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This article was originally published in 2019. It has been reposted to provide context to the Ever Given situation in the Suez Canal.
Also read Part 2: Piloting a Megaship: How Big Is Too Big?
By Captain George Livingstone – Super-size doesn’t just refer to Hamburgers and Fries, since the arrival of the container ship Emma Maersk in 2006, the definition of big in the maritime world changed and continues to as Ultra Large Container Vessels (ULCV) just keep getting bigger. What defines a ULCV? Consensus is any container ship over 10,000 TEU’s. According to DynaLiners, by 2020 there will be nearly 600 ULCV’s operating worldwide, the biggest will be 24,000TEU (roughly 400M X 66M) and there are plans for still bigger down the road. In fact, the 24K TEU ships have arrived with pilot groups around the world preparing for them and a few already handling them.
Big and Small
2006 is not that long ago. In the space of little more than a decade, marine transportation witnessed container ships go from about 294M (965’) to today’s 400M (1312’) behemoths. That may not sound like much but considering added length, width and height have a dramatic effect on overall weight, it is much. The average 294M container ship is about 55,000 Deadweight Tons, a 400M container ship is about 191,000 Deadweight Tons. While today’s giants may only be about 25% longer than their predecessors, they are nearly 400% heavier and therein lies the challenge. They’re not twice as heavy or even three times, they are four times as heavy. Weight matters when talking about something the size of the Empire State building, even if it floats.
The idea of economy of scale (Ultra Large Vessels) and its implementation, has been driven by major international shipping conglomerates, not the IMO, or individual member states or ports or any national or international safety agency. The increase in container ship size has flat outpaced the international ports’ ability to adjust and accommodate. According to World Port Source there are roughly 3,000 ports around the world. Of those ports that can handle ULCV’s, the vast majority have been left playing catch up regarding a host of issues surrounding ULCV’s, the biggest issue being infrastructure.
Five Pounds in a One Pound Bag
The development and launching of ULCV’s seemingly happened overnight. Professionals tasked with manning and piloting these ships did not have abundant time to prepare for the myriad issues complicating their safe movement. Major adjustments in mind-set and training had to occur in a relatively short time frame. Most importantly, as mentioned already, port size was not going to keep pace with ship size. Professionals were going to have to move bigger and bigger ships in ports that were designed for significantly smaller vessels.
Car vs Coach
Surprising, since the introduction of ULCV’s in 2006, there have been relatively few incidents or accidents. I would guess less than two dozen, worldwide, nothing to shake a stick at. Those include incidents at sea like fire, collisions, breaking up, etc. and incidents in ports like groundings. The few incidents and accidents must be held against the backdrop of how quickly ULCV’s came into use, how ill prepared most ports were and the large number of this class now plying the oceans. It is not a normal, routine or simple task to safely move this class of ship, day in and day out. For those readers who are not mariners, think of it this way. One day you get notified that by the end of the year your family car will be taken away, in return you will be assigned a 13M (40’) Diesel Coach to use and drive every day. You will be expected to drive it without incident or accident, not most of the time but all of the time. How would you feel? You are a licensed driver so what’s to worry about? Obviously there would be much to be concerned about including lack of experience driving them, road size, parking access, operating in heavy traffic, etc. The introduction of maritime giants caused similar pause from the mariners manning them, with many questions regarding long term safe operation.
People Make the World Go Round
So why so relatively few incidents and accidents? Because the professional mariners operating ULCV’s have entirely stepped up and delivered on overall ULCV operational safety. The officers and crews manning them and the pilots handling them have done an exceptional job incorporating this class seamlessly into the greater marine transportation system. The mariners themselves have made a pivotal difference. We have gone about the business of moving ULCV’s with little fanfare. So little that we may have done ourselves a disservice. I’m not suggesting commendations for doing one’s job, but there should be recognition for the professionalism and speed with which this class was handled and the continued job well done under, at times, very difficult circumstances and conditions.
Perhaps because there has been so much focus on automation in the maritime realm that mariners have gotten lost in the shuffle and don’t get enough credit or attention for the critical role we still play? Automation will have its day one day, until then, kudos to those seafaring professionals manning and operating colossally big ships while safeguarding those lands and waterways they serve.
How Big is Too Big?
Finally, professionals operating these class of ships will continue to ask ourselves, how big is too big? It would be irresponsible to stop asking. Few mariners want to discourage commerce but we want that commerce to be safe, it’s in our own interest. The international marine transportation business does not operate in a vacuum, there should be discussions at the highest levels (i.e. IMO) regarding reasonable safe limits on container ship size. This is not a new problem, we have seen this before during the rush to build ever bigger tankers in the late 1960’s and it didn’t end well.
Because we are the end users (actual operators) in the international marine transportation system, mariners are focused on maritime transportation solutions. We are frequently the first to see and recognize potential problems. If not managed with more care, oversight and safety, many of us believe Super-Sized ships may one day become a Super-Sized problem.
Capt George Livingstone is the twin brother of Capt Grant Livingstone, both are academy graduates, both are pilots on the US west coast; Grant a Long Beach Pilot and George a San Francisco Bar Pilot, both regularly contribute to gCaptain.
More from George Livingstone can be found here.
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