The more things change at Nordic American Tanker (NYSE:NAT), the more they stay the same. And I mean that in a good way.

The Suezmax tanker this firm is picking up -- the fifteenth to join Nordic American's fleet if you include two future deliveries -- was built at the same Korean shipyard as half a dozen other vessels in the fleet, including the three maiden vessels delivered back in 1997.

The price of those first vessels? $57 million each. The price paid for this latest 1999-built, but recently dry-docked (ie inspected, repaired, and upgraded) addition? $57 million.

It is as if time has stood still. But we know that times have been most tumultuous. Inflationary forces drove up the cost of Suezmax tankers by about twofold from 2003 to 2008. More recently, financial market turmoil has rocked shipping rates and newbuild contracts alike.

Nordic American, with its unique debt-free approach to running a tanker business, has completely sidestepped the suffering of its competitors. Just look at these returns for the group:

Company

Total Return (%) in 2008

Aegean Marine Petroleum (NYSE:ANW)

(56)

Frontline (NYSE:FRO)

(28)

General Maritime (NYSE:GMR)

(51)

Nordic American Tanker

23

Overseas Shipholding Group (NYSE:OSG)

(42)

Teekay Shipping (NYSE:TK)

(62)

Tsakos Energy Navigation (NYSE:TNP)

(47)

Data provided by Morningstar.

Nordic American's latest purchase, easily financed out of its $500 million credit facility, is an opportunistic, shareholder-friendly move during a time of debt-fueled disruption. I would expect to see more of the same as the year moves forward.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.