SHIPBREAKING - Two days in Alang

Take a US scrap recycler, put him on the shipbreaking beach in Alang, India, and the experience is sure to be as moving, enlightening and perplexing as the place itself.

A fleet of ships is run aground along the shoreline, looking like a pod of beached steel whales. From the pilot house of a 60 000-tonne oil tanker, I have an excellent view of this six-mile stretch of sand that is unquestionably the world’s largest scrap yard. This is Alang in north-western India, and it is here where thousands of obsolete ships have been brought over the years for recycling.

The Alang shipbreaking yards are located off the Arabian Sea on the west coast of the Gulf of Cambay. The beach there has some natural features that make it well-suited for cutting up ships. Twice a month - at the full and new moons - the high tide rises 30 feet above normal. Combined with a sandy shelf that extends a quarter mile into the bay, these attributes allow ships to be run aground, leaving them high and dry when the tide ebbs.

Once beached, each vessel is recycled by one of the 72 shipbreaking businesses that operate side by side along the beach. These enterprises, which employ an estimated 15 000 workers, form a veritable city dedicated to scrapping ships. It is quite a sight - and to this scrap veteran, it was my idea of a dream vacation.

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