To a certain degree the world revolves around them, incredibly large ships that haul cargo around the world towards their destination. Products required elsewhere are carried across the oceans through shipping lanes by giants that deliver the bare necessities and joy to those in need, and yet, they don’t get the recognition they deserve. It is an industry that has come so far, and will continue to grow and develop into the future because products from somewhere will always be necessary elsewhere.
The era of giant ships that toil across the oceans lugging around stacks of shipping containers sometimes 12 containers high are vital to the world economy. Trouble in the cargo shipping world means that the public will see prices rise and the arrival of their goods delayed, as we saw when the Chinese cargo ship the Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal.
The shipping industry has come a long way from the era of sailing ships, pirates, spice and slave trade, as well as steam ships. The glory days and dark pages of the Dutch history, the era of the East India company and the West India Company that has stained our history. A lot has changed since then, albeit that the shipping routes have not changed much, accept for the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal.
So let’s start with what it is that these cargo ships transport; they pretty much transport it all, ranging from our electronics, vehicles, raw materials, to food and toys. Before the creation of the shipping container in 1956 though, cargo was shipped in gunny backs and wooden crates, which made the loading and unloading of ships very labor intensive. This break-bulk shipping method made sea-freight cargo very prone to theft and being ruined in the case of perishable foods. This problem has been resolved as well as possible, but there is always room for error even with the use of shipping containers. When talking about cargo ships it is always the size and capacity of the boat that comes up, and it is especially the capacity that is interesting because it is often not the length and breadth of the ship that is mentioned when ship sizes are discussed within the industry, but the capacity in TEU. This measurement unit is called Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit, which refers to a 20ft long container that is 2.43m wide, 6.06m long and 2.59m high, as prescribed by an ISO standard. There is also a so-called high-cube container with a height of 2.89m and a 40ft container with a length of 12.2m.
Besides the TEU there is also a FEU, or a Forty-foot Equivalent Unit for these larger containers, but besides different sizes you also have different types of containers. The most common type which makes up about 90% of all containers is the 20ft dry freight container and its big 40ft high-cube brother, then you have open top containers, collapsible flat rack containers that do not have walls and reefer containers meant for cold-storing perishable foods. In the early days of cargo containers only five or six of them could be stacked on top of each other, that number has since then increased to twelve because of an integrated system that allows containers to be latched-on to each other. So it might be possible to attach containers to each other, but containers onboard ships are generally not locked, they are sealed instead with a plastic ‘one-time door lock’ made out of plastic and accompanied by a serial number. This seal deters the theft of goods, because a broken seal means that someone tampered with the container, so using a seal makes it harder to steal things from a container, and it also increases the difficulty of smuggling contraband onboard a container.
The largest container ship in the world in 2022 falls under the Ultra Large Container Vessel (ULCV) class and has a length of 400 meters and breadth of 61.53 meters. These ships are the longest ones that are out there, but the ships that could essentially be considered the biggest are the ships with the highest maximum TEU. The Taiwanese operator Evergreen launched 6 ships in 2021 and 2022 that are 10cm shorter (399,9m) than the longest possible ship with a maximum TEU of 23.992, and
are called Ever Ace, Ever Act, Ever Aim, Ever Alp, Ever Arm and Ever Art. These ULCVs belong to the only class of cargo ships that cannot pass through the Panama Canal because of the Canal’s inability to accommodate such a large vessel. These ships are 6 of 5.461 cellular container ships of all sizes that crossed the oceans as of August 2021, with a combined capacity of 24.6 million TEUs. The freight train equivalent of the Ever Ace’s capacity would be 70,8km long, but that capacity is nothing compared to the global port throughput of around 780 million TEUs in 2017 by all of those ships combined.
Besides the ULCV class you also have a bunch of smaller classes of ships, with the smallest one being a small feeder that has a TEU capacity of 1000 maximum, while the largest feeder is the feedermax with a maximum capacity of 3000 TEUs. With these ships being ‘small’ they are sometimes ‘geared’, which means that they come equipped with cargo cranes that allow them to unload cargo without there having to be infrastructure present at the destination in the form of pier side container cranes for instance. These ships can reach remote locations but come with enough drawbacks that only 7,5% of cargo ships is geared, but especially ULCVs are never geared.
When the Panama Canal was originally built it was able to accommodate ships up to the Panamax class, which made them up to 294.13m long and 32.31m wide and a TEU capacity between 3.001 and 5.100. The ships that were too big for the Canal at the time were called Post-Panamax, and were up to 366m long and 49m wide with a capacity up to 10.000 TEUs. For comparison, the largest aircraft carrier in the world is the American Gerald R. Ford-class with a length 333m and a width of 41m at the waterline, but the flightdeck has a width of 77m, which in length makes it bigger than the Panamax but not as large as the Post-Panamax. The New Panamax class was introduced after a third set of lock chambers was installed in the Panama Canal during the Panama Canal expansion project that was completed in 2016. The New Panamax class falls under the same dimensions as the Post-Panamax class but has a maximum capacity of 14.500 TEUs, and everything larger than this class and with a higher capacity is considered a ULCV.
Cargo ships can travel around the world in about 77 days, but the West-Coast of the USA can be reached from China in two to four weeks while China to the East-Coast takes between three to five weeks. Two weeks can often be tacked onto the journey because of the time it takes to clear customs and the container unloading process.
So far we have only covered the regular cargo ships, but there are some specialized ships that have not been mentioned yet. One of these ships is the Dockwise Vanguard, which transported the Navy ship U.S.S Cole after it was attacked in Yemen in October 2000. The Vanguard doesn’t carry containers but very large objects like warships and oil platforms by filling its ballast tanks with water causing it to sink so that it can slide under the object that is being transported. By then emptying the ballast tanks the object is lifted out of the water and ready for transport. The last ship that I will mention is not really a cargo ship but an icebreaker, because there are currently no nuclear-powered cargo ships, but there are plans to maybe start heading into that direction. The now Russian, but formerly Soviet Arktika class icebreakers are considered civilian nuclear-powered vessels of which six have been built and they have been in service since 1975, but only two of them still escort merchant ships in the Arctic Ocean while the other four have been decommissioned.