Despite tumbling returns and a worldwide glut of vessels, cargo ships are getting evermore enormous. The next generation of mega-carriers will haul 18,400 boxes each, and the Middle East is in on the action.
Bigger is better for shipping sector
Next month Maersk will take delivery of the world's biggest container ship, capable of carrying 18,000 boxes - but it won't hold the title for long.
This month, China Shipping Container Lines (CSCL) announced it had ordered five vessels each capable of carrying 18,400 TEUs (20-foot containers), and its chairman Li Shaode has confirmed the mega-ships will be deployed in a 10-year joint service with United Arab Shipping Company (UASC).
The ships, to be built by South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries, for a total of US$700 million, will use engines that can automatically control fuel consumption to suit speed and sea conditions, helping to improve fuel efficiency and cut emissions.
News that CSCL will join Maersk in the super-size containership club is further proof of the demand for these fuel-efficient behemoths among the major lines - now it is just a question of when and how many more will make the leap.
UASC's involvement in the ordering of the five CSCL 18,400 TEU ships is a move that underlines its ambition to become a significant player in an industry already awash with excess tonnage. The new container ships will form the basis of a Europe to Asia service, jointly run with CSCL.
Jorn Hinge, UASC's president and chief executive, told the shipping journal Lloyd's List this year the company was looking to cut costs even further by introducing vessels with a capacity of about 18,000 TEUs. Despite UASC being much smaller than the other shipping lines operating on the Asia-Europe route, which passes through the Arabian Gulf's ports, Mr Hinge said he believed the only way the company could remain competitive was by ordering larger ships.
"If UASC wants to be competitive in our home market, we have to have the same kind of ships," he said.
Last month, The National reported on how, despite a worldwide glut of merchant ships, some of the biggest names in the industry have been committing billions of dollars to building even more. The reason? Fuel efficiency. These new eco-ships were threatening to create a two-tier industry, The National reported, with all the cargoes going to the ships that are cheaper and cleaner to run, and the rest laid up and rusting away.
With the arrival of the mega-ship, carrying more containers per voyage, it will mean fewer ships on the route and lower costs for the shipping line and the shipper. Shipping lines that don't go big could find shipping containers becomes uneconomical and ports that don't adapt to these megaships could find themselves without cargo.
According to the shipping analysts Drewry's monthly report Sea & Air Shipper Insight, while many of these new giants won't actually hit the water for years, they pose serious questions for the industry.
"Ocean carriers did a decent job over the winter months balancing supply to ensure that freight rates remained relatively firm, but the delivery of big new ships - leading to new services and upgrades of existing loops - will mean lines will find that task increasingly difficult for the remainder of 2013," says Simon Heaney, the research manager at Drewry.
"These new orders and speculation of more to come could be having a negative impact on rates right now. Carriers cannot shift the paradigm from the supply pressure they are facing so that they can get rates moving upwards again."
Freight rates from China to northern Europe are down 30 per cent since the start of the year at $796 per container, according to the latest Shanghai Containerised Freight Index.
"All 20 big, major container players will have to choose to either order similar ships or find themselves out of the Europe-Asia trade as smaller, less fuel-efficient vessels won't be able to compete," says Lars Jensen, the chief executive of Denmark's SeaIntel Maritime Analysis. He estimates accumulated losses for the industry ran to about $7 billion over the past four years.
"The minimum freight rate in the Europe-Asia route should be around $1,400 per box," Mr Jensen estimates. "Lower rates for a significant period of time will lead to the industry being unsustainable."
The current glut is a result of a record amount of vessels being ordered in 2007 just before the start of the financial crisis triggered a plunge in global trade. Tighter credit and uncertainty prompted a temporary lull in shipbuilding but high fuel prices have since increased demand for bigger and more fuel-efficient designs even though the industry is burdened with excess capacity.
Five years on and routes between Europe and Asia are showing little or no growth in demand while industry analysts estimate oversupply at 10 per cent. All but seven of the world's 30 biggest shipping companies lost money last year.
When the US businessman Malcolm McLean invented the idea of carrying goods on ships in metal boxes in the 1950s his first vessel, a converted Second World War oil tanker the Ideal X, carried just 58 containers.
Today, if all the containers on a Triple E were stacked on top of each other they would touch the stratosphere - 46km above the earth. If they were unloaded on to a single train it would need to be 110km long.
Also, Maersk Line says its Triple-Es will consume approximately 35 per cent less fuel per container than the standard 13,100-capacity container vessels being delivered to other shipping lines in the next few years. A telling statistic given bunker fuel prices have risen 16 per cent a year on average over the past decade.