claims to have written an analytical history of the development of ocean-going crude oil tankers but has even titled his book ‘a historical miscellany’ it seems to be more prudent to focus on the strengths of the book instead of what is missing in the book. Without any doubt, the largest strength of the book are the more than 200 photographs and illustrations, many of them in color and/or never published before, that do not just illustrate the book, but tell the story of the book as a visual narrative. And as already mentioned, the other main strength of the book is the dense and no-nonsense description of the development of the ocean going crude oil tanker as a ship-type by presenting a large number of tankers in chronological order. 

Unfortunately, it needs to be noted that the name of the very first ocean going steam-tanker, the 1886 built Glückauf, is consistently misspelled throughout the book (either as Gluckauf or as Glauckauf). While it might seem to be hypocritical to mention a simple typo in a book review, this specific typo needs to question the quality of the copyediting of the book at large, as after all, it is not a typo in the name of a random ship mentioned, but the name of one of the most critical ships in the history of tanker shipping at all. Combined with a few other typos and mistakes the impression occurs that editorial oversight by the publisher could have been more careful. Another issue that also belongs more into the realm of the publisher than the author is the fact that while the ship index is complete and very helpful, the general index is missing a good number of terms the reader would have wished for, or the lack of an appendix providing a table of principal characteristics of some of the most important ships. 

In the end, the question remaining is simply the question of the target audience of Solly’s: The Development of Crude Oil Tankers – a historical miscellany or the question to whom this book should be recommended? 

One of the groups this book can be commended to without any hesitation are any kind of ship lovers or merchant marine history buffs who are looking for a plain overview on the development of the oceangoing crude oil tanker. A second group are crewmembers or anybody else with a direct connection to this particular type of ship. When it comes to professional maritime historians interested in the field of transoceanic crude oil transportation, there are books that are providing a much more in-depth analysis, but as these books have been either published in languages other than English or do not cover the last two or three decades of the development, Solly’s book might still be a useful addition to a personal or institutional research library despite of its limitations as a research publication. Finally, and as strange as it may read given the highly specialized subject of the book, due to its good selection of photographs, with many of them reproduced on at least half-page size, it has certain qualities of a coffee-table book for everybody simply interested in ships and maritime history. Given the sheer dimensions of these ships, they have a very specific esthetic that is hard not to be attracted by when flipping the pages of the book. 

Regardless if considering these leviathans of the oceans as the ultimate achievement of shipbuilding or a behemothic risk to the marine environment, Solly’s book describes the steps from the ‘dwarfs’ of the late 19th century to the ‘giants’ of the late 20th and beginning 21st century. 

Ingo Heidbrink is a Professor of Maritime History at Old Dominion University.

The Development of Crude Oil Tankers: A Historical Miscellany. By Ray Solly (South Yorkshire, UK: Pen and Sword Books, 2022).

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