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Big ships solve problems but can create new ones

31 March 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

The grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal may have been avoided but it was inevitable.

Business Unusual first mentioned Intermodal Containers in 2018. They were a major disruptor to marine shipping and transformed how we could move products efficiently and quickly around the globe.

Initially many were not keen.

It took the Vietnam war to allow ports, shipbuilders and crew to see the benefits of containers or rather to know that trying to not change was going to be more difficult than changing. Change is hard and for dock workers it was not just change it was the end of their careers.

It did make for more jobs that were better paying and less dangerous but for less people checking and loading containers rather than individual pieces of cargo.

Once it was adopted the desire to make the most of how many containers could be loaded became a steady trend. The first ships could carry up to 800 containers in the late 50s. By the 90’s it was 4500 with ships that could no longer use the Panama Canal. By 2000 it was 8000 and by 2015 18 000, the largest are over 20 000 now with plans for a 25 000 design ready for production.

It is unlikely to get much bigger than that and to illustrate we can look at what happened to the Ever Given

What happened to the Ever Given

The investigation into what actually happened is still underway, but it is likely that a variety of factors played a role that under these circumstances resulted in the grounding and the rave to save the ship and the global shipping lines.

CNN has built a game to give you a sense of what it is like to navigate a ship that is 400m long. If you have ever tried pushing a trolley backwards you get some idea of how the movement happens at the back of the ship and when so long takes a while to change the direction you are traveling in. When the ship is almost 60m wide in a canal that is about 200m wide there is not much room to move. The ship also needs to keep in the centre of the canal to avoid the bottom of the ship hitting the ground. The depth a ship sits in the water is its draft and Ever Given is about 16 m or five storeys underwater while the canal is about 24m deep. Next there is the effect of weather, when the ship is as tall as a 14 storey building and is also the length of four football fields then a strong wind will affect the ship which already has only a small window to navigate in the channel.

It is amazing that ships don’t run aground more often.

Add to this that about 50 ships pass through the canal each day taking about 16 to 24 hours to make the almost 200km trip. Each ship needs to have a pilot steer the ship but 50 pilots is not enough as you can work 24 hour days and 7 day weeks. Then the larger ships need at least one tug to keep the ship in the centre of the canal. Ever Given did not appear to have two tugs accompanying it which under the weather conditions may have required it to stop, but it was part of a 15 ship convoy and so if it stopped there rest would have to stop too.

An incredible scenario developed during the war between Israel and Egypt in 1967, 14 ships were heading through the canal when fighting broke out and got stopped in the Great Bitter Lake after Egypt blocked the canal. The canal reopened 8 years later finally allowing the ships to leave allowing a German vessel that was still able to sail unaided to earn the record for the longest time for a marine voyage between two ports.

While more very large ships are likely to be built the majority of ships are not likely to be built to this size. Not being able to get through the important canals and straits is one reason but there is another - harbours that can accommodate them.

No safe harbour

Coastal cities would welcome the extra revenue from handling huge volumes of global freight assuming the harbours can handle it. Keeping a harbour that is not naturally a deep water port at over 20m is not easy. Rocky coast lines will require blasting while sandy bottoms will typically fill again over time. The costs are high and depending on the environment could also have a negative impact on the surrounding sea life.

Even if a port pays to allow the largest ships to dock, there is no guarantee they will come if the demand for imports and exports is not there.

The future of shipping

Global shipping has made getting any product from anywhere not just possible but affordable but we are nearing a level where it may need a rethink. The pandemic illustrated that when the world needs to lockdown it can be a big problem if most of your products need to be brought from far away. The challenge with emissions has seen shipping needing to use cleaner fuels big ships use less fuel per shipped ton than a smaller ship but have to be full to make it work. Typically they are full one way but not the other.

It makes sense that large ports are designated to handle the very large ships which run set trips from one big supply port to another. Smaller ships transport cargo to and from those large ports allowing for the best long distance costs while not requiring all ports to handle very big ships. This is something that ports like Singapore, Hong Kong and Rotterdam already do, but may need more coordination to ensure the large ships can work.

Considering how far and quickly things have progressed, it is far to take a few years and work on something that will last for the next 100 years. The work to optimise marine traffic will soon be put to use again as we first begin building transport routes to the Moon and then Mars.

This article first appeared on 702 : Big ships solve problems but can create new ones

31 March 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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