Boxships have just about quadrupled in size in terms of carrying capacity since China joined the World Trade Organization at the start of the century – a neat allegory for how the West has become hooked on cheap Chinese products. Yet perhaps we’ve finally hit a plateau, both on sourcing from China and on the size of containerships.
Box shipping has had a tough few months when it comes to accidents and increasingly the pattern of incidents looks as if it is down to size issues, combined with today’s red hot rates market, which means ships are being driven ever harder to deliver goods to folk stuck at home during the pandemic.
There was the series of box spills in the Pacific this winter, something that will take a long time to clear thousands of insurance claims, and then of course we have this month’s moment where shipping went centre stage in the mainstream news agenda when the 20,388 teu Ever Given ended up straddling Asia and Africa, blocking the Suez Canal and sending global trade patterns into chaos.
By having these huge dimensions, the container walls act as sails
The repeated box spills in the Pacific from giant container vessels over the last four months are likely to do with the extreme parametric rolling these heavy ships encounter in stormy weather.
Likewise, the Panama-flagged Ever Given’s predicament could come down to size. Preliminary reports from the Panamanian registry indicate that the ship suffered problems with the machine affecting manoeuvrability, something strongly denied by the ship’s owner. Panama did hint that the ship’s size could have been its downfall, noting the ship was heading north through the canal at a time of high winds and a sandstorm.
“The Ever Given is one of the largest container ships in the world, built in 2018, it is 400 meters long (length), about 59 meters wide (beam) and 15.7 meters deep. She can carry a total of 220,940 tons and has a capacity of 20,388 standard-size 20-foot containers. By having these dimensions, the container walls act as sails and the ship can be subject to gusts of wind,” the Panamanians noted in a release.
While western politicians anxiously work to retrench their trading positions with an ever more bold China, regulators would do well to question whether today’s container leviathans are actually fit for purpose on every tradelane. Likewise, while the technology and the size of container ships have grown exponentially, are ports and canals adequately equipped to handle these huge vessels, and to deal with contingencies?
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