How Big Can Ships Become?
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How Big Can Ships Become?


It seems that the modern day trend is for every subsequent generation of ships to be bigger and more capacious that those built before. So what are the limits to the size of a ship? It is probably true to say that in terms of construction and structural strength, there are few overriding limitations to the size of a ship. In the 1970s, when there was a huge demand for oil tankers and the Suez Canal closed, about a dozen “ultra-large crude carriers” of around 500,000 tonnes were built, with the design and the structure, merely scaled up from the 250,000 ton very large crude carriers which were seen as the industry standard.

There were plans for a one million tonne ship and more than one building dock constructed that could accommodate such a monster. However, after the “oil shocks” of 1973 and 1979 it was decided that such a ship was not needed. Very large ships do indeed offer economies of scale, but this comes at the price of a substantial loss of flexibility, with fewer ports becoming available as ship size increases. The half million tonne tankers required some 30 metres depth of water to safely float, which restricted their use to a handful of deep draught ports, to operations where they were part emptied at sea, or pumped their cargo into buoys connected to pipelines miles out to sea. And while port authorities might be persuaded to dredge their approaches and berths for a large number of ships - as Rotterdam did to accommodate ships of 250,000 tonnes, the capital costs of dredging to 30 metres would be prohibitive.

People considering building very large ships also have to consider the ability of ports to handle the cargo they carry. A port with tanks which can accommodate 300,000 tonnes of oil every week, would be severely embarrassed if a full half million tonner turned up. It would probably have to wait alongside for a very long time, which would undo all the advantages of scale. Currently, there is a debate going on about the “optimum” size of very large containerships, with shipowners now building ships of around 8,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Can these designs be further “stretched” to 12- or even 18,000 TEU, which is about the limits of a ship which could safely navigate the Malacca Straits? Technically, there is no reason why such a design could not be built, although it would require a twin engine rather than a single engine to drive it. But there are once again questions about the flexibility of very large units, with port limitations, and an ability to handle such numbers of containers should they all turn up aboard a single ship, rather than arriving over a period of time in two or three sailings. The limitations of size tend to be operational, rather than structural or technical.

BIMCO Seascapes  

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