Larger ships – fewer ports

Two days ago, the world container navigation services witnessed the beginning of a process which entirely changed it. It was then, in 1995, that a Danish shipowner, Maersk Line, ordered the first then large-scale container ships of 8-9 thousand TEU in total capacity in certain shipyards. For the next 5 years, none of its competitors decided to take a similar step, but, later on, the competition was on; successive shipowners began to order increasingly larger vessels, and the trend progressed. Currently, the largest container ships can carry up to 20 thousand TEUs, and the total capacity of already floating and constructed vessels has exceeded 1 million TEUs.

However, not all liner shipowners swimming on the busiest routes in the world could afford the introduction of such vessels. Furthermore, the promoters of such transformations have exhausted the capacity of the market, which resulted in a drastic drop in shipping charges. In turn, this led to a significant reduction in profits resulting from vessel capacity, one that even the largest shipowners operating such vessels found troublesome. Group initiatives, as proven by numerous fusions and alliances of: 3M, Ocean Three, G6 and CKYHE, were the only chance to remain competitive on the market. Future tonnage shipowner investments will therefore more considerate of the interest of the entire alliance, rather than the individual needs of its particular participants.

Growth in ship size leads not only to eliminating the less profitable operators from the market, but also from the ports. New generation container ships are usually taller and wider rather than longer, with 400 m in average length and approx. 59 m in average width. Fully loaded, they can draft to 16 m, i.e. they require port channels and basins of at least 17.5 m. The largest ones are not able to pass the sluices of the Panama Channel, which have been recently widened. In result, they cannot enter the majority of ports, which they have successfully entered before. Even the ports which can accommodate such large ships due to their favorable natural conditions must prepare for serving such mega-ships and large cargo batches. These are expensive changes, since dredging channels, basins and docking spots, reinforcing and expanding quays, enlarging stacking yards, warehouses, parking lots, construction roads and railway access lines, as well as other auxiliary infrastructure, as well as the purchase of larger, more efficient and more extensive handling equipment, are not cheap investments. However, dropping out of the competitive race can prove even more costly.

Subjects related to container carriage will be discussed in the course of the Sea Port panel as part of the 2016 Maritime Economy Forum in Gdynia.


Photography: Tadeusz Urbaniak/ZMPG S.A.

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