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Carts and horses

Carts and horses
Those of us of a certain age will recall that when a shipowner specified a new vessel, along with the deadweight and dimensions, service speed and fuel consumption, one of the guiding parameters would be the capacity of the ports to which it was expected to trade.

If a range of ports had a maximum depth of 10m in the channel, it was pointless ordering a ship that would require 15m to float safely. The owner was guided by the physical constraints of the ports to which he was going to trade.

That was then, and this is now, and today history stands on its head and carts come before horses. In this youngish century, the owner orders the ship he jolly well pleases and then shouts at the port managements until they dredge out the required depth and construct the terminal which ships of these dimensions and capacity require. And if the port management wring their hands and express some reluctance, the shipowner makes it clear he will take his business elsewhere.

The customer, after all, is always right. The flaw in this modern day process is that while ships can usually be churned out to the exact specifications of an owner in double quick time, in a shipbuilding industry operating with surplus capacity, port expansion tends to take a bit longer. The shipowner has only to find the money and choose the shipyard, the port operator has to embark on a lengthy and expensive process of planning, placating the local environmentalists and all those who might object to the expansion on grounds of noise, traffic congestion, dirt, smell and property values.

He will have to square governments and somehow lay hold of a great deal of cash to fund capital dredging and terminal construction. Thus, the biggest containerships in the world have a gestation period of around three years between concept and delivery, while the ports to accommodate them will be possibly thinking in terms of decades.

So it might seem a bit unreasonable for an executive representing one of the world’s biggest containership operators, who is leading the field in terms of numbers of gigantic boxboats in service and on order, bleating about port productivity. You might suggest that he is just doing what ship operators are genetically programmed to do and complaining about the service in ports.

But it might be thought an ambitious target to expect terminals, which have been designed for 10,000 teu ships, and subsequently “stretched” to accommodate 12000-15,000 teu vessels to be able to work ships 20-30% bigger.

If we consider the physical dimensions of the ship – nearly 400m in length, we are probably considering this one monster taking one and a half berths previously used for perhaps two smaller ships. But even if the terminals have been able to rush around and find themselves sufficient cranes able to handle up to nine boxes high on deck and 24 across in a stack, it is asking a great deal to expect them to immediately reach the productivity levels which the terminal workforce managed with smaller ships.

Then there is the logistic extrapolation necessary to handle the considerably increased number of exchanges. Instead of two smaller ships, there appears on the berth one monster, which will require feeders, barges, trains and above all, thousands of road vehicles to effect the necessary exchange. Where are they all coming from?

It might be suggested that this is the stevedoring company’s problem, not the “customer” with his ship. But there is a need to tune up cargo handling systems to cope with these monsters, and a little more patience is called for. After all, it wasn’t the port which ordered the ship, was it?