Very large ships, we are confidently told, offer the solution to so many of the problems that beset the shipping industry. To mention just a few of their advantages, there are the obvious benefits of scale economies, with one ship doing the work of perhaps two but gratifying reductions in emissions and environmental effects for the substantial payloads they offer. They save fuel, when this is expected to become still more expensive, and can move a container or a tonne of ore for a dramatically reduced unit price, or a cruise or ferry passenger carried more economically, but unlike aviation with no reduction in luxury!
So is it a convincing case for “gigantism” in the maritime world? Perhaps, but as with all things there are balances which have to be struck and often quite large adjustments that must be considered. There are operational problems which have to be surmounted before the giant ship can be running smoothly and making profits for her owners. The lack of flexibility occasioned by a ship’s great size is usually cited as an important negative factor. It may indeed be a real problem if the ship has to be moved from the route for which she was originally designed, as there may be few alternative places to which she can trade at her full draught.
And it is probably true that the hearts of those running ports will invariably sink as they hear of the latest plans for some great extrapolation in ship sizes. They know the depth of their channels and can imagine the long battles with environmental interests before they can dredge to the new required depth to accommodate the “next generation”. Their finance directors wearily point out the cost of such requirements.
There are also what might be described as the “appurtenances” of a port that will enable it to move up several places in the scale of things. It is not just the depth of approach channels and clearances alongside the berth. Turning circles will have to be given a bigger diameter to take extra ship length. A berth long enough to take two average size ships will find one of its spaces out of action when the biggest ships comes to call. If the width of a ship is greatly increased, considerable investments will be required in the provision of cranes, or shiploaders or discharge equipment, or even loading ramps. Simple matters of providing super-strength bollards able to keep giant ships alongside with their vastly increased windage might require whole quays to be strengthened.
Are the tugs sufficiently powerful? Is there enough space on the quay to accommodate all the cargo that will be discharged from such a giant in one single call? Is there the capability ashore to handle huge numbers of passengers who have to be got through immigration and security? Can the railways cope and shift the tonnage of ore necessary to fill the arriving 400,000 DWT vessel due to arrive on the berth in the time available to build up the stackyard?
Very often, the giant ships arrive before such an infrastructure has been created, whereupon compromises must be made and “shoehorns” used to fit a quart into a pint pot! A ship-handling expert recently suggested that margins for error, whether it is underkeel clearances or space to swing ships, are all becoming “pinched” as more and bigger ships provide challenges for pilots and port authorities. But it is a trend, and unlike the period of the 80’s when the half-million tonne tankers failed to make an impact, this one seems likely to continue.