Evolution of containervessels

Until only 15-20 years ago, the containercarriers were scattered over a top 25, were the Danish Maersk Line was the largest carrier, especially after the acquisition of Sea-Land and Safmarine in 1999.  Followed by  MSC, Evergreen, P&O Nedlloyd and CMA CGM as the number 5. Cosco and China Shipping, by that time still apart, closed the top 10 being the number 9 and 10. Maersk-Sealand, as it was named by then, just reached the 1.0M TEU of its containerfleet.

The containermarket experienced a huge boost during the years 2002-2007 with a huge amount of orders for new ships. The capacity of the East-West route vessels were around 4.000-6.000 TEU, where the size of the average East-West containervessel rapidly increased to 10.000 TEU by 2008. An exception was the Emma Maersk-class, which was by far the largest type of containervessel on the water with its 15.500 TEU (the official reported capacity by Maersk was 11.000 TEU, not revealing it’s real nominal capacity) Soon thereafter, between 2010-2012, the first 13.000 TEU vessels came in service and became the East-West standard, where the 8.000-10.000 TEU vessels took care of the secondary East-West routes. This 13.000 TEU standard was based on the maximum dimensions of the new Panama Canal locks, which was, at that time, still 5-7 years away. Another notable change in the containervessels design was the separation of the accommodation block and the engine room. Both were separated firstly to improve stability and strength (long vessels often face bending moment issues with its accommodation and engine room traditionally semi-aft, but secondly also to increase the number of containers which can be carried on deck without jeopardizing the IMO visibility line from the bridge (no limitation looking backwards). In 2006, the average 8.000 TEU vessel was able to carry maximum 7-8 tiers on deck, already an increase from the 4-5.000 TEU vessels with 5-6 tiers ‘only’. The next step became 8-9 tiers on deck, however a lot of terminals, even on the mainports, were not always able to discharge or load that many tiers on deck due to the crane heigh limitations. New cranes and terminals were built and soon everyone was talking about 10 tiers on deck. Nowadays the 18.000+ TEU vessels are able to load 10-11 tiers on deck subject to stability, stackweight on the hatches and the amount of force on the lashing bars. For each tier extra, the crane need to be 3 meters higher, where often terminals are ‘playing’ with such high stacks on deck with a combination of the cranes, vessel’s draft and the tide.

CMA CGM introduced its 16.000 TEU vessels (CMA CGM Marco Polo-class) in 2012, with Maersk Line being the carrier who set a new record again with the Triple-E class vessels, able to carry around 18.700 TEU’s.

Since then various carriers grabbed the new record, mostly not for long and not with a huge difference in capacity. MSC with the MSC Oscar, China Shipping with the CSCL Globe, UASC with the Barzan, CMA CGM with the CMA CGM Kerguelen and very recently, MOL with a larger step exceeding the 20.000 TEU with its MOL Triumph, followed by the Madrid Maersk and OOCL Hong Kong just within a few weeks time. Since the vessels reached the 18.000+ capacity, the external dimensions did not changed that much though. All vessels are just under 400 meters long (Emma Maersk was already 397 meters back in 2006) and 58-59 meters wide. The trick is to load more containers on deck (10-11 tiers instead of 8-9) as well moving the accommodation block more forward to be able to load more container behind the bridge.

Rumors are going around that Cosco Shipping is discussing plans for 22.000 TEU ships where the ship’s length will exceed the 400 meters for the first time. Those new ships supposed to be 420 meters long. A side note that the largest ship ever (in length) was the 1975 built oil tanker “Jahre Vinking” (a.k.a. “Knock Nevis”) with 458 meters in length.

Vessels with a relative narrow design (e.g. Panamax vessels 294 x 32m) often have the problem of a too low stability (low GM) when the maximum deadweight is reached. A low GM will give a relative soft rolling of the vessel, however a too low stability/GM might result in capsizing of the vessel if the vessel is not able to return to its stable and upright position. Wider vessels (Post-Panamax -5-7.000 TEU- to especially the Ultra Large Container Carriers -13-20.000 TEU-) have the opposite. A high stability (high GM) makes the vessel roll with a short rolling period, which means that when rolling, the ship wants to return to its upright position with significant speed and force. This makes it not only uncomfortable for the crew on board, but it will also significantly increase the forces and stress on the ship’s container lashing material. Large vessels without a lot of cargo often face limitations of loading 9-11 tiers on deck, simply because the stability is too high to safely secure the containers in the outer rows and top tiers (risk of losing containers overboard).

Personally I would say that in the next 10-15 years we can expect a gradual grow in capacity of the containervessels, however with an increased length over all, there might be a new step in the design being a huge ballast tank/tanks somewhere half way the ship’s length to reduce its bending moment or, as recently done by the Emma Maersk-class vessels, anti-rolling tanks behind the accommodation to reduce the rolling (and subsequently the forces on the container lashing materials). The largest container gantry cranes are able to handle 24 containers wide on deck (vessel’s width around 59-60 meters) and 10 tiers on deck plus 11 tiers deep in the hold. Designing new ships is easier and quicker than the development of the infrastructure of the ports and terminals where those giants would berth. A new gantry crane will not be purchased for just 5 years – it is a long term investment where nobody really knows where we are within 5-10 years from now. So, the terminals which are now able to handle those giants, might not be able to do so if the ships will significantly increase (in width) within the next few years. In my opinion the increase of their capacity exceeding 21.000 TEU’s would come from a increase of the ship’s length and another tiers on deck.

In the past, being 2000-2005, often the largest vessels of a containercarrier were deployed on the Transpacific trade. However due to a combination of increased trade with Europe but also with the port infrastructure, the deployment of the largest vessels moved to the Asia-Europe trade where the largest vessels crossing the Pacific remained around 8.000-10.000 TEU. Due to the limited amount of ports on the US West coast, the majority of the containers for the US West coast (and inland by train) would go via Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland/San Francisco and Tacoma/Seattle. Result being a large port call (large amount of containers to discharge and load) which causes a choking effect on the infrastructure of the port – the bottleneck effect. At the end of 2015 CMA CGM sent its flagship CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin to the US West coast after its delivery in Asia. Only two voyages were performed before they decided to move this vessel to the Asia-Europe trade. Discharging more than 10.000 TEU within a few days seems to be too much to handle. Not to mention the US East coast ports, where the infrastructure is even worse for such size of vessels. Traditionally the US East coast was depending on the limitations of the Panama Canal locks, which means the vessels calling the US East coast ports never exceeded 5.000 TEU when coming directly from Asia. Some shipping lines sent 8.000 TEU ships from Asia to the US East coast via the Suez Canal. With the opening of the new Panama Canal locks just a year ago, ships of 13.000 TEU are able to sail from Asia directly to New York via the Panama Canal.

By: Michael van der Meer www.containershipping.nl