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Why the world's container ships grew so big

   March 31, 2021 2:36 AM
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Cargo Ship Finally Free History of large cargo ships
The traffic jam at the Suez Canal will soon begin easing, but behemoth container ships like the one that blocked that crucial passageway for almost a week and caused headaches for shippers around the world aren't going anywhere.

Global supply chains were already under pressure when the Ever Given, a ship longer than the Empire State Building and capable of carrying furnishings for 20,000 apartments, wedged itself between the banks of the Suez Canal last week. It was freed on Monday, but left behind "disruptions and backlogs in global shipping that could take weeks, possibly months, to unravel," according to A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world's largest shipping company.

The crisis was short, but it was also years in the making.

For decades, shipping lines have been making bigger and bigger vessels, driven by an expanding global appetite for electronics, clothes, toys and other goods. The growth in ship size, which sped up in recent years, often made economic sense: Bigger vessels are generally cheaper to build and operate on a per-container basis. But the largest ships can come with their own set of problems, not only for the canals and ports that have to handle them but for the companies that build them.

"They did what they thought was most efficient for themselves — make the ships big — and they didn't pay much attention at all to the rest of the world," said Marc Levinson, an economist and author of "Outside the Box," a history of globalization. "But it turns out that these really big ships are not as efficient as the shipping lines had imagined." Despite the risks they pose, however, massive vessels still dominate global shipping. According to Alphaliner, a data firm, the global fleet of container ships includes 133 of the largest ship type — those that can carry 18,000 to 24,000 containers. Another 53 are on order.

The world's first commercially successful container trip took place in 1956 aboard a converted steamship, which transported a few dozen containers from New Jersey to Texas. The industry has grown steadily in the decades since, but as global trade accelerated in the 1980s, so did the growth of the shipping industry — and ship size.

In that decade, the average capacity of a container ship grew 28 percent, according to the International Transport Forum, a unit of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Container ship capacity grew an additional 36 percent in the 1990s. Then, in 2006, Maersk introduced the Emma Maersk, a massive vessel that could hold about 15,000 containers, almost 70 percent more than any other vessel.

"Instead of this pattern of small increases in capacity over time, all of a sudden we had a quantum leap, and that really set off an arms race," Mr. Levinson said.

The average number of vessels passing through the canal each day remains at 93 – which is why hundreds of ships are still trapped in a bottleneck despite the Ever Given being freed.

At least 369 vessels were waiting – and many still are – to transit the canal, including dozens of container ships, bulk carriers and oil and gas tankers.

Some ships had decided to reroute their cargoes around the Cape of Good Hope, adding about two weeks to journeys and extra fuel costs.

Crude oil prices fell after news the ship had been refloated with Brent crude down by $1 per barrel to $63.67.