Tapioca Time Bomb
Updated: Mar 6
In August 1972 a swiss freighter by the name of Cassarate was sailing back towards Europe to unload its cargo in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam. It had departed from Thailand weeks earlier, winding its way around the Cape of Good Hope and up along the West coast of Africa. Stashed in the hold of this gigantic ship was a bulging cargo, full to the brim with timber, rubber and more than 1.5 million kilograms of Tapioca. What could go wrong, right?
It’s important as we start to take a look at just what exactly Tapioca is. Many of us may know it from bland school canteen lunches, or from using it as a substitute in cooking and baking for people with certain food allergies. But where exactly does this versatile ingredient come from?
Tapioca is primarily a starchy liquid that is extracted from the Cassava root, a tuber native to South America, and which has since spread via agriculture to various other parts of the world.
Cassava roots are fairly easy to grow and have become a dietary staple in Africa, Asia & South America, mainly due to its affordability, and the fact that you don’t need to eat much in order to feel full. The problem is that tapioca is almost pure starch and has very limited nutritional value. It is essentially pure carbohydrates which makes it problematic for diabetics or adherents to the growing LowCarb and Keto movements.
What it does have as a major plus is that it’s naturally gluten free and because of this is widely used in cooking and baking for people with a grain or gluten intolerance.
Tapioca can come in a variety of forms. Once the cassava root has been ground down and the starchy liquid has been squeezed from it, it is left to dry in the sun so that the water in it can evaporate. This leaves behind a powdery substance that forms the basis of what we know as tapioca. From here it is made into tapioca flakes or tapioca pearls, the latter of which is widely used in puddings, breakfast dishes or the increasingly popular bubble tea.
It has become a staple ingredient for many people in developing countries. They use the ground down tapioca flour to make flatbread, with a vast array of sweet and savoury toppings depending on whether they’re making breakfast, dinner or a flavoured dessert dish.
It is equally often used by home cooks as a thickener for soups, sauces and gravies because of it’s low cost, and more importantly the fact that it has an incredibly neutral flavour.
One interesting use for the tapioca pearls outside of cooking is that they are sometimes used to starch clothing by boiling the pearls in a big pot along with the clothes.
By far the most widely known version of tapioca is the much consumed tapioca pudding. Mixed with honey or cocoa powder, it makes for a simple after dinner treat in households across the world.
It has become a cheap and popular breakfast dish in part because of it’s ability to absorb large amounts of liquid. This makes it swell in size, meaning that not much of it is needed to fill a bowl and therefore the eater's belly. This is why it has become a much maligned staple food of many school lunches, because while cheap to produce and serve, it has a distinct lack of flavour and when not cooked well, a rather slimy and unappetising texture. It was however this very fact about tapioca’s ability to absorb liquid that would almost lead to the complete destruction of our dear freighter the Cassarate.
As the ship made its way up the sunny and warm African coastline, heading into the colder Northern climes of Europe, disaster struck the freighter. Somewhere in the midst of the thousands of stacks of timber, piled high in the upper holds of the ship, smoke began to rise ominously towards the ceiling. Whether it was the constant rolling of the ship that had incessantly rubbed the wood together in just the right way to create enough heat to spark a flame, or whether it was the carelessness of one the Cassarates sailors casually dropping or flicking away an old cigarette butt, we’ll never know. But what we do know is that at some point in the middle of August 1972, a small fire broke out below decks that spread from timber stack to another, creating a cloud of smoke thick enough to choke anyone caught below decks.
As soon as the sailors above decks began to see wisps of smoke filtering between cracks in the decking below their feet they rushed to see what was going on. Flames were licking up from the wooden logs and they sent runners to roll out the firehoses installed for situations just like this one.
Men rolled the hoses out from their stations and because of the force of the water to come, it took many men to hold the hoses in place and stop it flailing wildly about below decks. The taps were turned to the open position and thousands of litres of water were sent spewing forth up and over the multiple stories high wooden stacks. As the water hit the flames, steam shot up and filled the space with a wet and sticky heat, similar to the humidity of the South East Asian country they had originally departed from.
While the worst of the flames were doused in minutes they were faced with a bigger and more worrying problem. Because the timber had been stacked so tightly together, the water couldn’t always make its way into the crevices between the logs and so the fire would smoulder quietly for a few hours or even a few days before springing back to life and having to be watered down again to save the vessel from going up in flames.
It became a constant around the clock job for the sailors aboard the Cassarate as they kept watch over the smouldering stacks, waiting for the moment that a flame would appear somewhere amongst the tonnes of lumber.
Each time they would aim their hoses and spray a few thousand litres of water over the affected area to quell the fire. And each time they did this the water would run down between the wood and pool together on the floor of the upper decks of the hold. But the water didn’t stay there.
Some cracks in the floor and welding joins had formed, pushed apart by the sudden and intense heat of the fire. Others were simply a consequence of the ravages of time and pressure from the rigours of sea travel. But, no matter how they had formed, from tiny fractures to larger cracks, the water sought them out and flowed down towards the lower decks. Down towards the 1.5 million kilograms of tapioca.
It was the worst possible combination. As more and more water ran below decks, each time being absorbed by the tapioca, the heat from the smouldering logs above would combine to form a gigantic tapioca slow cooker. As each day passed the smell of warm tapioca pudding wafted all around the vessel, with the little white pearls swelling and growing in size. It was almost imperceptible at first but soon the sailors realised they had a serious problem on their hands. They couldn’t stop watering down the smouldering wood above, but this meant that each time they did the tapioca below would swell more and more, forcing itself outwards and straining the confines of the ships hull. It was the worst possible catch 22. Let the fire burn the ship down, or quench it with water and hope the swelling tapioca below didn’t rip the hull apart.
They soon realised that they wouldn’t make it to Rotterdam in one piece and the captain of the vessel made the decision to steer his ship towards Wales and the world famous Cardiff docks. 25 days after the fire had started below decks, they limped into port just in time to save themselves and their freighter. The temperatures below decks had become unbearable as the heat had nowhere to go. The tapioca had reached a near boiling temperature and bubbles were forming in the rolling mass of porridge. The ships steel plating had begun to buckle under the pressure but was miraculously still holding itself together.
They had radioed ahead for the Cardiff fire crew to meet them as they docked and once the ship had been safely tied up, swarms of firemen and dock workers boarded the stricken Cassarate to begin the process of removing the smouldering timber before they could do anything about the glutinous mass below.
The local firechief gave an interview to a Cardiff newspaper saying “It’s going to burst sometime. We hope we can clear it all away before that happens. For now, this vessel is a Tapioca time-bomb.”
The owners of the freighter were adamant that the ship sail on towards Rotterdam as they were intent on selling the tapioca to their original buyers. Knowing full well that the starchy mess below had cooked itself already they issued a statement saying: “The fire seems to have subsided but we don’t know what condition the tapioca is in. It is bound for Rotterdam and the Dutch will have to decide whether it can still be used or scrapped.”
Eventually it was agreed, probably because of all of the news coverage that this near disaster garnered, that the shipment would not in fact make its way to Rotterdam. This left the owners with a sticky tapioca smelling problem on their hands. Below decks sat enough cooked tapioca to fill almost 2 million bowls. A tragedy in its own right to be sure, but one that had very little practical solutions. It was agreed that local contractors would remove the tapioca from the ship, eventually leading to over 500 truckloads of the starchy gloop being transported away from the docks. Transported to where you might ask, well unfortunately nobody knows, but somewhere in cardiff, for a short time anyway, sat a warm and wobbly mountain of tapioca.
Next time you’re cooking with Tapioca, spare a thought for the men aboard the Cassarate, faced with an impossible dilemma, trying to keep themselves and their ship afloat, and a hold full of a problem that not even hungy sailors could have eaten their way out of.