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New book tells overlooked tale of U.S. icebreaker Manhattan

J. Pennelope Goforth
University of Alaska Press cover

Ask any Alaskan if they have heard of the Manhattan and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Granted, it was more than 40 years ago -- but the voyage of the leviathan oil tanker Manhattan through the Northwest Passage in 1969 launched the American rush to Arctic resources. Now, a new book by Ross Coen, “Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan Through the Northwest Passage,” tells the story of the ship.

As the biography of an extraordinary vessel, the basic story is riveting enough: massive ship built as a fluke gains worldwide attention and becomes famous. Coen takes it further, placing the Manhattan at the nexus of global oil industry competitiveness and then weaving in the age-old question of who has the right of passage over the seas. Even before her bow crushed any ice, she spun the compass on conventional ways of thinking about the technology of moving millions of barrels of crude oil while accommodating nascent ideas of environmental protection.

On the political intrigue front, Coen shows how the course of the ship’s trip through the waters of the Canadian Archipelago challenged the world’s notions of the sovereignty of the fabled Northwest Passage itself. These issues still persist today. 

The discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay not long before the Manhattan's journey cranked up the engines of the oil industry as they puzzled out how to get millions of barrels of crude oil from the frozen north to thirsty world markets.

In a completely breathtaking move, Humble Oil & Refining Co. grabbed the helm, launching the Arctic Tanker Test. Their intent was to test a model of safely and profitably shipping oil through the ice fields, a feat no other industry rival had attempted. They boldly re-forged an obscure giant cargo ship into a mammoth ice-breaking oil tanker. Coen explains this marvel of modern science with exacting detail describing hull sensors, TV cameras and a wealth of technological breakthroughs. 

The elements that made the Manhattan a cumbersome and expensive cargo ship when shewas built in 1962 -- elements like the then-innovative double hulled steel construction, twin screw propulsion, and oil-guzzling high horsepower -- made it the ideal candidate for an Arctic cruise, with a few modifications. 

Coen describes how the ship was actually dismantled into several football field-sized pieces which were hauled to shipyards up and down the East Coast, reinforced and renovated, then towed back to the main yard in New Jersey and reassembled.

More than $50 million later, the ship boasted highly technical scientific and photographic laboratories for a raft of scientists who would collect data, bolstered rudder protectors and collision chocks, state of the art communications and navigation systems, and a heliport on the stern. And somewhat cramped quarters for over 100 crew and scientists, observers and journalists. At just over 1,000 feet long -- in downtown Anchorage she would stretch along 4th Avenue from A Street to E street -- with displacement tonnage of over 150,000. Amid great fanfare in late August of 1969, the ship headed north by northwest on her historic journey.

Coen takes the reader into Canadian waters with all the drama of failed diplomacy and nationalistic hubris as the seafaring nations of the planet observed the struggle for the right of passage play out. Neither Humble Oil nor the U.S. State Department requested Canadian permission for the journey, fearing it would confirm that country’s ownership of the waters. Though no one ever really expected -- back then, anyway -- that a regular trade route through the Northwest Passage would become reality. Issues of safety, rescue, and potential pollution churned up the questionable ability of  Canada to lay exclusive claim to the waterway. Coen expertly uses the story of the Canadian Coast Guard escort by the vessel John A. McDonald to present all of the maritime boundary claims, treaties, proclamations and declarations involved in the contentious sovereignty issue. 

The theme of environmental concerns over ocean pollution runs in a deeper current throughout the narrative. Although the U.S. passed domestic legislation regarding pollution in 1899, Coen explains, transoceanic shipment of crude oil, diesel oil, and other lubricating oils had become an international issue. Underscored by the massive oil spill from the vessel Torrey Canyon in 1967, the world closely watched the transit of the Manhattan. 

Well-illustrated with graphics and photographs, the book is a page turner. The foreword by former director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission Lawson Brigham -- arguably the most knowledgeable Alaskan Arctic expert -- puts the politics of oil in perspective. Based on comprehensive accounts from U.S. and Canadian government documents, oil company records, and media coverage of the voyage, Coen gives a densely noted and very readable account of the tensions and triumphs of the historic voyage. Ten pages of bibliography and a very good index puts this book on the must-have reference shelf.

The story of how the Manhattan came to break the Arctic ice and the oil company that staked so much on her success is a valuable cautionary tale for current times as the oil industry continues the quest for the same risky riches. 

Ross Coen, president of the Alaska Historical Society, will make a presentation on his new book as a featured guest speaker for the Alaska Maritime Society Cafe at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 4 at Title Wave Books in Anchorage.

J. Pennelope Goforth has over three decades of experience in and around the waters of Alaska, from the Aleutians to Southeast. She is owner of SeaCat Explorations, an Alaska maritime research and publication company.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.