Wandering through a shipbuilding yard one is immediately struck by the sheer complexity of human endeavour that goes into creating ocean-going leviathans. The craft of building a ship must surely rank as one of Mankind’s finest achievements, for it marshals the resources of vast industrial operations and the efforts of thousands of individuals. For months on end, those shipwrights will toil to assemble the myriad of pieces that eventually come together as a vessel, an artifact that will then leave its birthplace and venture to the farthest corners of the globe.
In industrial terms, Ulsan, in southeastern Korea, is the Detroit of shipbuilding, home to the Hyundai Corporation’s yards (the same family-run enterprise that produces cars and trucks nearby). Sprawling over several kilometres of shoreline by the East Sea, Hyundai has three separate facilities encompassing dozens of dry docks and hundreds of fabrication sheds. Their shipwrights craft everything from supertankers and container ships to offshore oilrigs, building the vessels in a piecemeal fashion that appears chaotic when viewed up close.
Of course there is a master plan afoot here in the Ulsan yards, the evolution of thousands of years of shipbuilding. Koreans themselves have a long history of crafting ocean-going ship – over four centuries ago they built the first ironclad vessels – but they have taken a page from Western mass production and perfected the system. They pre-fabricate the sections of a vessel and then move them to dry docks for final assembly, something easier said than done.
To move the sections, the yards utilize huge multi-wheeled platforms called transporters, each the size of a tennis court. These transporters meander around with blocks of hull sitting on their backs, the steel sections visually seeming to float about the ground. Cranes known as “Goliaths” then heft the blocks into the dry docks where they’re welded into place and becoming the hull. As a vessel nears completion, it is floated out to a wharf and the final elements are added, the result of perhaps a year of labour and anywhere from $50-150 million (US) of financial investment.
But beyond the industrial might presented at Ulsan’s yards, what I found most fascinating was the human involvement in shipbuilding. Though hardly evocative in their aesthetic characters, the vessels crafted here are a point of undeniable pride among the shipwrights whom I met. One told me of how he looked upon each vessel like a family member, an entity he would never forget. Another ran his hand across the burnished side of a propeller blade with all the care of an artist caressing a new piece of sculpture.
Yet for all the effort these individuals put into crafting their creations, there is one key difference from other workers building other things. While a steelworker can point to skyscraper and tell his or her grandchildren that “I helped build that”, a shipwright is left with nothing but memories once the job is done. Rarely, if ever, do vessels return to Ulsan, meaning that after months of hard labour, each Korean worker must say a private farewell to their handiwork before it heads over the horizon to begin its Sisyphean journeys coursing through the oceans and seas of our planet.