I had been warned that it would be difficult to get into Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards. “It used to be a tourist attraction,” a local man told me. “People would come watch men tear apart ships with their bare hands. But they don’t let in outsiders anymore.” I walked a few miles along the road that parallels the Bay of Bengal, just north of the city of Chittagong, where 80 active shipbreaking yards line an eight-mile stretch of the coast. Each yard was secured behind high fences topped with razor wire. Guards were posted, and signs warned against photography. Outsiders had become especially unwelcome in recent years after an explosion killed several workers, prompting critics to say the owners put profits above safety. “But they can’t block the sea,” the local said.
So late one afternoon I hired a fisherman to take me on a water tour of the yards. At high tide the sea engulfed the rows of beached oil tankers and containerships, and we slipped in and out of the deep shadows cast by their towering smokestacks and superstructures. Some vessels remained intact, as if they had just arrived. Others had been reduced to skeletons, the steel skin cut away to reveal their cavernous black holds.
We drifted alongside barnacle-encrusted hulls and beneath the blades of massive propellers. I read off names and flags painted on the sterns: Front Breaker (Comoros), V Europe (Marshall Islands), Glory B (Panama). I wondered about cargoes they had carried, ports where they had called, and crews that had sailed them.