Bigger, cleaner, slower — the new giants of the seas

82740876_USS_119838cA fleet of the biggest container ships yet built have been ordered by Maersk to feed the growing demand to transport goods from Asia to Europe.

The Danish shipping line has contracted South Korea’s Daewoo to build ten “Triple-E” container ships, each 400 metres long and 59 metres wide, in a deal worth £1.2 billion.

Maersk already operates the world’s biggest ship Emma Maersk, which was launched in 2006 and can carry 12,000 20ft shipping containers. Although only three metres longer, a Triple-E (“economy of scale, energy efficiency, environmentally improved”) ship will transport 18,000 such containers.

“Growth is back in global trade,” Eivind Kolding, the Maersk chief executive, told The Times. “These will be the largest ships afloat but, more importantly, they will be 50 per cent more efficient than the average vessel globally.”

The Triple-Es will cruise at 19 knots, down from Emma Maersk’s 26 knots, powered by a “super-long-stroke” engine that is designed to turn its big propellers slowly. Since the financial crisis, cargo ships have reduced their speed to save money, and the new vessels will take two to three days longer to complete the three to four-week voyage to and from China. Customers have accepted the adjustment and “slow steaming” is here to stay, Jacob Sterling, Maersk’s head of environment, said.

Waste engine heat will be used to power turbines and save more energy. Fuel accounts for about a quarter of Maersk’s operating costs, and for much of shipping’s bad environmental scorecard: globally, the industry emits almost a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, about 4 per cent of the total.

“We think competing on the environment is a trend that will keep on growing,” Mr Sterling said. “Retailers are asking more of their suppliers, including us. We had our carbon dioxide emissions verified last year, something that no other shipping company has done.” However, few ports will be able to accommodate the Triple-Es. They will travel between Shanghai, Ningbo, Xiamen, Yantian and Hong Kong and Rotterdam, Bremerhaven and Felixstowe. American ports are unable to handle such huge vessels.

Maersk has an option to buy another 20 of the ships. If exercised, Mr Kolding said that the £3.5 billion deal would be the largest of its kind. The company has forecast a growth in containerised shipping this year of as much as 8 per cent, and the shipbroker Clarkson Shipping said that demand may rise by 9.7 per cent. Steven Goodrich, of Clarkson, said that Maersk’s purchase was a “hugely significant” step towards creating a “container corridor” using vast economies of scale. “Seven years ago people were saying that 5,000 containers was the maximum,” he said, “and we’ve not seen the end of it yet. Other shipping lines will soon be making orders.”

Built to make waves

When they are launched in 2013 the Triple-E ships will be the largest vessels afloat, but bigger is not always better:

The Seawise Giant Launched in 1979, the oil tanker was 458m long and weighed more than two thirds of a million tonnes fully laden. She was too big for the Suez and Panama canals, and the English Channel. Sunk by Iraqi jets in the Iran-Iraq war but repaired. Scrapped last year

USS Enterprise Launched in 1960, the world’s longest naval vessel was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. 342m long and weighing 95,000 tonnes, eight nuclear reactors drive her up to 34 knots. The later Nimitz-class US carriers are ten metres shorter but have a larger displacement

RMS Queen Mary Launched in 2003 as a replacement for the much-loved QE2 at a cost of £460 million. 345m long, weighs 151,400 tonnes and is capable of 30 knots

A Whale The 340m tanker was refitted to operate as an oil-skimmer to help to clear up the Gulf of Mexico last year. She arrived late and was then outmanoeuvred by smaller skimmers. Eventually, the US Coast Guard barred it from clean-up operations. Sister ships: B Whale, C Whale, D Whalettbtripleeclass

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About Frank Pope

The world's first dedicated Ocean Correspondent, for the Times of London. View all posts by Frank Pope

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