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Musings on the mega-containership feeding frenzy

Musings on the mega-containership feeding frenzy
As Seatrade Global colleague Felicity Landon recently pointed out the attraction of the ultra large container ships to the human psyche and the human eye. There is something about being the biggest that is irrepressible.

For the geographically disadvantaged, even the videos of a 19,000-plus teu ship gliding into Felixstowe comes across as a sight to cherish.  

There is little doubt that the appeal of a sleek ship larger than an aircraft carrier is a stunner as well as an engineering marvel, and worthy of comparatives and arguments over which is the largest.  Note that builders and owners (and editors) enjoy feeding this frenzy.

Commercially, the arguments are without meaning, because little is known of the actual contents, if any, of the containers aboard these behemoths.  They may be empty, and, anyway it is not all chicken and computer parts, toys and exotic fruits. Remembering that the number one US export on the transpacific is waste paper washes away some of the thrill.  

A key question is whether the design is sustainable.  A friend with long intermodal experience thinks the design engineers built the behemoths just because they could. 

More to the point, what about the experience of the people who ordered these huge vessels?  Starting with Maersk, which jump started the trend with its Triple E vessels, and is now enjoying first-mover rewards and orderly profits while competitors nervously sweat out delivery schedules. 

In the face of continuing industry glut, Maersk says it is ready to order more vessels for the 2017-19 period, citing a need for an additional 425,000 teu in order to maintain market share.  Significantly, it is thinking smaller in size, not bigger.  In part, this is a nod to the decline in fuel costs and the endless industry adjustment to cyclical oil prices.  Will the next trend be slightly faster vessels to pick up a service advantage? 

But the real issue may be port productivity, and the disagreeable results of handling too many boxes at one time.  

Ports far and wide are well behind the curve on keeping up with the burden of handling the behemoths, matched only by the fear of being bypassed. Witness the latest, the South Africa port of Durban, embarking on a $1.4bn dredging scheme to triple the port’s capacity.  Durban’s view is that it’s more cost effective to “sail modern, large container vessels around the Cape than through the Suez Canal,” an assertion awaiting market confirmation.