The news that the ULCVs on order by CMA-CGM and MSC could end up as large as 23,500 teu, another increment on the current maximum of 21,400 teu, once again raises the question of how big container ships will get, and more importantly how big is too big?
On the plus side, the fact that these vessels won’t be any longer or deeper is good news for ports and terminals in terms of extremely expensive assets such as approach channels, turning basins and berths (and clearly the vessel designs are taking account of such port limitations). That they are going to be one box wider (24 instead of 23) is also probably generally OK for the ports, as most terminals handling very large vessels should be able to cope with this extra crane outreach requirement, albeit it will erode the range of terminals and berths that can be regarded as capable of dealing with any ULCV thrown at them.
There is also the reality that nominal ship capacity is one thing but the number of teu that these vessels can actually carry in practice is always less that the theoretical maximum. That said though, a nominal 23,500 teu ship is 30% bigger than an 18,000 teu ULCV and 10% bigger than the current 21,400 teu “world’s biggest container ship” title holder.
And here’s the thing: We know that bigger ships create bigger volume peaks for terminals, putting pressure on the yard in particular and raising opex costs in general (not to mention the impact on the landside infrastructure and supply chain beyond the terminal gates). This impact is already being felt at ports and terminals around the world, the overall door-to-door system cost likely going up. Another 10%+ increment in maximum ship size can only exacerbate this. Who is asking the question: How big is too big?
Source: Neil Davidson, Senior Analyst – Ports & Terminals at Drewry Maritime Research